Prodigal Christianity

Prodigal Christianity March 20, 2013

My friend and colleague, David Fitch, is the co-author of a book with his co-pastor and our fellow colleague at Northern Seminary, Geoff Holsclaw, called Prodigal Christianity that I really like. David and Geoff are missional theologians, they are also pastors and professors. I have concerns about what might be called “armchair ecclesiologians,” that is, academics telling pastors how to pastor on the basis of theory alone. Bible people and theologians have things to say, but when it is not mixed with solid pastoral experience, it falls flat for me. So when it comes to “pastoral theology” my ear is open to the pastor first.

How does their experience of the postmodern context for the missional church movement, or the postmodern context for all church ministry, strike you? Where have you experienced any of their “posts”?

Which is my way of saying I’m interested in whatever Fitch and Holsclaw have to say about ministry and church in our world because they are pastoring. Furthermore this book sketches how to engage our culture in a missional framework.

I begin with a specialty for both of them: postmodernity. They are not writing a how-to book nor is this a book about “do it our way” but instead they offer signposts in the missional frontier, and their big point is this: each location, each local church will have to find its way among these signposts. And each church will show striking differences but they will have to deal with these ten signposts.

Signpost #1: We live in Post-Christendom.

Increasingly, and perhaps more in the northern than southern States, the church is becoming increasingly de-centralized and marginalized. How to respond?

Fitch and Holsclaw suggest there are two major strategies at work today, and in this a major theme of this book is laid bare: they are seeking a third way between the NeoReformed (David knows I prefer “NeoPuritan” and he tips his hat in a footnote but prefers NeoReformed) and the Emergent movement. We are in a “sign-stripped, mapless, and road-blocked world” (4).

Retreat: some think we need to ramp up our efforts to reclaim what we’ve lost. That is, “engaging in mission requires showing that relativism is wrong, pluralism is mistaken, and objective truth is out there” (4). So, if it worked for Edwards it will  work today.

Revise: since we are all postmoderns, we need to revise, and here they are looking at the strategy of the emergent crowd. “Christianity has believed in the wrong way ” (5). It lost its relational dynamic and became too propositional. “Instead of mounting arguments for absolute truth, caring for all is the absolute commandment” (5).

Fitch and Holsclaw propose that instead of these we need learn that we are in Post-Christendom. Christendom had church at the center of a community and our culture; those days are gone. What are the marks of post-Christendom?

1. Postattractional. The church is no longer attractive; using attractional strategies will not work well.

2. Postpositional. Churches and pastors have lost their position of influence in the community. They have to earn their position.

3. Postuniversal. “Language and worldview are not longer universal” (8). We are in a world of various cultures. What one person sees or hears is not what others are seeing or hearing.

In our next posts we will see how Father, Son, and Spirit deal with each of these three “posts.”

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  • I haven’t yet had my morning coffee, but if everything is so post-this and post-that nowadays, why have church at all? Let’s just chuck the whole shebang and spend our days reading marvelous stuff online by erudite authors, professors, and most of all, apparently, pastors.

    You can see I’m in dire need of caffeine….

  • RJS

    I must be in dire need of caffeine as well Bob.

    I don’t think chuck the whole shebang is the right approach … and I am grumpy in a somewhat different direction. The posts indicate an even deeper need of people (especially Christians) for church, but most approaches (emergent, neo-puritan, and attractional) ring shallow and useless.

    Of course – and here is where I show my grumpiness – as a lay Christian not a pastor (i.e. experienced professional), my voice isn’t worth listening to on the subject.

  • Postmodernism is the new reality. Finally a “post” evangelical who admits it…. But instead of providing a postmodern brand of Emergent Christianity I suspect we may head in an Anabaptistic direction as the new third “way.” Which is pretty much the same thing as a bible-based Emergent Christian direction that is carrying forward Christian Orthodoxy into the 21st Century. The difference being here are that their Christian traditions and customs have already been developed and need only retrofitting for our postmodern age.

  • scotmcknight

    Bob and RJS, the Postmodern and PostChristendom sketches are hardly new, they are our reality, and they are about our culture as much as the condition of Christians since the focus of this book is on signposts into a missional approach, which means an approach to our culture — how do we speak into a PostChristendom world? is their big question.

  • Rhonda

    I tire of Fitch criticizing other churches, as if his way of doing church and community are the only correct way. Just recently he criticized how another church does their justice ministry. Can’t we encourage one another in the good works we are doing in the local church rather than tearing down one another?

  • RJS


    I know that the Postmodern and PostChristendom sketches are not new. And I wasn’t grumpy about those. I was more grumpy about your opening.

    I live in a community as a professor at a major secular university that is at the forefront of postmodern and postChristian. I feel it day and night and it eats at my soul. There is no way to be a Christian without being an outsider (and a sometimes despised outsider). But as Christian “experts” crawl all over each other to find the solution (as if there is one magic bullet), my experience and insight is of no value and has no place at the table.

    I rather expect that I agree with Fitch on most of what he has to say, but I’ll be interested to hear more about it.

  • T

    So, RJS, what are your two cents? What are a few things you would recommend to church leaders looking to (re)engage this ‘post’ world?

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, I edited that opening a bit; my concern is not lay folks not having something to say but academics having theory alone.

  • 1.) “Postattractional. The church is no longer attractive; using attractional strategies will not work well.” – Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. & No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. – The Church’s role is to be Presence, which means it will be attractional by nature, not in a world view way but in a Kingdom Way if we become postattractional we quit being the Church.
    2.) I do believe that we are becoming postpositional, but it is not a cause without hope, if the Church is being the Church in point #1, then #2 will take care of itself, with the sphere of influence being made known through the entire body, the pastor as a part of said body will maintain his influence, but ultimately it will not be his, but the Church’s; which I believe is truly the most important thing.
    3.) Again for postuniversal, I believe that if you go back to point #1, this problem to will take care of itself. If the Church is being Presence, and if it is God Himself who is the attractor, then universalism is swept out of the picture in the Presence of an Omnipresent Presence.

    Their is a lot to be said for simply being faithful Presence.

  • RJS


    What do you mean by attractional and what do you think Fitch means?

  • Rick

    Have they established that some of the newer methods (Neo-Reformed/Puritan, Emerging, etc…) are not working?

    In other words, before discounting them, have they given them enough time to see any impact?

    It reminds me of the TV industry. Today, if a show is not successful quickly, it is discounted. Many shows of the past, including Seinfeld, would have never made it today.

  • RJS, So well put:

    “There is no way to be a Christian without being an outsider.”

    I think it’s inevitable. Jesus was the ultimate outsider. I think that this says a lot about the substance of our experience: “Anyone who desires to live a righteous life in Christ Jesus shall experience persecution.”

  • RJS


    There is much I could say here, but as 2 cents – emphasis on relationship and community. For those who are or become Christians more emphasis on sacrament as well. These need to be fleshed out a great deal of course.

    My 80+ year old father-in-law (a pastor) is working with rural “at risk” youth in his retirement (ha!), and he said that real intensive relationship must be the first and foremost priority. I agree with him. But this is true as well for suburban professionals, academics, business people and everyone else.

    Evangelistic preaching will only be effective if it brings people into authentic community.

    Nothing earth shattering here – but I think we lose focus on this.

  • RJS


    I don’t want to claim that these are magic bullets either – but I think they need to be part of the conversation. And I am not sure they are always really appreciated. A few sentence reply can only touch on the surface. (Tweetable content is not enough.)

  • benj

    @ Rick #11: We live in the age of the quick fix. But my understanding of some of these newer iterations of ecclesiology care less about whether their methods “are working” (a virtue of modernism within Christianity) and instead are seeking to be faithful, whatever the outcome or measurable effectiveness. Perhaps a generalization, but I see this at work among emergents, new monastics, and even the neo-Anabaptist “Hauerwasian mafia” (as Tony Jones has dubbed them).

  • T


    I like that. I think in some respects we fear getting too close to the ones bleeding on the road, and seek to avoid them rather than do what your father in law is doing, to use the image of the parable.

    By the way, I think your post yesterday was fantastic, and it gave some of the rationale for my own crisis of faith with astounding clarity. We do have to ground our faith in more than just what’s in our individual heads. It’s too crazy up there! 😀

    My wife and I are currently planting a church (just had the big “thank you/send off” from our prior church last Sunday). One of our planned practices hits both of your two cents. Our plan right now is to have one Sunday service a month be a full meal together, with Eucharist, and an opportunity for each person to publicly thank God for something. We have several reasons for this, but your two cents are a big part.

  • RJS,
    I cannot speak for Fitch, but I simply mean being faithful Presence, where God does the attracting.
    It may seem like over simplification, but when you are truly being faithful Presence you won’t/don’t even know it, you are just being, like the sheep in Matthew 25.

  • RJS, as much as I agree on that relationship part, I think that is the very problem in the churches today. I think Jesus is pretty clear about how deep the church is supposed to be in terms of relationships when he asks “who are my mother and brother”. I think there is also a repudiation of the elder son’s attitude that he would rather have a substandard meal with friends than the fattened calf with family. But these are exactly the close knit bonds that people flee from. 1) In that suburban professional world they spend 80 hours a week at work and have little time for anything else. 2) The church is looked at as a place that offers religious goods or even just take care of my kids goods. The end result is huddling together is massive churches to pool resources to afford “professional” kids ministry. 3) Such relationships depend upon a shared confession (a theological necessity of your communion/sacrament point) but God help the church that actually tries to live a covenant relationship. The cries of pharisee and legalist and seed planting start at the first sign.

    We can’t create, design or stimulate that community. The Spirit calls it into being. But we are awfully good at stifling that Spirit’s work, both on the church/institution side and the individual. And that doesn’t even get to what the world says about healthy families, consumer activity and submission to a rule.

  • RJS


    I agree that the relationship part is the very problem in many churches today. I am not sure that people flee from these – although I do think that any church that emphasizes these will not be a “huge” success.

    When it comes to sacrament such relationships only demand a limited shared confession, not a twenty page statement of faith with intellectual assent.

  • Rick

    Benj #15

    Good thoughts, and I think the goal of each needs to be evaluated.

    The post asks: “the church is becoming increasingly de-centralized and marginalized. How to respond?”

    I would ask: “Respond” for what goal? What is the church hoping to do that needs to offer a response to post-Christendom?

  • T.S.Gay

    My two cents are “multi-voiced worship” and teaching how to be in accord with the beatitudes on a daily basis. I’m saying this is the practice of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.
    Multi-voiced worship is the way to have people who gather to worship( loving God) to bring a poem, a prayer, a word, an outpouring from their tears or hairs raising on the back of their neck or their extra-ordinary existence to the group. It is an approach that encourages the gatherers to praise, discipleship, and intercession. Lot’s more doing than vegetating.
    Being in accord with the beatitudes is not talent development( which is to be encouraged, but this is a more quiet endeavor- sort of your gift or gifts being developed-a work). Being in accord with the spirit of the virtues is a character transfer in the tumult that is this world( sort of the harmonizing with the fruits of the Spirit in the river experience). Humility, faith, gentleness, justice, mercy, honesty, and ahisma may only get you some outsider treatment, but they are the bedrock of the results that benefit ourselves and neighbor. It is the little habits. Daily taking up your cross. The signs of this can only show when the going gets tough, it’s what comes out when one is under extreme stress.
    I must add I have not been in Christian communities that have emphasized either of these. Most worship is stage(leadership) led and formation has generally been doctrinal.

  • SG

    I’ve read posts here and on Fitch’s blog related to his new book and I’m interested in what’s being discussed. That said, I haven’t been able to really imagine/grasp what this new movement looks like because it hasn’t really been described in detail. Perhaps those who are from or have studied an Anabaptist, holiness, charismatic perspective can put the pieces of the puzzle together but, thus far, I’ve been unable to do so. I’m particularly interested in understanding why Fitch’s model is better than the other models.

  • Adam

    I don’t really buy into the post-modern idea. Today, I think we are more Modern than ever. We aren’t leaving Modernity behind, we’re just now seeing it at it’s peak. My reason for saying this is Fitch’s item 3 not being entirely correct. 3. Postuniversal. “Language and worldview are no longer universal”.

    We do have languages and worldviews that are universal. Math is a universal language that transcends culture. Technology and science are similar, universal languages and worldviews. I just returned from a technology conference where people of every continent attended and were learning the same things. More and more we are stepping into a world where Truth is “verified by experiment”.

    And I think that statement “verified by experiment” is where the church has lost. The church has proclaimed peace, forgiveness, and life for millenia and we have resulted in wars, abuse, scandal, exclusion and judgement. The experiment of the church, by observation, has proven false. Now, research in psychology and sociology is catching up. The “science” is starting to “prove” what are good and bad ways to live; good and bad ways to organize society. Most of these findings are not that far at all from christian teaching, but people are willing to hear it from a sociologist where they’re not willing to hear it from a christian.

    I agree with the comments about relationship and that this is where the church needs to go. In support of what I’ve been saying here, there has been a lot of new research done in this same realm. Our entire society has a gaping hole in relationships because the church failed to fill this hole. Now other structures are learning to fill this hole (e.g. psychologists). People are listening because they trust these structures (they trust “studies”)where they don’t trust the church and wisdom.

    I think the “post-” language is kind of missing the point. And post-modernity in general doesn’t seem to really see the people it’s talking about.

  • Jennifer

    I think it all depends on what we mean when we say “church.” As far as I can tell, Fitch seems to be talking about the formal local congregation. I tend to think that’s a pretty narrow ecclesiology. It remains to be seen if Fitch’s model will work where others have not.

  • RJS


    I think Fitch is talking primarily about the local congregation. But how can you start anywhere other than there? What would be a broader definition that would allow one to skip the local congregation?

  • “Churches and pastors have lost their position of influence in the community. They have to earn their position.”

    This isn’t just among non-Christians, also among de/unchurched Christians in the community. I’ve been collaborating with almost a dozen different churches in our neighborhood to help make it a better place to live. Our collaboration leads us to connect with men and women who work for the city, or for local business or non-profits that are also interested in investing in our neighborhood. Some of these people are Christians, some currently part of a church, some not anymore. I find that for almost all of them, I have to prove to them that as a pastor/leader of a church, we can make a helpful contribution to the work in our neighborhood. The general assumption is that partnering with a pastor or church will not result in much helpfulness (either because churches can’t get along, or else because all a church cares about is getting converts). I constantly feel the pressure as a pastor to prove my worth to these civic and business leaders. It is not assumed that my church or any other neighborhood church is a worthy collaborater.

  • Hey Scot,

    Does the via media the authors write about reflect your own sensibilities?


  • scotmcknight

    Dave, Often.

  • RJS

    via media … yet another good expression added to my vocabulary.

  • Rhonda, #5

    As an urban ministry practitioner for the past twenty years, I actually welcomed Fitch’s critique of justice ministries from his blog. Unfortunately, much of the justice work by churches, charities, and the government that I see in my impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood have done more harm than good. Books such as Bob Lupton’s Toxic Charity have done the church a service by wisely pointing out the negative consequences of good works by churches without discernment. In the same manner, Fitch questions the effectiveness of certain justice ministries. He wisely did not name the church that he used as an example so I was fine with it.