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The half-remembered ways — Alan Hirsch at Doornpoort

21 May 2008

Last night I went to hear Alan Hirsch speak. He is the author of The forgotten ways, a book I haven’t read. I heard about his visit to South Africa from Nelus Niemand, and was interested in hearing what he had to say.

Why was I interested?

It’s quite hard to say. I’d heard of Alan Hirsch, though I hadn’t read his books. I knew he was a spokesman for the Emerging Church movement, which I first heard about a couple of years ago in the blogosphere. As a missiologist I find that interesting, and feel I should know more about it. I’ve read about it in the blogosphere, but have seen little of it in real life. So a year ago I went to hear Brian McLaren, when he was here. It was good to hear him in a context. And so it was with Alan Hirsch, a South African who has spent some time in Australia, and so has a better idea of the South African scene than most overseas visitors

The context was even more important this time.

I won’t say much about what Alan Hirsch said. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. Some of it was stuff I’d said myself at various times, perhaps in slightly different ways. The thing that stood out for me in what he said was about images of Jesus — the images of Jesus that people have, and the image of Jesus that different groups of Christians project to the world. He showed pictures of various peoples’ conceptions of Jesus: the Spooky Jesus, the Buddy Jesus, the Sunday-School Jesus, the Boyfriend Jesus, the Bearded Lady Jesus and the Middle Class Jesus (with a DIY cross kit).

This wasn’t especially new either.

The image Alan used for the “Buddy Jesus” was one I’ve used in an earlier post on this blog, which I thought depicted Jesus as a used-car salesman. Alan said that people were interested in Jesus and I’ve found that among the most popular posts on this blog and my other one have been ones about what Jesus looked like.

To give an idea of what Alan said, and to show that it is not new, I shall quote from a paper God versus religion, read at an Anglican students conference by John Davies at Modderpoort in the Free State on a cold winter day nearly 50 years ago:


1 In the Church←
1(a) The public image of the Church←

The worst single thing about our Church in this country is not colour bars and all that, but its godlessness. There is a tremendous lot of things done, services and meetings held, tickets signed, public talking, money raising, cake-sales, building and painting, and hosts of religious routine activities. How far is all this just religious armour? Is all this saving grace or damned disgrace? How far are we insulating ourselves from the real demands, the invasion of the Holy Spirit? How far are we trying to fob God off with a few routine acts instead of laying ourselves open to his revolution? We come with our accepted standards of the dignity of the minister; in the richer dioceses we raise and raise his pay (higher if he is white) so that he can maintain a status that he happens to have in parts of Europe, a status that bears no relation to the kind of ministry Christ had. We assume that a specific type of expensive structure is always necessary, we slave to raise money for these things, with scarcely a thought of trying, within the Church fellowship, to do anything to redress the unjust inequalities which our society enforces, that we so righteously denounce. Half the churches, and half the Christians, in this country are immorally rich, and have to be told so. But this would be unnecessary if we had before our eyes the poverty of the one true God instead of the prestige that is needed to maintain the satisfaction of a religion. We don’t want to look a failure, and just for that reason we are one. We want a responsibility for God and not to him; so we must put on a good show, we must join the competition of others who claim to wash whiter than white.

There is a remedy. Before every act, service, cake-sale, what not, that can be remotely construed as an act of the Church, this question must be asked: how far does this represent Christ? Will it really speak of him who came to be poor among the poor, and express some part of the gospel? Or will it be merely another boost to our godlessness, our religious image? Why do we want this thing we are doing – for Christ’s sake, or for our own as part of an organization with prestige and wealth to maintain?

I think anyone who heard Alan Hirsch speak last night will recognise that as very similar to some of the things Alan said. Perhaps if Alan reads this, he might even recognise it himself!

What was different, however, was the context. I had heard similar things said many times before, but not to such an audience.

It was the first time I had been to the Doornpoort Dutch Reformed Church. It didn’t look like a Dutch Reformed Church, it looked more like a Neopentecostal one in architecture, with a carpeted floor and movable chairs, not pews, a rectangular room, with a platform in the long side.

The people present seemed mostly in their 30s and 40s, a few older and younger ones, and a few young children, some in pyjamas. I got the impression that most were members of the regular congregation, with the exception of Roger Saner and a few friends, who were already involved in the Emerging Church scene.

It was a bit of a contrast to the Brian McLaren meeting last year, which was held at the Universiteitsoord Dutch Reformed Church, with many students present. Perhaps that made for a more lively discussion, and also the fact that people there were seated in groups around tables.

Before the Brian McLaren meeting I had asked around on the Net to see if it was worth going to hear him, and most who had read his books or heard his speak thought it would be. One person, however, remarked that the Dutch Reformed Church was looking for salvation in the Emerging Church movement. Salvation from what, for what? I’m not sure. Others seemed sceptical.

But last night’s meeting gave more of a clue. This may be a wrong impression, and I may be misinterpreting what I’ve seen and heard, but it seemed to me that the Dutch Reformed Church, or at least the white Dutch Reformed Church, has rather lost its way since the end of apartheid, and is not sure where to go next. Some apparently believe that the Emerging Church movement has some possible answers, and are trying to expose church members to these ideas, and so bring in people from overseas like Brian McLaren and Alan Hirsch. Perhaps that’s what my correspondent meant by “looking for salvation”.

If anyone from the Dutch Reformed Church is reading this, perhaps they could let me know if I’ve got it right or altogether wrong or somewhere in between.

One of the reasons why I thought it was important to be there was to give the “ermerging conversation” some real context. One thing I’ve notced about Emerging Church people is that they talk a lot about “church” without the definite or indefinite article, a bit like politicians who talk about “government” rather than “the goverrnment”. Emerging Church people talking about “doing church” and “being church”, often in the sense of “finding new ways of doing church rather than traditional ways” — but unless one knows what the “traditional ways” are that they have in mind, it is difficult to interpret what they say. That’s why it’s useful to be there, to see the building and its layout, the kind of people who are there, and the seating arrangments. That, presumably, is the way they “do church” at the Doornpoort Dutch Reformed Church. But is it what Emerging Church people mean when they speak of “traditional ways of doing church”?

Alan Hirsch said, in effect, that one should not say to people “Come to church”, because they would probably be disappointed that they didn’t meet Jesus, but rather one of the caricatures that he showed us. And that is true, of course. As St Paul says, we have this treasure (of the gospel) in earthen vessels, which are often weak, dirty and cracked. Our witness to Jesus isn’t very good. But there is another side to this, and I shall quote John Davies again, and what he says is based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It follows directly on from the piece I quoted earlier. What it suggests to me is that one of the weakest points of the Emerging Church movement it its ecclesiology:

`We are afraid of our problems because we fear that nothing short of a miracle can solve them, that nothing short of a miracle can save us. But we are never saved by anything short of a miracle.’ [1] Christianity is God’s activity, not ours – even our prayers are not ours, all that is worthwhile is God’s, all that isn’t is our interference (Romans 8:26). He makes the fellowship, not us; he chooses who shall be in or out. I cannot say what my brother in Christ should be like; he may look highly unconvincing or useless to me, as ungodly in appearance as the Crucified. But `every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.'[2] We are where we are in the Church not by our deserving but solely by what God has made us in calling us. When the Church learns better to depend on God’s call, when it realizes that it possesses nothing on earth but a grave, when it stops depending on grace preserved from past days (for the manna goes mouldy after yesterday) then Christ will be its king, and this inertia of godlessness, this disease of religion, will be cast out.

1. W. Pelz, Irreligious reflections on the Christian Church, p 15
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life together, p. 84

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 May 2008 4:49 pm

    Steve, appreciate having your perspective on things. I agree that for anyone who knows any missiology, nothing Alan is saying should come as a huge surprise. Much of what guys him and myself are doing is nothing more than taking global missiology and applying it at home. Little is of it is unprecedented in world terms (that was an interesting old quote by the way). I do find it interesting what you have to say about emerging ecclesiology. I am sure some would disagree but I think you do have a point. I think emerging church is too fixated on structural reform as be all and end all. As for what counts as tradition, yup that’s an important question. Generally megachurch tradition is in view, or maybe the last hundred years or so.

  2. 23 May 2008 5:47 pm


    What it revealed to me was how much the Dutch Reformed Church has changed in the last 15 years or so, since the end of apartheid. There have been changes on the academic side, but I’d not seen it so much from an ordinary congregation.

    The megachurch concep[t is still relatively new. In this country it’s only about 30-35 years old, and until about 20 years ago it was sufficiently new not to seem like a tradition at all. The people in the megachurches ascribed every conceivable evil in the church to “tradition”. The document i quoted was from before that, and it begins to look to me as though the megachurch movement was a kind of detour, and things are getting back on to that track, in some ways, though “track” is perhaps the wrong word. Perhaps that’s why Alan called his book The forgotten ways, forgotten between 1980 and 2000 perhaps.

  3. 24 May 2008 12:07 am

    As always, you are a conscience to the rest of us. Indeed, why are the Dutch Reformed Church so positive about the emerging church? The past few months I’m becoming very wary of this, mainly because of the uncritical way the emerging church is accepted as “good” in so many places. After attending a planning session for a coming synod a few weeks ago, I became convinced that the NG Kerk never new what to do after Apartheid, and are now frantically grabbing onto anything that seems promising. Be it the charismatics, fundamentalists, or the emerging church. All the while our own tradition, and our theological faculties, are broken down into the ground…

  4. 24 May 2008 8:48 am


    Some years ago I was in Utrecht, and I visited the NG dominee there, Fred Jordaan. He said that the church there had been a dominee’s church for too long, and evangelism was the work of the whole congregation.

    We had a study group for “the rest” — the non-NG people, and were planning evangelistic outreech in the town. There was a good response from black and coloured people in the town, but a poor response from whites. An old toppie from the Afrikaans Baptist Church, Manie Craffert, said “If you want to reach the white heathen in this town, pray for the dominee. They all go to his church.” And indeed the church, which was very beautiful, and set in spacious grounds, was full every Sunday and the grounds were full of the shiny new Mercedes belonging to the local farmers. But on his weekday Bible study he struggled to get 10 people.

    I later moved to Melmoth, and visited the dominee there, Tom Carpenter. But he was not interested in evangelism at all. He was interested in important moral issues, and sat on church committees to discuss them — stopping people from fishing on Sundays and things like that.

    I got the impression that, in Utrecht especially, the whole thing was about respectability. And in those days lots of cabinet ministers belonged to the NG Kerk (except for a couple of Doppers like FW de Klerk). But now? I got the impression at Doornpoort that the ground had been cut from under people’s feet, and there was a hope that someone like Alan Hirsch could dump some sand in the hole. The church was built like a megachurch, so perhaps that was another thing that had been tried. But as Matt Stone implies, a lot of the Emerging Church stuff is aimed at, and developed by, people who had been in on the megachurch thing, and found it wanting.

    In the Orthodox Church, back in the 1980s, we saw something similar. The Orthodox Church was like a ladder with the bottom four rungs missing. Most of the services were in Greek, which young people couldn’t understand, and many had no idea what was going on, never mind why. It was just part of their Greek heritage or something. They went off to churches like Rhema, and found Jesus, and then got bored climbing the bottom four rungs of the ladder over and over again, so they came back to keep on climbing.

    Swap Greek for Afrikaner and there might be some similarities.

  5. 26 July 2010 7:34 am

    I also heard of Alan Hirsch, I can’t recall where. After listening to several video clips of interviews, reading several reviews on Amazon, and this blog, I am concluding that he has a rather vague theology over which he creates an overlay of hermetic pseudo-intellectual self-defined jargon which obscures a scant scriptural foundation. I think that this creation of jargon is always an attempt to bring attention to ourselves. The great ones can speak in language that bring the mysteries to those around them. If the listener is mystified and left thinking, that man must be amazing since I had to really struggle to understand what he was talking about…usually there is not much worth deciphering.
    May I suggest a writer who truly inspires a fresh look at Jesus, without creating his own vocabulary. He takes us back to the Word of God, The words of Jesus, the church of Acts… and he comes from Baptist roots, I believe. But he’s worked in the church in china and elsewhere, and is leading a large church to the God of the Bible, the Holy spirit of the bible. I don;t think we need verbal inventors leading our church into reformation 2 (which I believe is needed). We need men of God, who seek the presence of God daily and minute by minute in their own lives, until they -we- can truly burn with the same light that Moses shone with when he came down from Sinai.

    • 27 July 2010 4:15 am

      “hermetic pseudo-intellectual self-defined jargon”


      I’m not sure what that means. Can you give some examples of the kind of jargon you are referring to?

      And also the names of some of the writers you are referring to?


  1. wanneer woorde skeldname word: oor die emerging church « die ander kant

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