How Apostolic Movements Can Change the World

The great Christian revolutions came not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when someone takes radically something that was always there.
~ H. Richard Niebuhr

Foreword for Sam Metcalf's Beyond the Local Church: How Apostolic Movements can Change the World  (By Alan Hirsch)

One of the more stimulating books I have read in recent years was by Joshua Cooper Ramo an called The Age of the Unthinkable.[1].  The “unthinkable” in Ramo’s view is akin to a kind of future/culture shock we experience as we enter into the previously uncharted waters of the 21st Century.  This is largely due to massive economic, political, environmental, and social factors, shifts.  Our age is highly unstable and at the edge of seismic change. And yet we are entering into this revolutionary age armed with a mindset formed and suited for centuries past.  The central warning of this book highlights how and why an obsolete picture of the world only serves to exacerbate, and not resolve, the serious global problems we face.

All of us know and feel that this to be true. The best Christian leaders have come to the awareness that the various organizations and ecclesiologies formulated in entirely different sets of circumstances are not going to help us successfully negotiate this entirely unchartered terrain.  In other words, traditional formulations of the church got us to this point in time cannot be assumed to get us beyond the current impasse and decline. Revolutions produce a whole new cast of historical champions.  Our world requires radical rethinking.  “In a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation, you need to learn to think and act like a revolutionary” or end up as a victim of the revolution.[2]  We are going to have to reach a lot deeper into the spiritual resources inherent in Jesus’ church if we are going to adapt and thrive in the 21st Century.

As a global missionary leader, Sam Metcalf knows this.  He senses that we are ill prepared for the paradigmatic challenges of the oncoming century.  But in order to propose a way forward, Sam knows that he has to expose the reductionist ecclesiology implied in the inherited Western understandings of the church.  He aims squarely at the reduction of Jesus’ ecclesia to the merely local and to its leadership to the merely pastoral.   He is spot on here.

The divorce of the local church from the missionary church is a systemic disaster to be sure.  At the very roots of the 20th Century, Roland Allen, the remarkable missionary to China no less, predicted that with the birth of the so-called parachurch and the missionary societies that we would “end up with a mission-less church and a church-less mission.”[3] This rupture on the NT ecclesiology introduced an element of deep dysfunction into both the local church and the so resultant parachurches. 

I have long believed that if we understood ecclesia properly and began to re-appropriate its various levels of meaning, then many of the problems we now face can be resolved. For instance, our more concrete, overly localized, fairly institutionalized paradigm of church must be redefined in the much broader, more fluid meaning used in the Bible.

In my book The Permanent Revolution, I discern four ascending levels in which the word ecclesia is used in the New Testament (figure below)[4]:

1.     The NT writers use the term to describe the people who met in the various places of their city—primarily the home (called an oikos in the Greek), but also in riverbanks, markets, and other places as well. For example, Paul addresses the ecclesia that happens to meet in so-and-so’s house. This is the most local, and basic, reference of the term.

2.     Then the NT writers talk of an ecclesia in a particular city, knowing that there might in fact be many house churches scattered throughout the area. In fact, most of the letters are addressed to churches at this level. So here we have the regional application of the term—a citywide ecclesia that is in fact made up of many ecclesias.

3.     The next level up is that it is used to denote the movement across a larger geopolitical region—in this case, the Roman Empire, or Asia. Here the word is used to identify the Jesus movement in the various parts of the world known in the apostles’ time. We still use it to refer to a historical phenomenon.

4.     The final, and perhaps the symbolic, level is where the apostles can address the people of God as the church of Jesus Christ.   This refers to of course, the universal invisible church, that is, the body of Christ on earth. This is the more theological, metaphorical meaning of the term as the redeemed new covenant people of God.

The confining of the church to the simply local has had disastrous consequences for our capacity to imagining the church as a transformative movement that can reach across vast geographic regions and penetrate numerous cultures.  The local church as we know it can barely reach past its own internal programming, let alone transform whole cultures and societies.  And yet I believe that is what the church is designed by Jesus to do.  We have to expand our understanding of the church to that of a burgeoning apostolic movement, not reduce it to a one-dimensional religious institution.   This is the church that is equal to the challenge of the 21st Century.

Drawing upon Ralph winter's categories, best thinking in terms of missional leadership, and years of experience, Sam develops a coherent and strategically useful typology of missional leadership along with the associated missional organization. 

But in Beyond the Local Church Sam not only suggests new ways of organizing, he also highlights the importance of expanding our also severely diminished understanding of ministry beyond that of the shepherd and teacher to include the generative ministries of the apostle (missional), prophetic, and evangelistic envisaged in Eph.4:1-16 (APEST).   I have always felt the urgency and sheer strategic value of this neglected aspect of biblical ecclesiology and have written about it in almost every book I have published.  Most recently, and in the most consistent and thorough form, I have written about it with Tim Catchim in The Permanent Revolution.  I am completely convinced that we need is to first and foremost reconceive the church as missional, or better apostolic, movement.  Once we embrace this  more biblical paradigm of church, we will then begin to think and act like the movement we are designed to be. But if we are to re-embrace the movement form (and I can see no viable Plan B for the church in the West) then we are going to have to likewise (re)embrace the very forms of ministry that can generate, sustain, and develop missional movement.  And we can do no better than recover the world changing dynamics latent in the APEST typology.   

Having affirmed the legitimacy of all five APEST ministries, Sam does tend to highlight the strategic importance of the apostolic mode in particular.  I have to say that while none is more important that the other, I still agree with him in this because I believe it is the apostolic that holds most promise for a revitalization of the church-as-missional-movement. By its very nature, apostolic ministry is inextricably related to the possibility and practice of apostolic movement.  Because of this we must do our utmost to understand this historically marginalized ministry and find our way to relegitimize it.  If we fail in this, I fear we will never get to the kind of transformative movement that we see in the pages of the NT itself.  Sam has added to the needed dialogue by adding his leadership experience and intellectual heft to the conversation.  I, for one, am grateful. 

All in all this is a very welcome contribution to the area of missional structures and leadership based on the thoroughly biblical APEST ministry typology that we see operative throughout the book of Acts and the early church.  I hope and trust this book will help the reader (re)discover the sheer potency laced throughout a genuinely missional understanding of the church.  One feels Sam’s love of God, the Bible, as well as the history and the mission of the Church throughout.  I trust that having read this book, and followed its counsel, that we will find ourselves more faithful to the particular work of God in our generation.

You can get Sam's book here

Alan Hirsch
Author of numerous books on missional Christianity and founder of Forge Mission Training Networkand Future Travelers.


[1] Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009). 

[2] Ibid,11.

[3] See Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, The Faith of Leap: Embracing a Theology of Adventure and Risk (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 153-4.

[4] Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Developing Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (San Francisco: Wiley, 2014) xxxv-xxxvii.


The Upside of Down:

Harvesting The By-Products of Liminality

All this talk about adventure, risk, and in extremis leadership sounds pretty exhausting. But these are the necessary elements of liminality—that neither-here-nor-there place to which the church is called. The church can neither retreat to safe institutionalization nor abandon its faith altogether. It is called out—out beyond itself into the liminal place of mission. Such a neither-here-nor-there space calls forth a capacity for relentless change. It forces us to be a constantly learning community, with agility and a propensity for risk-taking and movement. And shouldn’t anyone related to the Holy God that we worship be in a continual state of change? To know God is to change. Besides, human maturity is predicated on our continued willingness to learn and to grow. But we don’t want to give the false impression that change, journey, and liminality always involve death-defying deeds to qualify for a genuine gospel adventure. Acts of love and mercy themselves embody courage and advance the cause of Jesus in our world.

For all the insecurity that an adventurous Christianity-of-the- Road brings, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Conversely, in the non-adventurous, supposedly more secure life, the costs far outweigh the advantages. The loss of pathos, authenticity, and living reality to our faith and experience of Jesus’s church is a high price to pay for comfort and convenience. A life lived in fear is a life half lived. Likewise, a church addicted to security and safety is not the church of Jesus Christ; it is in reality something else. 

  • from Hirsch and Frost, The Faith of Leap, (Baker) 


Leading with your life

It’s commonly understood that an extreme situation can call forth either cowardice or heroism from the very people you would least expect it. There’s nothing like a good crisis to reveal the character of the soul or an organization. When one is leading because one’s life, and the lives of others, depends on it, then perhaps the best qualities of leadership shine through. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of leadership and leadership development—strategic areas of focus for the missional church.

Clearly, leading in a life-or-death situation is different from managing in more routine, or even in crisis, circumstances. US Marine Colonel Thomas Kolditz did a unique, long-term study on the nature of leadership in precisely such conditions. In spite of the extreme nature of the research, we believe that his findings on what he calls in extremis leaders has clear relevance for those of us who are involved in leading the church through times of massive upheaval and change. His insights are important affirmations as we factor adventure and liminality in the equation of leadership in the church. They include among others, that

  • In extremis leaders are inherently motivated because of the danger of the situations in which they’re working; therefore, leaders don’t need to use conventional motivational methods or cheerleading. ...
  • In extremis leaders embrace continuous learning, typically because they and their followers need to rapidly scan their environments to determine the level of threat and danger they’re facing. . . .
  • In extremis leaders share the risk their followers face. This isn’t just grandstanding; leaders truly share—and even take on greater— risks in in extremis situations. Leaders in other environments should keep this in mind: don’t ask your followers to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.
  • In extremis leaders share a common lifestyle with their followers. . . . all leaders should consider how much they truly have in common with the rest of their organization. [For instance, the issue of highly unequal pay scales does say something about the nature of leadership.] . . .
  • Dangerous situations demand a high level of mutual trust. In extremis leaders trust their team, and they themselves can be trusted. And even if someone’s life isn’t at stake in an organization, his or her livelihood may be, so do everything you can to be trustworthy and to trust your team to do what [they are chosen] to do.
  • High-risk environments demand mutual loyalty between leader and followers. . . . Leaders should do everything they can to foster a culture of mutual loyalty.

Extrapolating from this, we can say that in situations when our lives (or organizations or careers) are at risk, general principles from standard management practice need to be sharpened and their relative degree of importance modified. First, for Kolditz, the most crucial factor for the in extremis leader is to concentrate on the external environment and learn from it what action to take, rather than focus on motivating his/her team. 

From Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost, The Faith of Leap (Baker) 41.