Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Review: UNTAMED – Alan and Deb Hirsch [Vol. 3, #12]

A Review of

013430: Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship Untamed:
Reactivating a
Missional Form of Discipleship

By Alan & Debra Hirsch
Baker Books, 2010

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Reviewed by Jeff Romack.

“We’ve become tamed by tradition, captivated by culture, and controlled by our desire to fit in, not make waves and never offend anyone.  We’ve been domesticated instead of discipled” — From the foreword by Rick Warren.

The above quote succinctly summarizes what missiologist Alan Hirsch and co-writer and wife Debra Hirsch view as the current state of discipleship in the Church.  It is this situation that the Hirschs seek to address in their book, Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship.  The authors define discipleship as the “capacity to lovingly embody and transmit the life of Jesus through the life of his followers . . .”  No Jesus, no life.  No life of Jesus in the Church, no life for the world.  This relational thread from Jesus to Church (Christ’s followers) to the world necessitates the reactivation of a missional form of discipleship for the sake of the world.  Contrary to current practice or lack of it, missional discipleship is normative for followers of Jesus. Such discipleship requires a rediscovery of what it means and a re-envisioning of what it actually looks like to follow Jesus in our culture; the outcome being a life “untamed.”

The Hirsch’s approach in Untamed is to identify impediments to discipleship lying in three areas; our ideas about God, culture, and self.  These three areas are each addressed in multi-chapter sections of the book.  A final section, a single chapter in length, is a helpful, even if brief, guide to incarnational mission.  This book does not formulate a specific biblical model of discipleship, nor is it of the common discipleship curriculum genre.  What this book does and does well is to unmask certain commonly held ideas in the aforementioned areas which inhibit one’s ability to actually walk as Jesus might walk among us.  Each chapter provides some suggested practices as a way of moving beyond identifying a problem to action and change.  Discussion starter questions are also provided to stimulate group conversation. These latter two pieces are not uncommon in books of this type but are, I think, all too easily overlooked or dismissed. New ideas lie at the heart of all change but if change is to take place, and that is most certainly what the Hirschs are aiming at, it will to happen in the context of relationship with others on a mission.  This book will be most profitably read in a group context.

Jesus being the model for all discipleship, the subject matter of Untamed seems an appropriate follow-up to Alan Hirsch’s previous book (with Michael Frost), Rejesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church both in terms of theme and style.  This more recent book provoked for me thoughts on discipleship that meandered in directions not specifically addressed by the book itself.  I’ll mention two points that I think the book might have profitably addressed.

First has to do with the relationship of evangelism to discipleship.  The way we do evangelism goes a long way in determining what kind of disciples we actually make.  The prevailing approach to discipleship over the last fifty years or so, rooted in Church Growth theory, is one that makes a conceptual and strategic split between evangelism and discipleship.  Donald McGavran referred to this split as “discipling and perfecting” where “discipling,” contrary to contemporary usage, is understood as the winning of new believers to Christ and “perfecting” is something done later to make believers better Christians.  This split has more commonly come to be spoken of as evangelism and follow-up (discipleship). This approach, while effective in “growing the church” and making converts of a certain kind, is, I believe, at the root of many problems in discipleship.

In my view, a missional approach to discipleship begins with the proclamation in word and deed of the Good News of the Kingdom.  This is evangelism and its hoped for outcome is the initiation of its hearers into the Kingdom of God and not simply a signature on a commitment card, the raising of a hand, or even church membership. To be Christian is to be a follower of Jesus is to be a disciple is to live life on a mission.  This Kingdom life certainly allows for growth subsequent to conversion, in fact, growth is a vital sign of life and not just a program option for the highly motivated.  I believe that the Hirschs could have done more to advance this Kingdom and missional perspective had they done more to explicitly trace discipleship back to the form and content of the gospel shared.

The second point I would have liked to have seen covered is the role of scripture in the making of a disciple.  Here I am not thinking about the devotional reading of scripture, bible reading plans or scripture memorization as significant as those can be.   Rather, I have in mind the relationship of the disciple to scripture which is most helpfully understood as the true story of God and his relationship with the world.  Freedom from conformity to the world and for transformation into the likeness of Christ best happens as the disciple comes to locate herself in and then begins to inhabit The Story given to us as scripture.  From that point forward all life; all ambitions, all relationships, all agendas are able to be re-imagined and lived in light of the new reality which is the Kingdom. This is the crucial paradigm shift necessary to sustain us in a world in which every talking head and every commercial interruption is an attempt to make us their disciple.

Alan Hirsch comes to his work with the benefit of an interesting and enriching personal journey.  Growing up in a Jewish family, he lived in South Africa for the first 24 years of his life, next emigrating to Australia where he lived, met and married Debra and launched out into ministry before finally arriving in California three years ago.  Alan envisions the Church, not as a static institution, but as a Jesus movement that is missional by virtue of God’s empowering Spirit.  Debra comes to her present concern for discipleship with a history of her own in the drug scene and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) community in Melbourne.  Hers is a passion to see the lost found and the found transformed.  The Hirschs’ uncommon backgrounds enable them to speak to us with a fresh voice.  Their heart for a missional form of discipleship (is there truly any other kind?) is expressed in this book with both passion and sensitivity to the emerging/missional context in which the church now finds itself.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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