Tag: Prodigal Christianity

Prodigal Christianity

ProdigalA 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.

Ripping Down Towers of Babel

Brueghel-tower-of-babelThe picture to the left is Bruegel the Elder’s take on the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel. In the scripture, we’re told that there was only one language and the people came together to build a city with a great tower that would reach to the heavens. In response, the LORD comes down to check it out and confuses their languages and scatters the people across the nations.

I’m not a biblical scholar — I’m a sociologist. So my first inclination is to treat this story as a cosmological allegory of “why the people down the road don’t talk like us”. It’s the kind of story that fits within an oral tradition explaining to children why things are the way they are.

But I did do some quick internet research and was pleased to find this entry from the Oxford Bible Studies Online. I was pleased for several reasons. First, the author is Brent Strawn from Candler Seminary at Emory and I’ve been friends with his father and brother for several years. Second, because the piece also used the Bruegel painting as illustration. And Third, because Brent’s analysis is directly applicable to the issue of religious group boundaries I’ve been exploring for several months.

Brent suggests that there are two interpretations of why the tower was a problem. One option is that it has something to do with pride. Building a huge edifice would let everyone know that these were cool people who had things together. He goes on to say that this chapter stands in stark contrast to the calling of Abram; there it is God who does great things through people. The second option Brent explores is the role of fear. They needed the city to protect them from being scattered across the earth (as was God’s plan). The “hunkering down” as he calls it, is in resistance to the world as they found it.

As I said, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which evangelical groups build artifices to separate those on the inside from those on the outside (for samples, see here and here). And I’ve come to a useful image that helps explain the process.

We tore down the Tower of Babel and then used the self same bricks to build enclaves of our own desiring.

And we did it for the same two reasons the Tower was built in the first place: Pride and Fear.

Pride comes in when we attract hordes of followers to show that we are right. Zack Hoag has consistently exposed the ways in which the evangelical church (both conservative and progressive) have been seduced by the culture of celebrity. I am not immune. I want page views, retweets, Facebook likes, and recognition. I want people to tell each other about my writing. I want to have access to publishing empires that turns a lecture series into a book and a set of DVDs.

We build our enclaves because it allows us to sit inside our secure walls and lob critiques at those walled enclaves down the block. We hope that doing so will prove how smart we are, how right we are, how close to God we are. Especially if we can demonstrate that by comparison to those wrong-headed folks next door.

Rachel Held Evans posted a great piece today discussing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the critiques lobbed over the wall. It’s a story of hurt and misunderstanding, of false accusation and presumption. But it also contains some deep introspection to make sure that parallel assumptions don’t result about other groups.

I’ve been reading Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. It’s a wonderful book (not surprisingly, it’s chock full of good social psychology!). I’m only partway through, but already the implications are powerful. We find comfort and identity through our groups within our walls. But that very comfort and identification contributes to our misreading and misunderstanding the other groups. Our pride causes us to overstate our own position and not really listen to others.

If pride makes us overstate our correctness, fear calls us to demonize all opposition even if we can’t name them. We build our walls so high that we don’t know what’s out there. We just know it can’t be good because it’s not what we have in here.

This post was prompted by one shared by Peter Enns over the weekend. It was about a conference announcement about a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. The brochure is titled “The Liberal Seepage into the Evangelical Culture” and shows a scary wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’ll let the word “seepage” go for now (sounds like a medical problem). But the very identification of “evangelical culture” as a thing is the very essence of wall-building. See, THEY are infiltrating into the space WE have created for ourselves. Even if our concerns about them are based on irrationality and exaggeration.

In the words of Elmer Fudd, Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid.

Fear take us funny places. It makes it easy to do things or say things about brothers and sisters we would not otherwise do or say. Because somebody has to. Otherwise, how would we protect the walls from intruders? Don’t you know what the stakes are?

Christians aren’t motivated by pride. Christians aren’t directed by fear.

We are following in the way of the Christ who sacrificed his status and position to inaugurate a new way of living through death on the cross and launching of a Kingdom at hand. We have an assurance running throughout scripture that we are not alone but have the very God of the universe with us.

What happens if we tear down our walls? I’m still working on this but I think we find that we are able to engage those around us. We find them reasonable people who ask interesting questions, who have fascinating life stories, who have real struggles. In short, we find them to be people created in the image of God. People who, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, are both representatives of Christ and perhaps unaware Kingdom-builders (“When did we do that?”).

In short, trusting Christ and his Kingdom journey means that we don’t need walls and boundaries. Because God is already at work building the Kingdom. We’re just along for the ride to offer water when asked.

I’m also reading Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Their writing both resonates with my thinking and makes me feel like they’ve already said it better. The central thesis of their book is the God went into the Far Country (where we live) and we are called to do likewise.

Going into the Far Country requires trust in God and deep courage. In that way it becomes a matter of testimony to the Greater Story of which we are all apart.

As Mr. Reagan said to Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down Those Walls!