Forgotten Ways: In Search Of A Mission That Moves

The organic church movement, especially as represented by Neil Cole and the Church Multiplication Associates, has had an enormous impact. While hard to track because of its largely grassroots nature, this movement has trained fifty thousand people worldwide in its Greenhouse program and is conservatively estimated to have over ten thousand initial churches, with many daughter and granddaughter churches following them. Whereas most people continue to think of “going to church” as attending a service at one of the many church buildings located throughout their community, a study from the Barna Group shows that millions of adults are trying out new forms of spiritual community and worship, with many abandoning the traditional forms altogether.

The new study, based on interviews with more than five thousand randomly selected adults from across the nation, found that 9% of adults attend a house church during a typical week. That is remarkable growth in the past decade, shooting up from just 1% to near double-digit involvement. In total, one out of five adults attends a house church at least once a month. Projecting these figures to the national population gives an estimate of more than 70 million adults who have at least experimented with house church participation. In a typical week roughly 20 million adults attend a house church gathering. Over the course of a typical month, that number doubles to about 43 million adults.

This is remarkable. And while not all house churches are part of the larger missional church movement phenomenon (some of them are quite reactionary, ingrown, conservative, and not at all innovative), they nonetheless constitute an active search for new and simpler forms of church that align closer to the rhythms of life. As a total phenomenon, I believe that these various expressions of missional movement contain the seeds of the future of the church in America and elsewhere. As Gerard Kelly, an important cultural interpreter and practitioner of missional church, observes,

Experimental groups seeking to engage the Christian faith in a postmodern context will often lack the resources, profile or success record of the Boomer congregations. By definition, they are new, untried, relatively disorganized and fearful of self-promotion. They reject the corporate model of their Boomer forebears, and thus do not appear, according to existing paradigms, to be significant. But don’t be fooled. Somewhere in the genesis and genius of these diverse groups is hidden the future of Western Christianity. To dismiss them is to throw away the seeds of our survival.

There has been a huge amount of change, yet the vast majority of Christians still adhere to the outmoded forms. This is because they fail to truly perceive what is happening because they cannot even imagine church outside the inherited mode. Progress in this instance is first and foremost a problem of imagination. They still see through the familiar and deeply ingrained Christendom lens. So I will finish this overview of missional movement with reference to the research of David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, the coeditors of the standard statistical work on world trends, the World Christian Encyclopedia. They have published some amazing statistics going as far back as their 2001 annual report of Christian mission. According to them, there are 111 million Christians without a local church.

[bctt tweet=”Somewhere in the genesis and genius of the diverse groups we see in new church plants is hidden the future of Western Christianity. To dismiss them is to throw away the seeds of our survival. @alanhirsch” username=”5QCollective”]

This is a very significant figure, as these people came from us, are still trying to work out the Jesus factor, and are alienated from current expressions of church. Ministry to these churchless and somewhat dissatisfied sisters and brothers is critical in itself. But more missional potential is packed into the unparalleled rise of the grouping that Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson then called the “independents” and subsequently called the “apostolics,” which according to them numbered over twenty thousand movements and networks, with a total of 394 million church members worldwide. Broadly defined, the movements in this phenomenon:

• reject historical denominationalism and other restrictive, centralized forms of authority and organization;

• gather in communities of various sizes;

• seek a life focused on Jesus (they definitely see themselves as Christians); and

• seek a more effective missionary lifestyle and are one of the fastest-growing church movements in the world.

In Barrett’s estimation, they will have 581 million members in 2025. That is 120 million more than all Protestant denominations together! Now this should make any Christian leader stop and take notice. Even though these stats reflect the world situation and, as such, include the Chinese and Indian phenomena, among others, even if only 10 percent (my guess) of the above figures relate to the West, we are dealing with something truly profound and remarkable. What Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson call the independent movement, I prefer to call the missional church movement in Western contexts. But whatever terminology we use, it is very significant, because this is largely an unorganized Jesus movement in the making. If we are looking for real church growth, here it is. But sadly, if we continue to look at this through the increasingly obsolete lenses of the Christendom paradigm, we won’t be able to see it.

[bctt tweet=”Sadly, if we continue to look at new church growth movements through the increasingly obsolete lenses of the Christendom paradigm, we won’t be able to see it. @alanhirsch” username=”5QCollective”]

As indicated earlier, all of this has led me to adopt a missionary identity and practice. The above analysis was part of my “conversion,” and I present it here for your consideration. My own journey has led me to invest my life in making sure that the missional movement establishes itself and continues to thrive.