Hirsch was born into a Jewish family in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1959. He moved to Cape Town, in 1963 where he spent most of his childhood and adolescence. Then, he went to university in Cape Town where he studied business and marketing and moved to Australia in 1983 with his family. Although his family was not particularly religious, he was very much influenced by his Jewish heritage. He emphasises Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and makes distinctions between Hebraic and Hellenistic thought. He served a two-year compulsory call-up in the South African military. After having moved to Australia, he had a life-changing experience with the Holy Spirit that deeply affected him. Soon after moving, he married Debra. They have been married and in Christian ministry together for over twenty years.
Education and ministry
During his first year of seminary at Australian College of Theology (ACT), he led a small group of newly converted Christians that included "gays, lesbians, Goths, drug addicts, prostitutes, and some relatively ordinary people." He maintained involvement with this group throughout his Seminary education.
After graduating, he and his wife were called to go to South Melbourne Church of Christ in 1989. This church was later renamed "South Melbourne Restoration Community". Hirsch spent the next fifteen years leading this community (with wife Debra). Five years after having begun ministry at SMRC, he became the director of the Department of Mission, Education and Development for the Churches of Christ Victoria and Tasmania Conference. During these years, he and his wife planted two churches on the edges of society for the marginalized and urban poor in Melbourne, Australia. Neither church is in existence today. During this time Hirsch pioneered the missional training system called Forge Mission Training Network. Forge became a strong voice and agency for training younger people in missional thinking in Australia, although is now closed. Hirsch has now moved to North America (where there are active networks in Canada and the United States).
Alan and Debra maintain that the church in North America will be a major determinant for the continued sustenance and future vitality of the church in the West. Hirsch is currently doing PhD studies at Radboud University in the Netherlands on the Phenomenology of Apostolic Movements.
Hirsch has been directly involved in four organizations in various countries around the world and has spoken at five colleges. He is:
- The founding director of Forge Mission Training Network International (“Forge"), a missional training center that exists to help "birth and nurture the missional church". This organization exists to train leaders in the USA, and Canada .
- The co-founder of Shapevine.com, a ministry of Leadership Journal  and Christianity Today that focuses on providing people with missional resources, training and networking opportunities.
- The co-founder and director of Future Travelers, a learning system that helps mega-churches become missional.
- Increasingly involved in 3 Dimensional Ministries, a company that trains churches and leaders how to do discipleship and mission in an increasingly post-Christian world. weare3dm.com
- A past lecturer at Fuller Theological Seminary, George Fox University, Southeastern University,Western Seminary, Wheaton College and Tabor College.
Hirsch has authored or co-authored nine books from The Shaping of the Things to Come in 2003 to The Permanent Revolution in 2012. He integrates theology, sociology and leadership in his writings as he utilizes his strength of ideation:
- The Shaping of the Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church with Michael Frost (2003). As the title of the book suggests, Frost and Hirsch envisage the Western church of the future. Having concluded that Christians in the West are going through a "second reformation", they describe how the church is moving away from being institutional and towards being missional. This work elaborates on the incarnational element of missionality as described in The Forgotten Ways.
- The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (2006). In this book, Hirsch describes the six elements of mDNA (see below). Each of his books correlates with at least one of these six elements. For this reason, The Forgotten Ways is the most foundational of Hirsch’s published writing to date.
- The Forgotten Ways Handbook: A Practical Guide for Developing Missional Churches with Darryn Altclass (2009). This book is as practical as the original book is theoretical. It seeks to help churches and leaders apply the Apostolic Genius approach in the local church and organization.
- ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church with Michael Frost (2009). This is an elaboration of the Christological center of his theology. The authors state the purpose of the book as "reJesusing the church".
- Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship with Debra Hirsch (2010). Alan and Debra Hirsch describe missional discipleship in Untamed. They focus the readers on becoming "better and deeper disciples" by expressing the need to challenge "personal and cultural assumptions".
- Right Here Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People with Lance Ford (2011). As an elaboration of the mDNA of incarnational mission, it is a very practical book about how to get (and stay) engaged in everyday mission and make a Kingdom difference in the various arenas of life. In many ways it aims at activating the whole people of God (and not just leadership) into the missional equation. This adds to the conversation of movement dynamics.
- On the Verge: The Future of the Church as Apostolic Movement with Dave Ferguson (2011). Hirsch writes On the Verge with mega-church, multi-site, church planting movement leader Dave Ferguson. It is about organizational dynamics and change particularly as it relates to established, and relatively successful, forms of contemporary church (although it is by no means limited to them). The book is an exploration of the nature of paradigms and paradigmatic change, change management and process, innovation of new forms and ideas, and of creating movement dynamics in large and complex systems. This is at least in part an elaboration on the mDNA of Organic Systems.
- The Faith of Leap: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure & Courage with Mike Frost (2011). This project elaborates the mDNA of Communitas—that form of togetherness that happens in the context of an ordeal, danger, risk, and challenge—but the authors also look more deeply at the nature of adventure, risk, and courage and how it changes the equation of church, discipleship, spirituality, leadership, and even theology. It gives implications for how Christians think of themselves and how they should act in the world.
- The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church with Tim Catchim and Mike Breen (2012). The Permanent Revolution focuses on the nature of ministry and leadership within (and for) apostolic movements and apostolic leadership in particular, but it does so within the broader context of five-fold gifting complex in Paul's treatment of ecclesiology in Ephesians. It provides an alternative to the prevailing forms of leadership in the church, and speaks about ministry and leadership in the 21st Century, correlating certain aspects to the mDNA of apostolic environment in The Forgotten Ways.
Probably Hirsch’s most distinctive contribution was to articulate what can be called a phenomenology of apostolic movements. By probing the question of what comes together to create exponential, high impact and multiplication movements, he came up with the concept he calls "Apostolic Genius", which is defined as "a unique energy and force saturating phenomenal Jesus movements." Hirsch defines it elsewhere as "the built-in life force and guiding mechanism of God’s people." As to its phenomenology, it is made up of the symphonious interplay between six core elements, or "mDNA". These six are explained as follows:
- Jesus is Lord—a confession made by Christians that Jesus is the ruler over every aspect of life (pp. 83–100). This is the most central element, around which the other five orbit . By locating this at the center, Hirsch asserts the Christology (the whole phenomenon of Jesus’s incarnation, life, teachings, role model, saving and redeeming work in cross and resurrection and return) must be the central defining theology of all Christian movements.
- Disciple making—a practice of becoming like Jesus and leading others to do the same (pp. 101–126). This follows directly from the statement that Jesus is Lord and in essence is the calling of disciples to live in Christ and allowing him to live through them.
- Missional-incarnational impulse—the dual-element of mission and incarnation by which a disciple goes into the surrounding world missionally and embodies the actions of Jesus incarnationally (pp. 127–148). This forms the basis of how a Jesus movement extends itself into the world.
- Apostolic environment—which highlights the catalytic role that the apostolic person plays in both generating and sustaining movemental ecclesiology (pp. 149–178). Hirsch then highlights the role of Ephesians 4 in movements. He maintains that missional church requires a missional ministry to generate and sustain it. The prevailing Pastor-Teacher combination is not generative enough for movemental forms of Christianity, he asserts.
- Organic systems—in contrast with a centralized institution, missional movements are structured more like an interconnected organism than through hierarchical organization. Organic systems manifest (i) an ethos of a movement (as opposed to institution), (ii) the structure of a network, (iii) spread like viruses and (iv) are reproducing and reproducible.
- Communitas, not community—in contrast with an inward-focused group, communitas is an outward-focused group, who by engaging in various forms of risk and liminality, begin to relate to each other on a significantly deeper level (pp. 217–242).
Hirsch maintains that all six elements are needed to create highly transformative, exponetially growing, missional movements. In his book, he displays that it is critical to think in a systemic way about Apostolic Genius and not see each mDNA as a silver bullet. Rather it takes the whole (Apostolic Genius) to create the kind of movement he is describing.
"mDNA" stands for "missional DNA". This is the name he gives to the six components of Apostolic Genius as mentioned above.
APEPT is an acronym for the five ministry vocations described in Ephesians 4:11: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Hirsch has initiated and developed a profiling instrument to help people find their gifting using these five terms. Following his teaching that Jesus has designed the church in such a way that every church (indeed every believer) has everything necessary to get the job done, he maintains that every Christian has all the five ministries latent in them although they will generally only operate from the primary and secondary ones. Hirsch believes that each believer is made up of a complex of APEPT callings or ministry, and therefore a profile is never simply one-dimensional, but rather is somewhat nuanced. Nonetheless they can each be described in such a way:
- Apostles extend the gospel.
- Prophets know God's will.
- Evangelists recruit.
- Pastors nurture and protect.
- Teachers understand and explain.
- Hirsch, Alan; Hirsch, Debra (2010), Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 16, ISBN 0-8010-1343-7. Most of the biographical information that follows is found in Untamed, pp. 16-17.
- Hirsch, Untamed, p. 16
- Hirsch, Untamed, p. 83.
- Hirsch, Untamed, p. 14.
- Hirsch, Alan (2007), The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, p. 29, ISBN 1-58743-164-5
- Hirsch, Alan (2007), The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, p. 30, ISBN 1-58743-164-5
- Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, pp. 27-48
- Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 50
- See "Organizational Involvement" below.
- Determined by the StrengthFinder test: .
- Frost, Michael; Hirsch, Alan (2003), The Shaping of the Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church, Peabody: Hendrickson, ISBN 1-56563-659-7
- pp. 9, 15.
- Hirsch, Alan (2007), The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, ISBN 1-58743-164-5
- Hirsch, Alan; Altclass, Darryn (April 2009), The Forgotten Ways Handbook: A Practical Guide for Developing Missional Churches, Grand Rapids: Baker Pub Group, ISBN 1-58743-249-8
- Frost, Michael; Hirsch, Alan (2008), ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, Peabody: Hendrickson, ISBN 1-59856-228-2
- p. 7.
- Hirsch, Alan; Hirsch, Debra (2010), Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, ISBN 0-8010-1343-7
- p. 14.
- Hirsch, Alan; Ford, Lance (2011), Right Here Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, ISBN 978-0-8010-7223-9
- Hirsch, Alan; Ferguson, Dave (2011), On the Verge: The Future of the Church as Apostolic Movement, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, ISBN 0-310-33100-5
- Hirsch, Alan; Frost, Michael (2011), The Faith of Leap: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure & Courage, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, ISBN 978-0-8010-1415-4
- Hirsch, Alan; Catchim, Tim; Breen, Mike (2012), The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, ISBN 978-0-470-90774-0
- Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 18.
- See section two, "A Journey to the Heart of Apostlic Genius" of The Forgotten Ways, pp. 75-242.