Is anybody listening?

Book cover

The shaping of things to come by Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch was published more than a decade ago now. It was at the time a revolutionary book which had a lot to say to contemporary churches and christians.

Ten years later it still needs to be read. Here’s a few of the things we can learn.

The shape we’re in

The authors outline how they see the contemporary western church. They start by describing the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, which expresses many postmodern values, including:

  • belonging
  • survival
  • empowerment
  • sensuality
  • celebration
  • liminality (i.e. a transitional time)

They suggest these are human needs and aspirations which the church hasn’t met, but which this pagan festival satisfies in spades. If we want to break new ground in this postmodern western generation, we need to be communities that are relevant to them in the same way that Burning Man is.

Christendom no longer

For more than a millennium, christianity was either allied to the state or central to culture. But that position of privilege has long gone in most western countries, and is slowly fading in the US. Most of us know this.

But for the most part, churches haven’t changed to reflect the new reality in which they live. We are still using old approaches that are no longer working:


Most evangelism is still built around inviting people to our buildings – to church, youth group or special ‘outreach’ activities – despite the fact that studies show that more and more people are resistant to setting foot in our buildings. About 70% feel this way in Australia and UK, probably somewhat less in US.


Churches tend to see mission as doing evangelism or Bible teaching, but not daily work. We have put a barrier between the sacred and the profane and faith often becomes separated from daily life.


Christianity is inherently an egalitarian movement where everyone has a gift and a place in a loving community. These are core values of our postmodern culture, but the church has often lost them in hierarchical structures and the clergy-laity division that distance ordinary people from decisions and hinder them from using their gifts.

Evolving new methods based on these outmoded approaches will not work, they say. We need revolution.

Revolution – the missional church

“A missional church is the hope of the Post-Christendom era.”

Instead of an attractional approach, we need an incarnational one, where, like Jesus, we go and serve people rather than hope they come to us. We need to replace our dualistic mindset with a new spirituality that embraces the whole of life. And instead of the old hierarchical model, we need to be apostolic – servant leadership built around different gifts and ministries.

All this and more is outlined in the first two chapters. The rest of the book spells out how we might become more incarnational, dualistic and apostolic. I can only mention a few of their insights.

Be where the people are

Instead of hoping people come to us, we need to be where people are. Some suggestions:

  • Proximity spaces – neutral places where believers and non-believers can interact on equal terms. “Around the world CHristians are developing cafes, nightclubs, art galleries, design studios, football teams, etc, to facilitate such proximity and interaction.”
  • Shared projects “allow the Christians to partner with unbelievers in useful, intrinsically valuable activities within the community” – e.g. bushcare and clean-up groups, urban renewal projects, assisting the suffering, support for immigrants, etc.
  • Commercial enterprises – christians have opportunities to set up services such as job training, ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, business planning.
  • Go to ignored people – there are all sorts of groups and communities of people, based on shared interests, life situations, locations, etc, some of them quite distant culturally from the church. Churches and christians should be praying and seeking ways to be part of these communities.
  • Indigenous faith communities – hopefully new, indigenous and culturally-relevant faith communities will emerge from these activities. They won’t always look like what we are used to, but that will be an advantage.

Different types of groups

The attractional church is a bounded set, where the church members are clearly marked off from non-members by official membership, culture, etc, so it is clear who’s in and who’s out. But an incarnational church can be a centred set, defined by its core values, and people can be closer or further from the centre without there being an in-out boundary.

As examples, they liken bounded sets to small farms with defined boundary fences to keep the cattle in. But centred sets are more like large cattle stations in outback Australia, where fencing isn’t practical, but cattle remain close to the water bore.

This different mindset can make a huge difference. Everyone can feel they belong; everyone can move closer to the centre. Mission isn’t trying to get people inside the fence (“the religious zone”) but touching the lives of unbelievers where they are and “tantalising” them to begin a search for meaning and purpose.

Seeing and listening

Attractional evangelism is all about talking at people, because we know things that they don’t know. But incarnational evangelism is as much about listening and observing – then asking ourselves “what would be good news to these people?”. We may be able to identify leaders in the communities we go to, and spend time with them, in the hope that if they decide to follow Jesus, they will know the best way to encourage the rest of that community to do the same.

Context! Context! Context!

Missionaries in foreign countries know that they face significant barriers – e.g. language, culture, history – in communicating the good news, and they often work very hard at cross-cultural mission to overcome these barriers. But there are so many different subgroups in our pluralistic multi-ethnic western cultures that the church is often required to do cross-cultural mission also.

So we need to be aware of the cultural barriers facing the people we are missioning among, and express the good news in a way that suits the cultural context. The authors show how this approach is Biblical, and provide some tools to assist in understanding our situation.

Whispering to the soul

We are sometimes taught that we just need to deliver the straight gospel and we have done our task. But Jesus knew differently, wrapping much of his message in parable and cryptic sayings. Have you ever wondered why?

Mike and Alan suggest that sometimes the good news needs to be whispered subtly, to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to draw people towards the truth. They suggest a few ways:

  • Excite curiosity through story-telling. Jesus did it, we can do it – using Bible stories, or showing how something of God’s grace can be seen in a contemporary film or book, or using personal stories.
  • Provoke a sense of wonder and awe. The universe evokes awe and wonder, and we can use art, video, music and lighting in worship services and at other times to point to this.
  • Be extraordinarily loving. Allow people to see God’s love.
  • Explore how God is working. If we are observant and prayerful, we can tap into where the Spirit is already moving.
  • Focus on Jesus. Understand him and portray him as the prophetic and challenging person he was.

But wait, there’s more – much more!

Re-reading this book and writing this blog post has renewed my conviction that Mike and Alan have much to say to anyone wishing to accept Jesus’ mission call in postmodern wester cultures.

I have only touched on a few of the insights the authors share in this book. You need to read it to get all this, and much more.

What’s this got to do with Anabaptists?

This blog is part of the MennoNerds community, and this post is part of a synchroblog this month on the distinctives of the Anabatist movement.

I chose to write this review for this synchroblog because I believe Anabaptist thinking is already on the way to what Mike and Alan are presenting in this book. Specifically, the Anabaptist emphases on Jesus (rather than theology removed from daily life), community, shared servant leadership, a commitment to minister to the community around us especially the marginalised and the recognition that God’s peace is intended for the whole person, all resonate with postmodern western aspirations. Anabaptist christians have always resisted being part of Christendom, so the Anabaptist approach is better prepared and better suited to this post-Christendom age.

Of course there are aspects of historic Anabaptist communities that may also need to be reviewed. And this book is a great place to start.

The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church by Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch.

🤞 Don’t miss a post!!

Subscribe to receive email notification of new posts. Read more about
Subscribing & unsubscribing.


  1. Thank you, Eric, for this blog post. For several years now I have been struggling with how best to encourage my German Anabaptist community to embrace postmodernity and what it means for our churches. Already great things are happening – the Abraham/Ibrahim café in Berlin offers a neutral space for Muslims and Christians to come into conversation – and I’m confident we’re moving in a positive direction, but we still have work to do! I’m excited to read this book for more insight!

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m glad you found it helpful. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book.
    I visited your blog and enjoyed it.

  3. I first read that book in seminary and about once a year I re-glance at it and look at some of the notes I took. It’s a great book and well worth a read for anybody wanting to get started in a missional lifestyle.

  4. Christianity is inherently an egalitarian movement where everyone has a gift and a place in a loving community. These are core values of our postmodern culture, but the church has often lost them in hierarchical structures and the clergy-laity division that distance ordinary people from decisions and hinder them from using their gifts.

    We would agree about Christianity then (though even in apostolic times there was of course a central hierarchy in Jerusalem) and now (though to an important degree we are forced into it by having Scriptures in ancient languages).
    But I think our post-modern culture strongly moves away from egalitarianism and towards a fragmented particularism, where elections become less important and lobbying becomes where it’s at. On the other hand, it has good news for the politically involved: more power to you. But I do not think that is what democracy is about and it has adverse effects.
    Similar elite formations seem to come into being in the social domain and other areas of society as well, I think, but participation becomes more difficult if you lack the means.

  5. Yes, I’m sure you are right in all that. But ….
    1. Jesus said the powerful lord it over the rest in the world, but it wasn’t to be that way among us who follow him. We are to value leaders who serve. And Paul makes it clear (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14) that we all have gifts and we are to esteem all, especially the weaker. So that is what christianity ought
    to be about.
    2. Yes, it certainly isn’t the way democracy works out. The powerful have many ways to exert their will over the rest of us. But it is still the aspiration of democracy, and especially of postmodernism, which values the right and opportunity for each person to express themselves.
    You can see I’m an idealist in some respects. But I reckon best to aim high!

  6. I don’t see we disagree about Christianity or democracy. It appears we think along similar lines on that point.
    The contention is solely about post-modernism. I see one of its facets as an interest in pursuing power to dominate others. It is also (on an academic level) interesting in studying and exposing that, but while picking a side. On a less academic level, the effects are typically more odious. Consider the Mythicists, who claim to pursue an equal hearing, but when push comes to shove often use censorship if they have the means to suppress other opinions. That shows what our post-modern culture is about.
    Personally, I think we need a little of both world, the critical eye of post-modernism but the value of equality of modernism (and Christianity).

  7. Yes, the church has had to learn, and re-learn, some lessons in my lifetime. The perils of wealth and concern for the poor is one of the lessons we have to continually relearn. Not sure I am there yet!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *