Book Review: The Shaping of Things to Come, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013. 288 pages.
Frost and Hirsch are gravely concerned with the state of the modern church. They warn in The Shaping of Things to Come that “the sky is falling in” and the gates of hell will (at least temporarily) prevail against the church. Given the alleged dire state of the modern church the authors state that we need an ecclesial revolution: “if you think of the church as a car, we cannot simply take it in for a service. We need a whole new model” (35). This revolution entails three steps, which form the framework for the book. First the new model proposed is “incarnational” in its ecclesiology; “it will leave its religious zones . . . seeping into the host culture like salt and light” (30). Second missional church movements will embrace a messianic spirituality. Finally, missional churches will, “develop an apostolic form of leadership rather than the traditional hierarchical model” (30).
The authors describe the traditional model of church as “attractional.” The church “bids people to come and hear the gospel in the confines of the church and its community” (41). In contrast Frost and Hirsch propose a missiological model based on the incarnation. As they explain, the incarnation is “a theological prism through which we view our entire missional task in the world” (35). This proposal, they assert, overhauls traditional conceptions about church. Instead of building walls with an “in and out” (what the authors call a bounded set) we now have a borderless community (a centered set) where people are either “closer or further away from the center” (47).
The chief trait of this kind of community is “belonging.” The authors write, “no one is considered unworthy of belonging because they happen to be addicted to tobacco or because they’re not married to their live-in partner. Belonging is a key value” (49). Frost and Hirsch argue that an incarnational church can thus be extremely flexible; it doesn’t require buildings (68–72) and is able to contextualize to the host culture (chapter five). The authors conclude the section by arguing that an incarnational ministry draws out not-yet-Christians toward God by exciting curiosity through storytelling, by showing extraordinary love, and by focusing on Jesus (99–107).
These chapters present a number of problems. First, while the church is clearly called to go to all nations with the gospel (Matthew 28), it is inherently problematic to use the incarnation as the paradigm for mission. Simply, the church is not Jesus. His mission was unique. We are not called to leave heaven to take on flesh or die for sinners. This incarnational model leads the authors to some strange conclusions. One is that they recommend a Christian couple with a love of skydiving stop going to church on Sundays to go skydiving instead (51). The authors envisage that there would be conversions and thus “a Church, a community of faith, centered in Christ, would then effectively be planted in that hangar” (51).
The second main issue of this approach is that it creates homogenous churches (and thus contravenes Eph. 2–4). By only reaching out to the remote control car enthusiasts (43), the skydivers (51), or the shoe–lovers (23), we would effectively plant churches where everyone shares the same interests, background, and other life circumstances. But without unity in diversity, our gospel witness is impaired. The authors acknowledge that this could be an issue (52–53) but have no serious solution to this problem.
The third main issue is the idea of “centered sets.” This concept is “defined by its core values, and people are not seen as in or out, but as closer of further away from the truth” (47). But Scripture regularly attests that people are either “in” or “out” of the church (1 Cor. 5:12).
The authors believe that their approach to church is best supported by an alternative approach to Christian spirituality—one that is broad enough to encompass engagement and action (116). The authors explain, “By Hebraizing the Christian movement and recovering a messianic spirituality as lived by Jesus, Paul and the first Christians, we believe the church is in a much better position to recalibrate itself to reach an emerging generation” (135). This “Hebraizing” involves “hallowing the everyday” and “moving from primarily a passive/receptive mode to an actional mode” (135).
Once again, Frost and Hirsch’s proposal is problematic. First the authors rail against sermons because they believe they have “little or no impact” (151). To prove this the authors, in a footnote, challenge us to “remember last week’s sermon. Then, the previous week’s sermon” (151). This critique fails to take account for how Scripture shapes us daily as we expose ourselves to it. We need not remember every word of a sermon in order to be edified by it. Scripture intake is like eating. I can’t remember 99% of the meals I’ve eaten but I’m alive because of all of those forgotten meals.
Second, the authors have a tenuous hold on orthodox Christianity, even with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. They write “the Latin and Greek theologians who worked on the doctrine of the Trinity took the unadorned phrases of Scripture—mostly mysterious hints about something of a one-ness/threeness thing in God’s nature—and worked it into a full-fledged systematic doctrine” (120). Frost and Hirsch assert that these philosophical pontifications are a million miles from the Gospel accounts of Jesus growing up in a Jewish family in Nazareth. In doing so the authors are driving an artificial wedge where there isn’t one, the same Jesus of Nazareth was the second person of the Godhead—that is the wonder of the incarnation.
The last section tackles leadership, a topic that the authors call, “possibly the single most important question of strategy in this decade” (166). The kind of leadership required is APEPT (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers), offices that are all still applicable today. The authors also argue that one of the reasons churches are declining is because imagination and creativity in churches are stifled (183). They assert that imagination is “more important than knowledge” (185) and so want leaders to “embrace subversive questioning” (192), “take more risks” (195), and to “create a climate of change” (196). They provide a number of practical ways this can be done, one of which is to “eat ice cream for breakfast” (197). Regrettably absent from this entire discussion of leadership was the responsibility of pastors to shepherd the people and teach God’s word.
Regrettably, while the authors claim to uphold the authority of the Bible, their book demonstrates a lack of confidence in Scripture. I commend their desire to see people reached for Jesus. I agree wholeheartedly that many churches are staid, stuffy, and spiritually dead. But the sky is not falling. The church is in need of reformation, not revolution. To reach people for Jesus in a true and lasting way, the church needs leaders committed to teaching the life-giving word of God.