Frost and Hirsch begin by introducing the problems of the current church structure, what they call a “Christendom mindset.” Constantine’s legalization of Christianity created a system where the State legalized and funded the Church and the Church legitimized the State, which eventually led to a system in Western Europe where the entire society had ostensibly Christian values—Christendom. In this system, everyone was already at least nominally Christian, so the Church went from apostolic sending and building to pastoral keeping and caring, and a rigid hierarchy of spiritual professionals developed within the Church. The church building became the place where you encounter God.
The Christendom mindset is marked by three things: a dualistic mindset, a strong hierarchy of pastors and teachers, and an attractional model. The early incorporation of the Greek way of thinking, which considers spirit to be higher and better than matter, into the Church led to a clergy/laity dualism that turned the hierarchy of the church into the professionals who interacted with God, supported by the State resources. Everyone else became spectators. Furthermore, Greek thinking emphasizes intellectual structures, so despite the fact that the New Testament says a lot about right living and extremely little about the abstract nature of God, all the Creeds of the Church present a highly refined speculation on the nature of God and no discussion of right living. Thus the teachings of the Church became irrelevant to the daily life of believers. Finally, the model is attractional—God “lives” in the church building, so you come to the building to experience God. Evangelism became bringing people to the building to encounter God through the professional spiritual people.
Christendom has been dead for decades, but the Church continues operating as with Christendom values, so it is no surprise that the influence of the Church on society has been steadily declining, sharply accelerated by the advent of post-modernism. Post-moderns value belonging, empowerment, and experience, none of which the Church really offers, especially evangelical churches. So non-Christians are fundamentally not attracted to church. Burning Man offers an experience in line with post-modern values, but the church offers something irrelevance. Yet churches think that if they change their Sunday service somehow that people will be attracted. The problem is the structure of church is completely wrong for the context of current society.
In order for the Church to continue existing, it will need to completely change. Instead of attractional, hierarchical, and dualistic, the Church must become missional, apostolic, and incarnational. Instead of expecting the non-Christians (who are now a majority) to come to the church building, the church goes to them. The Church must become a missionary effort to the Western world in addition to mission efforts elsewhere. This requires the missionary mindset of determining the values of the culture and how to best present Christ in those values. The Church must become apostolic, that is sending, rather than hierarchical and keeping. The Church must become incarnational, where instead of God and churchy things being superior to mere earthly things, the Church becomes the message, just as God became “enfleshed” and became the message in the person of Jesus.
The missional church is fundamentally a sending, going organization. Just as Jesus and his disciples went out to all the villages of Israel instead of trying to bring them all to one location, so the missional church tries to fill every crack of society with the gospel. This requires the discipline first examining the local subculture and determining what the expression of Christianity that is self-sustaining and reproducing looks like in that cultural context (and then, having the discipline to build that, instead of the Christendom church the planter is used to). Teaching is done Jesus-style, situationally, rather than in a classroom setting. Missional churches tend to have four shared traits. The first is proximity spaces, a neutral, non-Christianized space where Christians and non-Christians can naturally interact; for instance, a coffee shop. The second is projects shared with non-believers, such as a community housing project. The third is a commercial enterprise—it helps finance the organization, and while a new church is not seen as benefiting the community, a new business is. The fourth is an indigenous faith community that develops out of the interactions of the other three spaces.
The incarnational church is the expression Christ in the local culture. The Church should look different in different cultures; to create a uniform church across cultures is simply cultural imperialism, and has as much place in the Kingdom as imperialism. Incarnational ministry is sending effort (in contrast to attractional) and involves becoming who you reach. There are basically two kinds of approaches to church: the bounded set and the centered set. Christendom is a bounded set, with hard boundaries at the edges so you can know if someone is “in” or “out.” Jesus’ incarnational approach is the centered set, which has no boundaries, but the closer you get to the center, the more closely aligned you need to be to Jesus’ values.
Church exists as a tension between homogeneous groups and heterogeneous groups of all ages and ethnicities. A missional, incarnational model of living in this tension is St. Thomas Crookes in Sheffield. This church has main homogeneous cell groups targeted at various subcultures and communities (rock climbers, night-clubbers, etc.) which meet weekly. Five cell groups, or about 100 people, meet weekly as a congregation for worship, teaching, and fellowship. All the cell groups have a weekly celebration service, although members are only expected to attend the celebration service once a month.
The gospel message, and by extension, the church must be contextualized, to fit naturally in its context. The gospel came in a context, and unless that original contextual meaning is transferred to the new culture, the gospel will not be understood—in villages in Zimbabwe, there are no doors and everyone knows each other, so friends stand at the entrance and speak, while thieves knock on the house to see if anyone moves. To simply repeat “behold I stand at the door and knock” inadvertently makes Jesus a thief. The fruit of the gospel, the church, has a set of invariants in all cultures: communion with God (Word and worship), community with each other (teaching and fellowship), and commission to the world (serving the community and sharing the gospel). To contextualize the gospel and the church, the missionaries (us) study the host culture with a commitment to the Word of God as the source of truth. Then, the local people are given the task of determining what the expression looks like.
Communicating the gospel in the Christendom model is more of an “in-drag” than an “out-reach.” Instead, missional, incarnational Christians become “people whisperers.” The “horse whisperer” learned to tame wild horses simply by observing the horse’s strong desire for companionship. In the corral, he awakens that desire by studiously ignoring the horse; eventually the horse decides to come to him to get what it wants. Similarly, we become people whisperers by listening to people’s heart desires, we awaken the desires by telling stories and creating a sense of wonder and awe (perhaps by going camping, for instance), and then we satisfy the desire by focusing on Jesus. (Jesus actually scores very well on opinion polls; non-Christians like Jesus but do not like the church.)
Incarnational Christianity must return to its Hebrew roots to get rid of the dualism that it has acquired from Greek culture. While the intellectual framework the Greeks developed is a great addition to Hebrew thought, the view of matter of less good than spirit is completely counter to the Kingdom. God values matter—He made it and said it was good. He even became matter in the form of Jesus. God loves pleasure: Jesus enjoyed life so much some religious leaders accused him of being a drunkard. Hebrew rabbis argued that every part of life is important to God, and that every act can bring God glory if done with the right heart. In fact, right action becomes a sort of sacrament. Just as sacraments do not save, good works do not save, but they do produce a grace of God in the receiver and a different grace in the doer. In fact, even non-believers can participate in the good deeds, and in so doing are invited into the centered-set. Once a part of the set, they can choose to move closer to Jesus.
“The medium is the message” means that the technology and structure (the “medium”) used to communicate the message in turn shapes us. We build church buildings, but the church buildings shape how we do church and how we spend the budget. Missional, incarnational ministry requires that every believer becomes the message. We represent Jesus; if we want people to follow him, we need to look like him. ReImagine, in San Francisco, describes the two aspects of Christianity as colors: the inward connection with God as yellow and the outward serving people as blue. Christians are called to be green.
The incarnation, missional, apostolic church is a tension between the five flavors in Eph 4:11: apostles (sending, building), prophets (the heart of God for the now), evangelists, shepherds (caring for the community), and teachers. These gifts exist to bring the body of Christ into maturity, and all are required. In fact, even secular organizational thinking has identified similar characteristics: entrepreneur (apostle) who builds organizations, the questioner (prophet) who brings new ideas to the organization, the recruiter (evangelist), the humanizer (pastor/shepherd) who is the human glue, and the systemizer (teacher) who creates a framework for the ideas of the organization. These can be abbreviated APEST. The first three are outward focused, and the second three are inward focused. In the Church, the shepherds/teachers ejected the apostles, prophets, and evangelists (who created parachurch organizations), which is why the church is full of immature believers in a sheltered environment. Only by incorporating the other three gifts can the Church regain its relevance in the world.
The authors realize that what they are proposed requires a revolution to accomplish. They also note that the entrenched system always persecutes new ideas. Yet, without change, the Church will continue its decline into complete irrelevancy, as has already happened in Western Europe. To implement this new vision requires imagination and creative thinking. We cannot solve the problems the same way we created them, nor can we build what we cannot visualize. Churches in this new model must be created with reproduction in mind; reproduction is not something that can be retrofitted. Likewise, such churches also need to be organic, that is, responding naturally to the environment around them.
I found The Shaping of Things to Come to really excellent at describing the problem of the current church. Despite attending a very vibrant church with a tangible Presence of God in worship, a vibrant expression of the arts in worship, and God regularly healing people, I have found myself increasingly feeling that something was missing from church, all the churches I have ever gone to. Frost and Hirsch’s phrase, “Christendom church” condensed it all into something that made sense. Likewise, the antidote was the obvious Scriptural answer after they said it.
However, the new direction was the aspect of the book that was the least clear. They talked a lot about it, but I have trouble envisioning what this would actually look like. They did give some examples, but honestly, they did not sound like churches I was super-excited to join. In fact, while I am dissatisfied with the current expression of church, I have never been very attracted to “missional” or “incarnational” churches. It might be that I have been marinated in Christendom culture and so cannot embrace the opposite, but it might simply be that all the missional and incarnational churches I have heard of seem to revolve and serving the poor, and that is just not everyone’s primary design/resonance.
Also, I have questions about how to actually implement one of these communities in the U.S. The modern U.S. has designed out social interaction—we leave our house in metal boxes, drive to the parking garage at work, and then drive back into our garage. The neighbors might as well be on Mars, because you are never going to accidentally see them. You can hang out on your front porch (if the garage has not squeezed it out and was even included after air conditioning rendered it seemingly obsolete), but nobody walks on the sidewalks. So, how do I create organic community?
Still, this was a very thought-provoking book, with many great ideas. In fact, too many ideas to include in this summary, so I recommend reading the notes. The book is very comprehensive, although a little too academically verbose at times. This book will crystallize the malaise for you, and while batteries are not included, you will have plenty of ideas on what pieces need to be included in your next church venture. Even if you are not a church planter, you may want to be one after reading this book.