A number of books have significantly helped me as I’ve attempted to imagine how the evangelical church operates without building walls cutting us off from the broader culture, thereby talking primarily to ourselves. One of these I mentioned recently is Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts Into the Missional Frontier by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.
I met David and Geoff at a Missio Alliance gathering in the west suburbs of Chicago last October. I attended the meeting because what I had read of the gathering resonated with what I had been thinking about shifting forms of evangelicalism in post-modern America. So sometime after the meeting, I bought a copy of their book (I’m ashamed to admit it was one of those add-ons to get free shipping from Amazon; but it was more significant than the primary book I was buying!).
It’s not hard to see the driving motif of the book. The Prodigal Son goes into the Far Country. But in this case, drawing on Karl Barth, it’s not the wayward son going forth to riotous living. Rather, it is the Incarnate Son coming into the present world. It becomes one of those Philippians 2 moments, celebrating how Jesus gave up what he had to enter where we are. If we take that seriously, David and Geoff say, our mission as Christians both individually and congregationally is but to do the same.
While intrigued by the engagement offered by the emergent church movement on the one hand, and encouraged by the certainty of the neo-Reformed movement on the other, they find neither quite gets to the Far Country. So they suggest ten signposts that might lead the way. I’ll summarize those mixed in with my own sociological gloss.
Signpost One: Post-Christendom. While debate can be engaged as to whether we were ever a fully Christian nation, it is clear that we’ve entered a period where Christianity is not the default position taken within society. Society, they say, is post-attractioal, post-propositional, and post-universal. These are all byproducts of forms of postmodernism, where my values are right for me but unintelligible to you. The response to this is to be local, to be present, to be incarnational. To be real. To engage. Too much of the Big Issues in evangelicalism take place as abstractions that never quite touch were real people live. This is why David hangs out regularly at McDonalds. He becomes known.
Signpost Two: Missio-Dei. This is a recognition that God is at work reconciling His Kingdom. We should be about the same. It begins with an affirmation that God is currently working. Dave tells a wonderful story of how he played a nearly insignificant role in helping one of the McDonald’s guys deal with a dental issue. It wasn’t about what Dave did but about what God was doing that Dave got to be a piece of. But realizing that God was working might have been more revolutionary for Dave than the guy with the tooth problem.
Signpost Three: Incarnation. Here is a surprising shift. While being at McDonald’s sounds incarnational, it is not Dave and Geoff called to be that. It is the church. Because the church is the Body of Christ, it is continuing the incarnational presence into the broader world, into families that hurt, into people who are confused (even those in the church). This is a profound theological and social psychological understanding that eliminates the need for walls. We really are all in this together.
Signpost Four: Witness. This is one of my favorite chapters and speaks directly to what I’ve been working on. Witness occurs when disciples tell what they have seen, through the guidance of the Spirit. It’s not about answers. It’s about sharing the reasons for faith. It giving testimony that there is something bigger going on that others may not see. Not that Christians know the secret handshake or anything. We become practiced at knowing where to look and tell others what we see. We don’t hold the secret close and tell ourselves how lucky we are to have it. We give testimony to those we meet along the road. Like shepherds or a woman by a well.
Signpost Five: Scripture. Going into the Far Country requires one to have a sense of the Big Story. Not easy proof texts or four spiritual laws but a story of God’s intention, faithfulness, sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing work of reconciliation and restoration. This is the Good News. That story of intention, salvation, reconciliation, and restoration speaks into the lives of those we meet along the way. The problem with our past efforts at bibliocentrism is that those stories don’t impact the lives of people in the Far Country (signpost one). Story matters and when people see that God’s story encompasses their story, things begin to change even if just a little.
Signpost Six: Gospel. This signpost builds heavily on great work by Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright (how can one go wrong with that?). But the Gospel isn’t simply about going to heaven after you die. It’s about the reconciliation of relationships. It’s about seeing that there is Something at work in the world. It’s about how sin isn’t crippling. And it’s about how we all have a role to play with dignity. In short, it repairs lives in the here and now, which makes the imaginings of the life to come possible.
Signpost Seven: Church. This chapter draws heavily upon the ministry experiences of Life on the Vine, the congregation Dave and Geoff pastored (Geoff still does). Wesley called these practices Means of Grace and they are important. Communion and hospitality are central, as are discernment, baptism, reconciliation, and inclusion (expressed in intact families rather than isolating ministries). It is where the church embodies the Body of Christ in order to be Christ in the world (paraphrasing the Methodist Communion liturgy).
Signpost Eight: Welcoming and Transforming Church. This chapter was very interesting and I’m still not sure what all I think about it. The American fascination with, involvement in, and avoidance of, sexuality sits at the center of this signpost. While dismissing an easy accommodation of say, same-sex relationships, on the one hand and a dogmatic exclusion on the other, they call for the Church to be a place where we wrestle with real issues. Where we wind up being authentic with struggles, challenges, and victories in a quest for honest engagement rather than point making. I’ll need to re-read this one and see what similar applications offer.
Signpost Nine: Prodigal Relationships. This chapter speaks to issues of justice and inequality. Raising concerns about political identification (from left or right) as inadequate roles for the Embodied Church, they instead focus on issues that are local and real. Justice is done in our surroundings, from the celebration of presence that requires humility, and by affirming Christ’s work in restoration. It’s not our work. It’s Gods. We are but instruments, as that other Francis said.
Signpost Ten: Diversity. Interestingly, this last signpost closes the circle to the first one. It outlines how the church works in a non-Christendom environment. Not making walls, through pronouncements of whose views are approved and whose are heresies. But neither it is a “whatever you believe as long as you’re sincere”, as Linus would say. Combining all that has gone before, the church becomes a vehicle for witnessing to the work of God in the world. It sounds remarkably like that “see how they love one another” stuff without the risk of insularity. And it rejects the means-ends efficiency that has dominated Western society. The outcome is God’s through the work of the Spirit and the ascended Christ.
Actually, I meant to keep my gloss much more separate from my interpretation of their argument and instead I interwove things a bit. Nevertheless, Prodigal Christianity is a powerful book for anyone interested in seriously engaging a postmodern, complex, post-Christendom culture in ways that bring glory and honor to God. Buy a copy for your church and study it.