Saturday, January 23, 2016

Alan Hirsch & Sean Gladding, "Missional Culture and Ministry Training" (Seedbed)

I recently came across some of the material and lectures from missiologist Alan Hirsch, and I've found that I resonate with a lot of what he says. In this post I want to highlight part of his message, at this point just to emphasis the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit working through the church to reach the world.

Back in 2012, Seedbed interviewed him in a 3-part video series.  Here is part three:

In the above video, he mentions the example of the early church, the modern Chinese church, and the early Wesleyan/Methodist movement.  He uses these same examples in the first chapter of his book The Forgotten Ways, where he says (you can read the entire chapter for free on Kindle using Amazon's "Try a Sample"):

I attended a seminar on missional church where the speaker asked a question. “How many Christians do you think there were in the year AD 100?” He then asked, “How many Christians do you think there were just before Constantine came on the scene, say, AD 310?” Here is the somewhat surprising answer.  

AD 100 as few as 25,000 Christians  
AD 310 up to 20,000,000 Christians

He then asked the question that has haunted me to this day: “How did they do this? How did they grow from being a small movement to the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries?”


So let me ask you the question—how did the early Christians do it? And before you respond, here are some qualifications you must factor into your answer.
  • They were an illegal religion throughout this period. At best, they were tolerated; at the very worst they were very severely persecuted.
  • They didn’t have any church buildings as we know them. While archaeologists have discovered chapels dating from this period, they were definitely exceptions to the rule, and they tended to be very small converted houses.
  • They didn’t even have the scriptures as we know them. They were putting the canon together during this period.
  • They didn’t have an institution or the professional form of leadership normally associated with it. At times of relative calm, prototypical elements of institution did appear, but by what we consider institutional, these were at best pre-institutional.
  • They didn’t have seeker-sensitive services, youth groups, worship bands, seminaries, commentaries, etc.
  • They actually made it hard to join the church. By the late second century, aspiring converts had to undergo a significant initiation period to prove they were worthy.

In fact they had none of the things we would ordinarily employ to solve the problems of the church, and yet they grew from 25,000 to 20 million in 200 years! So, how did the early church do it? In answering that question, we can perhaps find the answer to the question for the church and mission in our day and in our context. For herein lies the powerful mystery of church in its most authentic form.

On the Chinese Church:

But before the example of the early Christian movement can be dismissed as a freak of history, there is another, perhaps even more astounding manifestation of [...] that unique and explosive power inherent in all of God’s people, in our own time—namely, the underground church in China. Theirs is a truly remarkable story: About the time when Mao Tse-tung took power and initiated the systemic purge of religion from society, the church in China, which was well established and largely modeled on Western forms due to colonization, was estimated to number about 2 million adherents. As part of this systematic persecution, Mao banished all foreign missionaries and ministers, nationalized all church property, killed all the senior leaders, either killed or imprisoned all second-and third-level leaders, banned all public meetings of Christians with the threat of death or torture, and then proceeded to perpetrate one of the cruelest persecutions of Christians on historical record.  

The explicit aim of the Cultural Revolution was to obliterate Christianity (and all religion) from China. At the end of the reign of Mao and his system in the late seventies, and the subsequent lifting of the so-called Bamboo Curtain in the early eighties, foreign missionaries and church officials were allowed back into the country, albeit under strict supervision. They expected to find the church decimated and the disciples a weak and battered people. On the contrary, they discovered that Christianity had flourished beyond all imagination. The estimates then were about 60 million Christians in China, and counting! And it has grown significantly since then. David Aikman, former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, suggests in his book Jesus in Beijing that Christians may number as many as 80 million. If anything, in the Chinese phenomenon we are witnessing the most significant transformational Christian movement in the history of the church. And remember, not unlike the early church, these people had very few Bibles (at times they shared only one page to a house church and then swapped that page with another house group). They had no professional clergy, no official leadership structures, no central organization, no mass meetings, and yet they grew like mad. How is this possible? How did they do it?

On the early Wesleyan/Methodists:

But we can observe similar growth patterns in other historical movements. Steve Addison notes that by the end of John Wesley’s lifetime one in thirty English men and women had become Methodists. In 1776 fewer than 2 percent of Americans were Methodists. By 1850, the movement claimed the allegiance of 34 percent of the population. How did they do it?

More from Alan Hirsch:

More from Seedbed

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