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book review: On the Verge

I was recently introduced to (and intrigued by) Alan Hirsch through a video in which he talks about how risk-averse we have become as church. A culture of comfort and security have replaced the pervading atmosphere of adventure found in the life of Jesus and his followers. These thoughts resonated deeply with me. Therefore, when I saw a new book of his come available for review, I jumped at the chance! Here, then, are my thoughts on the book: On the Verge by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

A few things struck me when I first started reading. There is a recurring theme of hope, especially for the future of the church, in the comments from the pastors and authors who lend their recommendation to the book (see the first 3 pages). This probably reveals as much about the state of the minds and hearts of many North American pastors as it does about the content of the book. Interest, excitement, commitment, and growth are declining in the Western church as we know it and we are not sure why. My second observation is that Hirsch and Ferguson have done their homework. Hirsch has spent a good deal of time developing and researching the theoretical content and Ferguson is an experienced practitioner. Their voices together lend authority and integrity to what they have to say.

Hirsch and Ferguson are clear in identifying their audience (the Western church) and stating their purpose: recovering the ancient, powerful, and beautiful apostolic movement. They propose that this can be done through four basic steps: 1. engaging missional imagination, 2. making a shift in our paradigms of church, 3. innovating and incorporating change, and 4. becoming a movement that actually moves. In general, they are not skimpy with their development. Hirsch draws on a number of noted experts from business as well as practical theology to inform his contribution in the first two sections. Likewise, Ferguson (church planter turned megachurch pastor) has examples from his own experience as well as stories from other growing missional churches to illustrate and support his more practical chapters on innovation and movement.

For the most part, they succeed at reintroducing the reader to some very tricky and oft misused words such as apostle, movement, missional, church, and discipleship by carefully defining them and spending a lot of time reinforcing what they mean by these terms. As well, Hirsch introduces several new phrases to encapsulate some of his more basic concepts. These include Apostolic Genius (every follower of Jesus carries the church's potential for world transformation), mDNA (missional impulse at the very core of what we do as church), and Verge churches (faith communities on the tipping point of becoming missional movements).

There are also plenty of charts and nifty diagrams included for those who grasp things better visually as well as a survey available online to take a snapshot of how your church fits into all of this. Though using a book to communicate the principle that discipleship must happen life-on-life and not simply through intellectual study might give one a certain sense of incongruity, the authors include enough stories, examples, and discussion sections to overcome a good deal of this limitation.

Let me offer a few quotes to give a sense of what you will find in this book:

The answer for the church lies in the deepest framework of our ecclesiology as Jesus designed it. We are not simply saying this as a little peppy inspiration thing; we are stating a deep truth that will help us avoid importing false and misleading ideas and methodologies into the church in order to motivate it. This is not magic but simply recognizes that God has invested his people with real potentials, due largely to the ever-present kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus, the transforming power of the gospel, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in and among the people of God. We ARE the church of Jesus. (p. 44)

...don't plant churches; plant the gospel, and the church will grow out of it. (p. 73)

Missional God leads to missional church. Incarnational God leads to incarnational church. (p. 133)

Ephesians 4:11-6 unambiguously declares that we can't mature without [apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers]. ... How did we ever think we could possibly mature with just the anemic twofold form of shepherd/pastor and teacher? (p. 135)

It was this life-on-life phenomenon that facilitated the transfer of information and ideas into concrete situations. This is the way Jesus formed his apprentices, and we shouldn't think we can generate authentic Jesus followers in any other way. (p. 176)

... we certainly do need serious intellectual engagement with the key ideas of our time. What is concerning, however is that such engagement largely takes place in the disengaged and passive environment of the classroom. This is simply NOT the way Jesus taught us to develop disciples. (p. 177)

We ALL need to be reJesused. All the time. (p. 275)

On the whole, I believe that Hirsch and Ferguson have done a really good job at providing not only reasoning for but also practical suggestions on how to reorient current ecclesiological thinking and practice to better reflect the dynamic nature of the kingdom of God - a place of continuous movement toward people and places that need grace.

Let me point out a few minor issues I had with the book. In a few places, unfortunate language creeps in which smacks of subtle leadership elitism ("...we need them to get it in their head and heart" p. 264), carries a hint of objectification of people ("...God has a great idea about how to use everyone!" p. 235), and reminds one of somewhat questionable marketing ploys ("sell the problem before you sell the solution" p. 91). There is also a noticeable lack of depth in the quick summary of church history (basically it boils down to blame everything on Constantine) as well as a certain anti-tradition bias that comes through (p. 36-37). At times, their two voices also use contradictory language which could be confusing, but this is minimal.

Both Hirsch and Ferguson admit to speaking from primarily a megachurch context, and at times this flavours how they contextualize their ideas. However, they are by no means unaware of the power of the small, as is obvious from this refreshing quote they incorporate from Neil Cole:
Why is small so big? Small does not cost a lot. Small is easy to reproduce. Small is more easily changed and exchanged. Small is mobile. Small is harder to stop. Small is intimate. Small is simple. Small infiltrates easier. Small is something people think they can do. Big doesn't do any of these thing. We can change the world more quickly by becoming much smaller. (p. 287)

In general, the authors have placed the emphasis back on Jesus deciding what church is, does, and looks like, and I really like that. I will be incorporating some of their ideas into my church context.

This is a photo of the book on the verge of tumbling over the edge.

Comments

Alan Hirsch said…
Thanks for the great review. Much appreciated.
Matte Downey said…
Thanks for stopping by, Alan.
Great review. I love the image!
Dave Ferguson said…
Matte,
Thanks for the review. I appreciate your help in getting the word out. I would be happy to interact with any of your readers if they have questions. Dave
Matte Downey said…
This comment has been removed by the author.

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