September 13, 2012

[BOOK REVIEW]: The Permanent Revolution | Alan Hirsch + Tim Catchim


When measuring the church’s effectiveness and suggesting paths toward improvement we must start by evaluating our paradigm. What are we trying to accomplish? Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, co-authors of The Permanent Revolution, believe that the church is meant for more than maintaining a safe haven for believers in the heart of Christian civilization.

The church that Jesus intended “ . . . was specifically designed with built-in, self-generative capacities and was made for nothing less than world-transforming, lasting, and, yes, revolutionary impact.” (xxiv) Although movement toward a more missional approach has gathered momentum in recent years, The Permanent Revolution proposes that there is a systemic flaw that will always impede our progress until it is addressed.

Jesus designed a five-fold ministry to carry out the mission of his church (Eph 4:11). The flaw in our efforts is that we have largely ignored the place of apostles, prophets and evangelists, choosing instead a shepherd-teacher model. Limiting ourselves in this way leaves us designed to achieve what we are currently achieving.

Rediscovering the Apostolic Role

The permanent revolution that the church is intended to embody will only break through as an apostolic movement. Compared to a religious institution, an apostolic movement is a group of empowered disciples, led by the five-fold ministry and gathered around mission rather than a centralized organizational structure.

The theme of this book centers around the authors’ conviction that rediscovering the apostolic role and putting it back into practice is critical to our mission. Although they briefly differentiate their view of apostolic ministry from what is found in twentieth century charismatic literature, more context for how their view of the apostolic role compares to other understandings would have been helpful.

Assigning the lack of emphasis on apostolic ministry within Christian literature to the work of the enemy falls short of explaining the theological background for why so few Christian leaders have come to the same conclusions. They offer a better explanation, however, for the more functional reasons that the church has limited itself to the shepherd-teacher model.

Security vs. Impact

The apostle, prophet and evangelists are pioneers who push into new territory while shepherds and teachers care for the established settlements. It is a natural organizational tendency to consolidate around stabilizing influences, especially in places of societal privilege. Ignoring the more mission-oriented roles offers security at the expense of the impact that God intended for the church to make.

Apostles extend Christianity, often through church planting. Prophets call God’s people to faithfulness, protecting the spiritual DNA of the church. Evangelists are recruiters, gathering people to join the church as a missional movement. Shepherds nurture and care for the community of believers. Teachers share wisdom and understanding with God’s people.

These roles function not individually but as one whole that is designed to work together. When missing any part, the church loses sight of its overall mission. “For instance, if we persist in using the standard shepherd and teacher frameworks for church planting, then we will inevitably see that the primary purpose of the new plant will be to run worship services and Bible studies.” (12)

Apostles and Prophets

There is a specific “intelligence” embedded into each role and all are needed for the church to thrive. Chapter two describes each role’s contribution to the church’s mission before narrowing its focus down to the difference between the apostle and the prophet in chapter three. Apostles are missional and focused on going outward while prophets are more incarnational and aim at going deep.

The church can be both enhanced by the contributions of each role and limited by an imbalanced focus on one of them in particular. Like the facets of a diamond, the five-fold ministry is most functional when it works together in synergy. 

Five-Fold Ministry

After establishing this framework in part one, the authors narrow their focus to the apostolic role in ministry, leadership and organization in parts two through four. It seems that a whole book could have been devoted to following up these initial insights with how the five-fold ministry can work together for the mission of the church. Since the apostle is seen as the primary catalyst for the church’s expansion, they saw it fit instead to focus on restoring apostolic ministry.

“As far as we can tell, there has never been a highly transformative, exponential people movement in the history of the church that has not been catalyzed by apostolic ministry.” (114) Apostolic influence is necessary to help believers who are all called to share the gospel to engage outside the safety of their own circles. Mission is embedded within our genetic code and apostles help to make sure that we live true to our design.

Using Peter and Paul as prototypes, we learn that there are two biblical types of apostolic ministry. While both are explorers, Paul is more of a pioneer in that he focuses on spreading the gospel to new territories. Peter is compared to a miner who is less concerned with new territory than with digging deep within the community to mobilize the church for mission. These two types of apostles work together to generate movement and sustain its energy.

Historical Continuity

One of the strengths of this book is its focus on continuity with our historic faith. For example, the authors recommend seeing the church’s renewal not as creating something new but as listening to the missional Spirit of God already present in the church. He will reconnect us to the old paths that God designed and our identifying with his divine purposes for the world cannot help but renew us.

The other side of the book’s historic claims is that it would solidify the author’s position if they would trace the historic continuance of the apostolic role within the church. At least providing a series of examples would have done more for their argument than sweeping claims that apostles have always been present at the heart of the church’s mission.

As leaders, apostles are entrepreneurial and needed to encourage the church to take risks for the sake of mission. They are innovators who are full of ideas and never satisfied with what has become normal. “Innovation and risk have to become a regular, integral part of what it means to function apostolically, and it will have to take on an iterative quality.” (173) The apostle leads the high-risk missional efforts and empowers the community to continue moving them forward.

An Apostolic Movement

The final section of the book explores apostolic organization and how it is centered around a movement rather than an institution. The organizing center of this movement is mission. This is an important reminder and it is demonstrated by the experience of the earliest church. Emphasizing that we are designed to make an impact on the world, creates the context to ask the right questions about how we are pursuing ministry.

Bringing the book to a close, the authors remind us that design matters. The architecture of missional ministry is designed to reproduce itself. When we recognize our struggle to engage in effective mission we need to reflect on how closely we are operating according to God’s design. This is one of the strongest themes throughout the book.

The Permanent Revolution is a thought-provoking read that both church leaders and members committed to mission will find challenging. Those who cannot get past the lack of a theological framework laid for the continuance of the apostolic role may dismiss it before they engage the heart of the message. It is worth reading and considering the practical insights that it raises, regardless of whether or not one agrees with the authors’ definition of apostolic ministry. Being technical in nature, the book is best read slowly with time to reflect and to engage with its many visual illustrations.

In their conclusion, Hirsch and Catchim summarize their message well, “We are designed for continuous movement, and apostles are the permanent revolutionaries given to the church to catalyze the permanent revolution.” (249)

Reviewed by Andy Johnson for The Englewood Review of Books

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