Monday, October 01, 2007

Reflections on Alan Hirsch and Eugene Peterson

I'll be posting articles I write for my doctor of ministry program here. Here's the first one-


The two books under consideration for this paper are quite different. Eugene Peterson’s Under the Predictable Planet has as its primary concern the vocational holiness of pastors. Peterson hopes to encourage a paradigm shift from the pastor understood as a kind of program director to the pastor as a spiritual director . This shift of the imagination for pastors will be accomplished, according to Peterson, through prayerful contemplation of Scripture, especially the Psalms, but also prayerful attention to non-banal and playful texts like Jonah (from which the title of the book emerges), not to mention prayerful consideration of the language and idiom of the culture and people with which the pastor lives and works .

Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways, on the other hand, has as its concern the missional agility of our churches. He argues that there are six irreducible elements to the mDNA (m=missional) of churches that manifest Apostolic Genius: recognition of Jesus as Lord, Disciple Making, Missional-Incarnational Impulse, Apostolic Environment , Organic Systems, and Communitas, not Community . Hirsch sees this Apostolic Genius especially lived out in the early church, and again in the church in present-day China. He analyzes other church movements (including his own), especially those movements that are church-planting or church-multiplying. Much less attention is paid in this book specifically to the vocation of pastor; instead, the attention is on ecclesial and cultural issues
relative to the transformation of the church along emergent missional lines.
Although the two books are programmatically quite different, there are at least two overlapping themes that interest me as a Christian and pastor. First, both name the idol-making tendency of the church and individual Christian as a central concern. Second, both authors believe that the way we currently do much of what we do results in wasted energy, frustration, and despair. I will examine each of these in turn.


A crucial insight of my own tradition, Lutheranism, is the recognition that we are always simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner). It’s a reminder that our justification comes from Christ alone, but in this life we still remain sinners. Whenever we become convinced of our own righteousness, precisely there is where danger lurks. Peterson writes, “It is in our virtuous behavior that we are liable to the gravest sins… when we are being obedient and successful pastors we are in far more danger than when we are being disobedient and runaway pastors” .

The first commandment is the command against having false gods (Ex. 20). Idol making, though often not recognized as such, is the greatest sin. Peterson identifies the primary danger for pastors here as career idolatry. When pastors begin to believe that pastoral work is glamorous; when they succumb to “program-oriented religion” ; then they are in danger of shifting from a life of vocational holiness to idol worship. In a characteristically beautiful turn of phrase, Peterson writes, “Following the paradigm shift, the place occupied by the pastor is no longer perceived as a center from which bold programs are initiated and actions launched but a periphery that faces a center of clear kerygma and vast mystery” .

It is not only the pastor who is chasing after idols. The people in our churches are “consumers” of religious goods rather than living subject to Jesus Christ as Lord. Pastors are tempted to market to this consumerist mindset. Alan Hirsch recognizes this early in his ministry. He realizes that the people coming to and supporting his Elevation Caf├ęs are interested as consumers, but haven’t actually made a disciple-like commitment. On the outside, the program looked successful--it had flash. But when push came to shove, even if the program had flash, it wasn’t bearing the kind of fruit he believed would be indicative of a truly Christ-centered church .
Hirsch later writes, “in the modern and the postmodern situation, the church is forced into the role of being little more than a vendor of religious goods and services” . Hirsch is truly missional in his outlook. He’s not interested in simply gaining market share, shifting Christians from one church to another as their interests wane and re-ignite. He is interested in reaching those who have never even heard the gospel, and so he wants the church to adopt a sending (discipleship/apostolic) rather than an attractional (consumerist/institutional) stance towards the culture.

This leads into the second insight from these two books. Both recognize that a lot of current patterns just are not working. With Peterson, the recognition in his own ministry was that the way he worked as pastor did not match his sense of call. Like Jonah running away to Tarshish, he was chasing after a certain image of pastoral ministry and effectiveness rather than engaging in vocational holiness. He was not listening to God; he was not listening to his people.

Hirsch recognizes a similar problem on the ecclesial level. He writes,
Although we hear about successful attempts to revitalize existing churches, the overall track record is actually very poor. Ministers report their attempts to revitalize the churches they lead do not yield the desired results. A lot of energy (and money) is put into the change programs, with all the usual communication exercises, consultations, workshops, and so on. In the beginning things seem to change, but gradually the novelty and impetus tend to wear off, and the organization ends up settling back into something of its previous template or configuration. So instead of managing new organizations, these leaders end up managing the unwanted side effects of their efforts. The reason for this is actually quite simple, though it is often overlooked: unless the paradigm at the heart of the culture is changed, there can be no lasting change .

I recognize this in my own life and ministry. I invest considerable amounts of energy and time trying to “revitalize” the church. But the net result is never what I had hoped. This is probably because I am pursuing technological rather than adaptive changes .

It is also a result of my failure to focus, in my own pastoral work, on the essentials of prayer and the study of Scripture. I give some time to these tasks, but I don’t pursue them as diligently and faithfully as Peterson recommends. Everywhere I look, everything I read lately, everything I hear from Scripture and God, encourages me that prayer is central and vital to the re-vitalization of the church. But I keep scurrying around acting as if our church can be re-vitalized under my own steam, by my own effort and innovation. In so doing, I stop relying on God and start relying on myself.

And beyond that, I tend to force my boiler-plate, my programs and abstractions, on the people I live and work with, rather than truly getting out and being with my community in a more missional-incarnational mode. I don’t listen as well as I should, and I assume I have more to give in shaping the community than there is concomitantly in the community that can shape and strengthen my faith.

I spend huge amounts of energy on the attractional model of church (because it is flashier and builds up the institution that supports me). What I want and desire to do is more along these lines, “We say [God’s] Name personally, alongside our parishioners in the actual circumstances of their lives, so they will recognize and respond to the God who is both on our side and at our side when it doesn’t seem like it and we don’t feel like it” .

Hirsch and Peterson together have given me a new vision. Both visions are radically large enough that it will take a while, possibly a lifetime, to live into them, but inasmuch as they call me away from idolatry and back to a life of vocational holiness and missional ecclesiality, they have done their work.


1 Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 175.

This paradigm shift is best illustrated through a story Peterson tells early in the book. Out of frustration with how his call as pastor was going (he felt he had no time for personal relationships and prayer), he goes to his church council and resigns. Instead, his council asked him, “What do you want to do instead?” His reply: “I want to study God’s word long and carefully so that when I stand before you and preaching and teach I will be accurate. I want to pray, slowly and lovingly, so that my relation with God will be inward and honest. And I want to be with you, often and leisurely, so that we can recognize each other as close companions on the way of the cross and be available for counsel and encouragement to each other”, 39.
2 This item in the list is difficult to understand by its title alone; see the APEPT chart in Alan Hirsch for a helpful description of apostolic “environment”, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 158.
3 Ibid., 25.
4 Peterson, 35.
5 Ibid. 167.
6 Ibid. 176.
7 Hirsch, 40-41.
8 Ibid. 110.
9 Ibid. 53.
10 Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now: A Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery, (Eagle, Idaho: Allelon, 2007)
11 Peterson, 172.

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