Well, I meant to have this up a week or so ago, but alas, work got the best of me.
So here’s the substance of my review of David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw’s book, Prodigal Christianity. (For background, see Part 1.)
In the last post, I highlighted a few minor gripes. In this post, I plan to do some major glowing as I survey the substance of the book. As mentioned, in Prodigal Christianity Dave and Geoff have managed to summarize my own ministry journey over the last 10 years, and the missional cry of my heart for my neighbors and friends. And right from the Introduction, channeling Barth’s take on the Prodigal Son parable, they sum it all up as nothing less than “the radical missionary nature of God, that the Father has sent the Son into the far country to redeem the world.” 21st century North America is that far country, and the book gets to the heart of what it means to faithfully follow Jesus in this context:
This book charts our way into the far country. It unfolds a Christian way of living that is determined by this prodigal nature of our God in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. That this journey changes everything is not an overstatement. This way of living is radical and generous and yet particularly defined as the way of God. This journey will break down the boundaries around the postmodern, post-Christian, sexually broken, relationally scarred, estranged, wandering, and marginalized peoples of our day. It will be a journey that takes us to the frontiers of God’s mission. To be Christian is to learn to become prodigal.
To this journey I now turn.
Surveying the First Signposts
I’ve expressed this before, but the “missional conversation” in the Western church has reached something of a crossroads, if not a crisis. With the word itself used so promiscuously as to be devoid of any coherent meaning, and most of the missional literature over the last 10-15 years leaning overwhelmingly towards the pragmatic, we have been left with a discussion locked in confusion and commercialization, mainly focused on how-to remedies for churches perplexed by the post-Christendom plague. Those remedies span everything from more relevant church services/preaching to more vital leadership practices to more streamlined discipleship processes (complete with charts and graphs) – but the common thread is that ‘missional’ is something the church must do (or else), and few seem to agree on what exactly should be done.
The common result, of course, is that in applying all sorts of to-do items, missional becomes yet another program in the American church.
It is against this bleak backdrop that Fitch and Holsclaw’s work shines, and the reason it gets to me so much. It resists the temptation to simply counter this confused pragmatism with academic theology, and instead attempts to be genuinely incarnational, with a laserbeam focus on how the substance of missional (not just the buzzword) finds true embodiment (not programmatic application) in the ecclesia. And the ecclesial heartbeat of this book thumps ferociously throughout, peaking in Chapter 7, giving the missional message in its pages a peculiar kind of power.
The chapters in Prodigal Christianity are called Signposts, as they each deal with a cultural reality for which Christians are in need of guidance as we navigate the “far country.” Despite my gripe, the first Signpost, Post-Christendom, is absolutely correct in defining the current North American ethos as having lost any sense of normative religion. The church does not occupy a central place in society (as it did in, say, the 1950′s), and belief in God is anything but a given. The world has changed.
This (indisputable) fact provides the backdrop for what comes to be a pattern throughout the book. Namely, that the two predominant responses by the current American church to this new reality are found wanting. Both conservative (neo-reformed) and progressive (emergent) expressions, both endeavoring to be missional, are simply “not prodigal enough”: they fail to powerfully and substantially enter into the far country with the redeeming love of the Father. In my own experience, this is 100% true. Neo-reformed defensiveness around social and theological issues repels the larger society while taking pride in attracting churched people and some converts, while emergent inclusiveness deconstructs the gospel to a point where it almost ceases to operate in drawing, transforming power. On the one hand, the church is an ironic, nostalgic holdover from the 50′s in new hipster clothes; on the other, it is a mostly philosophical exercise that embraces the ideas and ideals of the far country without much need or know-how for redeeming what is truly lost.
As the authors move through the next few Signposts – Missio Dei, Incarnation, and Witness – the substantial theological and ecclesiological answers to this cultural conundrum are introduced. No, God is not primarily the wrathful, vengeful moralist of the conservative expressions – but nor is he the universally present and embracing helper of the progressive expressions. Instead, the particular God of the biblical narrative is on mission to redeem and restore all things everywhere through Jesus, and “proclaiming the reign of God over all events and things must involve some kind of interpretation of what is happening in the world” (Newbigin, via Signpost 2). As the missional God himself becomes radically present through the Incarnation, so the church is called into a missional (sent) and incarnational (down deep, embodied) presence in the far country. In this way, the presence of Jesus himself is manifest as the church inhabits the neighborhood in the practices of the kingdom, embodying a verbal and social witness that reconciles what is lost to God and to one another, and discerns the kingdom breaking in.
That would be worth the price of admission right there – but no! The authors plow forward into the Signpost of Scripture, debunking neo-reformed and emergent myths of inerrancy versus interpretation in favor of a lived narrative, a word of truth proclaimed over spiritually gifted communities as a practice of the kingdom. The authority of Scripture is made manifest as proclamation connects the people to the missio Dei. Further, the Gospel itself becomes a Signpost beyond exclusivistic information to a Spirit-led invitation into “a radical encounter with God’s kingdom breaking into our lives.” That invitation includes on-ramps that see the gospel of the kingdom as pertaining to all of embodied life, bringing good news into Starbucks and McDonald’s encounters where all kinds of brokenness may be met with love, care, and healing from Jesus, who is Lord over all and is already at work.
In my opinion, the centerpiece of the book is Signpost 7 – Church. This is where the authors’ argument reaches a crescendo, and their core conviction, driven by their discontent amidst the neo-reformed and emergent expressions, shines brightest. Really, this is where that tone of genuine embodiment is most clearly on display:
Instead of planting a church through starting programs, we must plant ourselves in the practices given to us by Christ that have been traditionally understood as “church.” These practices shape a community of people into his kingdom within a neighborhood and enable us to come together and submit ourselves to the reign of Christ in any context. By leading one another in and through these practices, we are no longer church planters. We are the church.
The most pragmatic of all missional church literature is church planting literature, and in one fell swoop, Dave and Geoff slay the giant of missional programs with the sword of a deep, kingdom ecclesiology. There is no spoon – no church planters, rather – there is only the church! And when we are planted in the rhythms and practices of the kingdom that Jesus himself taught us, then incarnation happens, Jesus becomes truly present in the ecclesia, and restoration and reconciliation take root in the neighborhood. The authors go on to describe the kingdom practices themselves:
These practices are much more than organizational tools. They are the means by which Jesus’s presence becomes manifest among us, changing the way we live with one another in the world. These practices – the Lord’s Table, proclaiming the gospel, reconciliation, being “with” the least of these, being “with” children, the fivefold ministry, and kingdom prayer – have defined the church in the past. Unfortunately the church of the past has sometimes turned them into mere maintenance functions (or programs) for existing Christians. But as we hope to show, these inherently missional practices can be recaptured. In them, the kingdom becomes manifest visibly as a foretaste of the future. They shape us as Jesus’s body in the very middle of his mission.
It’s no wonder that certain academic opponents of the authors’ point of view would choose to completely neglect this centerpiece in their criticism of the work - it’s inarguably powerful. As Fitch and Holsclaw go on to sketch out what these practices mean and what they may look like in a de-programmed, missional form, a radical way forward emerges. Gospel faithfulness – complete with an atoning cross and a call to faith and following – takes root amidst the holistic, transforming life of the kingdom. And the kingdom remains inexorably tied to the ecclesia, where it is uniquely discerned and manifest, though it is yet expanding everywhere under the reign of the King. And best yet, mission is also inexorably tied to the church, contrary to those missional thinkers who react so strongly against organization and programs that they claim God’s mission to be beyond the ecclesia. To wit:
The church is not merely the product of mission. Rather, the church is mission. In the same way that Jesus’s incarnation both proclaimed and made present the kingdom of God, so too the church proclaims and makes present the in-breaking of his kingdom. The church is nothing if not local, incarnational communities practicing the kingdom.
Fitch’s story about dinner table gatherings at his home that mirrored the sacramental practice of the Lord’s Table as a hospitable space in which the kingdom was made manifest thrilled me. Likewise, the description of simple friendship (not a program or initiative!) and being “with” those in need leading to concrete acts of healing and restoration in their lives (the kingdom!) and transformation in the church’s life was a profound encouragement. Not to mention a vision for preaching as proclaiming gospel – “the act of declaring a reality (or truth) that others have yet to see (the kingdom has come!) and doing so in a way that speaks into a situation (‘every town and place’; Luke 10: 1 NIV)” – that takes place on Sundays but doesn’t end there:
We do it together in our weekly gathering when the preacher proclaims the gospel out of Scripture. But we also proclaim the gospel one to another as people of God in everyday life. And then, when the right opportunity affords, when the Spirit prompts, we do it in the neighborhood as well. Each time the gospel is proclaimed and entered into (repent and believe), the kingdom breaks in.
But what about the kingdom practice of the fivefold leadership gifts?
Every community needs these gifts of leadership to flourish in the kingdom. Elsewhere we learn that these gifts carry the authority of the Lord himself by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12: 3– 6). When the apostle, the pastor, the teacher, the evangelist, and the prophet together function in mutual submission one to another in dependence on God (Romans 12: 3,6), the authority of the Lord is made manifest in a community (1 Corinthians 12: 3– 6). However, anyone who uses this newly found authority selfishly for the purpose of gratifying his or her own ego loses it (‘they are to sit down and be silent,’ 1 Corinthians 14: 26– 34).
And it’s not just for the church community:
Each neighborhood needs leaders leading out of the fivefold gifting. The five gifted people (or it could be three people with the five gifts) help encourage and facilitate the flourishing of the rest of the gifts. In this way, Jesus’s authority is set loose in the neighborhood.
Yes! And the other practices that make up this centerpiece, like kingdom prayer that doesn’t simply petition according to our own designs but “opens spaces for the kingdom to break in as Christ enters in power, presence, and healing,” and being with children in mutually transforming ways, and reconciliation that begins in the church community and spills out into the neighborhood are equally...Yes. Taken together, THIS:
Jesus gives us these practices for the shaping of the church into God’s mission. Wherever a group of people is led together into submission to Christ through these practices, a church is planted. Because of this submission in these practices, each one of these communities will necessarily be the humble, vulnerable, and incarnational expression of God coming into the world. They will extend Christ’s very presence and rule into the margins. This is why John Howard Yoder calls his version of these practices social “sacraments,” activities where God is especially active inhabiting the world for his rule. Instead of a volunteer association sending well-trained professionals out into the world to do God’s mission, communities are shaped in a way that incarnates Christ in the world for God’s mission. Wherever such communities come into being, sin is overcome, evil is defeated, and death no longer holds power. The kingdom is breaking in.
This is what witness looks like, and we contend that these communities will engage the most difficult issues of our day. They will not shrink back. This is prodigal church.
On the Ground Take-Aways
My three big take-aways from this important book come from the three final Signposts, which function a bit like implications of the theological, missiological, and ecclesiological Signposts before them. Namely, I have received a vision for church in the neighborhood that functions as an open and mutually transforming, authentic and locally just, non-coercive and peacefully engaging church.
1. Open and mutually transforming. Despite my gripe about Signpost 8, I believe the unearthing of an open and mutually transforming approach to the sexual and relational issues of our day is nothing less than a prophetic word from God for the church in North America. It demands that the impulse to reject entire people groups based on ethical and political biases be regarded as no longer tenable; and instead the full welcome into the transforming life of the kingdom through the ecclesia is a must (as we discerned for our church plant here in Vermont).
2. Authentic and locally just. It is possible that this post-Christendom context in which we find ourselves has given us the gift of revealing the hypocrisies of our institutions and organizations. And now, justice itself must be discerned through kingdom lenses as to its motivations and systemic implications. Friendship and “being with” trump giving money to big overseas initiatives every time.
3. Non-coercive and peacefully engaging. My gripe about the cloudy definition offered for Christendom was almost completely redeemed by the final Signpost. Pluralism – the bane of the religious right’s existence – is, in fact, a gift for dismantling the empire-imitating ways of coercive colonial religion. Peaceful engagement from a posture of humility (and not power-laden defensiveness) is now the only option for bringing gospel to our neighborhoods – as it always should have been.
And that, my friends, is all I have to say.
Except, GET THIS BOOK.
Has anyone read Prodigal Christianity? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? I’d love to hear your perspective!