Alan Hirsch on fresh expressions of church

Wednesday, 14 November, 2012

In his latest book, The Permanent Revolution (Jossey-Bass, 2012), Alan Hirsch says he is impressed by the Fresh Expressions movement in the UK but questions whether it is having a lasting impact on the nation's denominations.

An Australian, now based in California, he talks to Norman Ivison about why he is interested in what is happening in terms of mission in the UK - and why it is more important to have babies than wear hats!

You can read the Facebook discussion that prompted this interview in the Missional Communities, Orders and Projects Hub at CMS, as well as a view from Michael Volland.

Duration: 8:45   | Download Download mp3


Alan Hirsch: I'm particularly impressed by fresh expressions and why I consider it trailblazing is because in many ways it did precisely that. And what was surprising actually, at least from the US perspective and of course from the Australian perspective, my primary experience of course is Australian, is that in many ways, here you had the mainline denominations, the historic denominations affirming something of the, you know, commitment to explore some new expressions of church. And particularly around the mission-shaped theology that was so much part of it.

Norman Ivison: Your comments on the fresh expressions movement in the UK though do come with a bit of a health warning. You say for example that although it is trailblazing, although it's achieved a good deal, in a sense if the fresh expressions movement is to change its parent denominations significantly there's quite a way to go. Just explore that for us and explain why you added that caveat.

Alan Hirsch: I do make a comment in my book The Permanent Revolution and it's just a… you know, it's a small comment in a large book. But it was a comment about that in many ways it still has yet to change the kind of discourse and the kind of fundamental way we think about church at the centre. At least as far… from what I can assess from where I am here. I don't think it's fundamentally altered the trajectory, nor the kind of nature of the ecclesiology that kind of is the driving ecclesiology behind the denominations. I could be proved wrong of course but I can't see that yet. And I would say that the kind of influence that a movement like fresh expressions seeks to introduce to the church is category-breaking and in many ways it reminds me of a paradigm for the future. And I think it needs a lot of legitimacy which I don't think it's getting at the moment.

Norman Ivison: What sort of things would you expect to see, if indeed a paradigm shift had happened. In other words if the church had kind of reached a point of no return when it came to being much more diverse in the way it approached mission and evangelism and reaching out to people in the nation.

Alan Hirsch: Well a simple way of assessing whether an idea's been accepted is whether the kind of idea that is suggested by fresh expressions becomes much more dominant in how we do church across the spectrum. I would say that you would expect a whole lot more diversity among the different cultures that you might have across the UK, or do we expect that the predominant form is the classic or traditional one. And I think to the… you know, again, I'm not an expert on England and I don't want to appear to be that way in a UK context and… but I think we're yet to see a kind of huge diversity in expression. The kind commensurate to the kind of culture that you've got in your context now.

Norman Ivison: If a group of people are wanting to change an institution there are perhaps various ways of doing that. I mean perhaps you can do it from the edge of the institution, perhaps you can do it from right within the heart of the institution. It's not always clear here in the UK how that's working out in the church context for example but in general, do you see different ways of institutional change taking place and is one more effective than the other?

Alan Hirsch: The question of how organisational change takes place, and this could be very much the church as well as it is anything else, is how we embrace our more creative sides or our kind of innovative or entrepreneurial side of things. There are two ways of thinking about this Norman that… well there's a number of ways but the two primary ways is when innovation is put right outside of the fundamental organisation, indicated like the notion of the 'skunk works'. And skunk works have been very creative places and lots of ideas have come from out of them but they really fundamentally at the end of the runway – I think it was Boeing that came up with the idea – it was a secret hangar further down and no-one was allowed to go there and it was just like the sacred place where a whole lot of kind of weird kind of stuff could be trialled out. Pretty much it was kept at bay from the fundamental, the basic organisation. And the other way of course is to have an R&D department and to own R&D as a – research and development – as a very core function of an organisation. That is it's one of the departments and one of the very very important ones which we budget significant money towards because our future depends on it. One actually has an effect in changing the way the organisation sees the world and sees itself and its engagement with society, the other one is just experimenting off the edges and not fundamentally altered. It looks to me like… and I'm saying this from loving outside, it looks to me that fresh expressions in the UK particularly is being more of a… more in line with what we would call a skunk works. That is, one that's not quite at the centre, it's affirmed in the sense of something done outside and I think your budgeting might reflect that. I realise that there's whole debates about whether we should even give money to these things but if you really believe research and development by which fresh expressions stands for in the sense of how to be the church in different settings then we need to be able to budget for it. And theorists would say that you know, that you almost… an allocation of 50-50 budget if you're really taking innovation as a very important vital aspect for the organisation you need to invest in it. Not just something marginal to your budget, it needs to be a significant allocation.

The best way to think about this is your budget is a theological statement but your budget is also a missiological statement and I just wonder how much is really given. I mean is it just lip service or has it fundamentally changed the way that the organisations, the host organisations, think about mission and you know the kind of entrepreneurial effort that is expressed in fresh expressions.

Norman Ivison: And is there any easy way when you look at institutional change to know when the, to cite the title of your book, The Permanent Revolution has actually taken place? Is there a point at which you can say yes it's done now, this place will never be the same again?

Alan Hirsch: The capacity to be a permanent revolution depends on our capacity to generate the kind of leadership and ministry that can produce all of… you know, various functions of the church including its missional, prophetic and evangelistic roles alongside its pastoral and didactic functions. So I would say at that point that most of our denominations, the overwhelming majority of them, particularly those in decline are basically… have basically exiled the more generative types of leadership and ministry. They don't have any legitimacy within the system. Which of course is to say they've also put the entrepreneurial function off the edges. I think that's the default mode of most denominations. The point being is that I think permanent revolution as the church of Jesus intend us to be and is to be an advancing agency, not a civil religion, but actually a means of the transformation of society, and I mean the gospel that means. And I think that means that we've got to keep up with that. In many ways what I'm trying to do in the book is to… it's more look along the lines of semper reformada, that is the church reformed that, you know, ought always to be reforming according to the word of God. So we're saying like you know to what degree, with the word of God in hand, are we somehow kind of aligned with that or is there some more development to be done here. And I'm suggesting there's more development to be done according to the word of God.

Norman Ivison: If there was one lesson to be learned from all this, what might that be?

Alan Hirsch: The lesson for historical churches particularly is that – and I subscribe to Carson in saying that the best way to preserve tradition is not to wear your father's old hat, but to have babies. In other words we have babies or we have children in order to pass down the tradition from generation to generation and it will change. And it must develop. The traditional in a sense of course is just to wear the father's old hat. But that's not the best way to tradition, that just becomes traditionalism. And I'd like to see how our children carry the hope of the new future. And I think fresh expressions indicates that, it's kind of a nursery environment, it's where you experiment with new forms that are more fragile and less legitimate and less established but actually they hold in their genius the future of Western Christianity. So experiment like made, have a lot of babies.


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