I was excited to get a copy of “On the Verge” (Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson), as I’ve been struggling with a couple of things lately in my role as pastor. First, the need to be missional and transform communities by the love of Jesus is obviously Biblical, as well as the call God puts on every believer and group of believers. But the “how” of that isn’t always so obvious. A lot of books want to tell you how a particular group did this, but most of them haven’t dealt with anything close to the situation I pastor in. So the first thing I was looking for was some practical things I could do to help me get an idea of what was needed. Secondly, I wanted to know how to infuse into my leadership and congregation exactly what I feel as if God has put inside of me. These two things have been burning in me, and it has been my intention, through preaching, teaching and leading to get these things instilled in my people. On the Verge manages to help answer these questions in very thoughtful and practical ways, without sounding like a how-to manual, which is unfortunately what a lot of church leadership books read like.
There are some very key themes used throughout the book. Imagination, risk, innovation and missional people are just a few. The introduction starts right there, pointing out the thing most pastors need to know; how to instill into every individual the call of God on them to be a player in the Kingdom of God.
Chapter one begins to lay out the problem with the numbers 60/40. According to Hirsch and Ferguson, approximately 40% of people in America today are touched in some way by the church, and most congregations are fighting over those people, while the other 60% are barely touched by the gospel. Worse than that, the church seems to not have an answer to this problem. Institutions have become the focal point of many groups, or arguments about worship and preaching style, and so “win” the battle for the 40% who are already being reached, rather than focusing on reaching those who aren’t connected with any of these things, or more importantly, Jesus.
The book is written in four parts; Imagine, Shift, Innovate and Move. Chapters two through six, written primarily by Alan Hirsch, begin to tell us how we can address these problems. It must begin, he says, with imagination. Too often we have spent our time looking at what we are, rather than what we want to become. Then we imagine our way forward. This is where it gets difficult, because if you’re like me, you want a manual, but it is only Spirit-guided imagination, seeking to get into the minds and hearts of those on the “outside” and re-discovering ways of touching them which will be effective. There will not be one solution to this problem; each community will present unique situations, and believers must answer them with unique solutions.
One thing I really liked is the push to have churches recognize themselves as mission organizations. If we will do this, we will then understand it is our responsibility to cross cultural barriers, not ask those outside the church to do the hard work for us. On page 73, Hirsch says this; “If we persist with the current status quo, we are in effect asking the nonbeliever to do all the cross-cultural work in coming to church! Remember, we are the sent ones—not them.”
So helping the people move forward needs to begin, not with the solution, but by pointing to the problem. There is something which is wrong in our nation today, and if we have the answer, yet aren’t seeing significant change for the good of our communities, this is an issue which we need to find an answer to. And it is our responsibility, not theirs!
In the “Shift” section, the discussion moves to the mDNA, or the missional DNA which is in each church living out mission in community. The authors are quick to point out that this DNA is in all Christians and groups of believers, because they are part of the nature of following after Christ. Even if they aren’t tapped, they are there. These six are the lordship of Christ, disciple making, missional-incarnational impulse, apostolic environment, organic systems and communitas. If we are going to “imagine” our way forward, and shift the movement of ourselves and communities, they will be done through these core essentials.
From this DNA, we create an ethos, which includes our values, those we call heroes, the symbols we use and our belief system. All the programs in the church are centered on what our ethos is, which is built from our mDNA. This will look different in different churches, depending on a community’s needs, the heart of those who are leading, and the individuals who are becoming missionaries in their own environments. From our ethos come the practices we participate in as a church.
In the “Innovate” section, Dave Ferguson takes over the main writing, and begins by talking about the need for true innovation, not simply copying someone else’s good idea. I appreciated the three things he mentioned were necessary for us to be good leaders. First, we need to lead from the front, and honestly ask ourselves this question: “If people only imitated me, would they be doing God’s mission?” This is a crucial question which challenged me greatly. Secondly, we lead with curiosity, not certainty. The need to take risks is not to be underrated. Finally, we lead with a yes, encouraging people in their own personal missions. Included in this section is a chapter with some “how-to’s” concerning innovation, including the need to do new things, not just do things better and allowing everyone to participate in the mission.
Dave also writes the “Move” section, which he begins by helping the reader evaluate where their particular church is. If we know where we are, we’ll know more what needs to change. This questioning moves into the final chapter of the book as well, as we are asked the important questions so we can figure out how to begin or continue a movement within our churches.
The book concludes with some examples of what that author’s call “Verge” churches; churches which are living out the Apostolic Genius, communities of missionaries, taking the gospel into their own personal communities.
All in all, this was an excellent books, with Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson each taking different chapters, with the other one having a few pages of response at the end of each chapter. It was nice to read two different voices on the same subject, and I felt myself challenged in different ways by both of them. I’m very thankful for this book, and believe it will help me a great deal in the future as I continue to seek the heart of God in the world I live in.
One final word: while this book is very practical, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s not also deeply spiritual. The emphasis on the lordship of Christ, the guidance of the Spirit and the heart of the Father are all over the place. You can’t miss it. But that shouldn’t ever take away from the practical lessons of leadership, and I appreciate the difficult edge they walked in order to bring us this book. I look forward to reading more from the Exponential series.