prodigal_2I’ve been rushing to read this new title by Geoff Holsclaw and Dave Fitch, because they are doing something vitally important in this work: continuing a conversation that opens space between retrenchment, and revision; between the old Hellfire and brimstone kind of appeal and a “new kind of Christianity.” Those two options are commonly labelled as the Neo-Reformed, and the Emergents. The third option doesn’t have a label yet, though some would call it neo-Anabaptist. But the point is fresh engagement, not labels, engagement with an ancient-future anchor: the old gospel contextualized in this generation, and with a clear understanding of the post-colonial, post-Christendom realities. What are these guys really up to? They write,

“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… 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.

“Such a prodigal Christianity will be generous. It may be so generous and welcoming that it will seem scandalous. Yet it compromises nothing of the transformative nature of the gospel. A Prodigal Christianity will not rely on pronouncements given from a seat of authority. But we will enter humbly and vulnerably, bringing God ’s hospitality to the places of mission.

“A prodigal Christianity will not rely on the basic foundations of Christendom because it always journeys far beyond these places into the missional far country, where there is no prior witness. Yet prodigal Christianity will not merely accommodate the new cultures it meets because it comes bearing a story, our story, the good news (gospel) of the prodigal God. This prodigal Christianity is always defined by the missional journey of the prodigal God with whom we live and breathe. We go knowing God has already gone before us into the far country. This is the journey this book invites us into. For this journey we need some signposts.” (xxvi)

I like the metaphor of signposts: they connote an authentic journey, and the story Dave tells of descending into a canyon as a boy puts some flesh on the bones. We go out as pilgrims: we don’t see the whole path ahead of us. There is a real and rich dependence on the Spirit, and on the Spirit in the community of believers. We will need to listen; we will need to pray; we will need discernment. “In my childhood, the Red Hill Valley was a marvelous, mysterious, and beautiful place that could not be described by a sign or even in a book ’s description. All we could do was follow the signposts and discover it.”

Geoff and Dave list the ten signposts for us: (xxviii)

“The first four signposts direct us into the life of the Triune God, the sending God, who sends the Son, the Spirit, and then the disciples into the world to fulfill the mission of redemption. These signposts deal with the basic questions of culture, God, Jesus, and witness. Signpost 1 directs us into the cultures of post-Christendom. Signpost 2 points us into a relationship with the missionary God. Signpost 3 directs us toward the way God comes to us in Jesus, the incarnation. Signpost 4 directs us into the way of God ’s truth in the world, communities of witness.

“After these four signposts come three more that direct us into the daily means by which we, the church, travel this journey. Signpost 5 directs us into the story that we live, the Bible. Signpost 6 points us into the way of our salvation, God ’s way of setting the whole world right again, the Gospel. Signpost 7 shows the way God ’s reign breaks in and transforms everything through local communities of the kingdom.

“The final three signposts then point us into some of the most difficult terrain we face in North America today. Signpost 8 leads us into God ’s mission among the sexually broken. Signpost 9 leads us into God ’s mission among the systemic social injustices of our day. And signpost 10 leads us into God ’s mission among the pluralist versions of truth in our world.”

SignpostsThese signposts come with a disclaimer. We are not to think of them as ten easy steps to a new church. The way ahead must be carefully discerned, and our past experiences may hinder us: we ’re moving beyond the tired dichotomies of Christendom. As Myers put it in Organic Community, “The goal is not to manufacture community, nor is the goal to build programs. The hope is to watch living community emerge naturally and to collaborate with its environment in helpful healthy ways. The difference between a paint-by-numbers kit and the blank canvas of an artist is the difference between master plan and organic order. In short, master plan tries to manufacture life whereas organic order is an invitation to live” (2007). Similarly, Dave’s recent post drawing a distinction between a mission statement and shared imagination is helpful.

This brings us to page one and the first signpost. The chapter opens with a story that illustrates that we really are in a strange new location: a post-Christian one, where the church and the gospel are no longer at the center of our culture. Our stories are no longer common currency; in fact, we are suspect. The popular image of evangelicals is narrow, judgmental, homophobic, arrogant.. and other adjectives we would rather not hear. What’s to be done? Geoff suggests the common responses: (page 4)

“Some want to fight the cultural changes that are drifting away from universal truth, credible authorities, and a common story for understanding life. For them, engaging in mission requires showing that relativism is wrong, pluralism is mistaken, and objective truth is out there. Before any one can even share the truth of Christ, apologists must defend the idea of truth. These people often self-consciously stand against postmodernity and its negative effects on the truth of the gospel.

“A similar approach is to ignore the cultural changes and stick with what works. If hellfire and brimstone was good enough for Jonathan Edwards and the First Great Awakening, then it is still good enough for us. It is assumed that people already live in fear and guilt, guilt, and the job of the church is to relieve people of this terrible burden.”

The problem is, in everyday life, this often means trying to persuade people of their guilt. Most of us know this story and its futility in most settings, so I will move right along. Another reaction to these cultural changes is to fully embrace the postmodern mind-set.

“This mind-set, made so popular by Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, and the emerging church, refuses to argue people back to the truth. Instead of retreating into a bygone cultural bunker, they revise faith for a new generation. Instead of engaging in conflict against the contemporary situation, they push us to enter a conversation with these new thought patterns.”

Fitch and Holsclaw applaud both standing up for truth and broadening the scope of the gospel, but the moves to retrench and defend or revise and relate require something more. “We need a way to engage the cultural dynamics of day-to-day life while compromising nothing of what God has done in Christ for the world or his very presence in the world. We need to journey deep into people ’s everyday lives, trials, hurts, and desires. To do this, we need a signpost that can direct us to where people outside the church are living, that is, the new cultural worlds of post-Christendom.” (5-6)

The First Signpost: Post-Christendom

On page 6 they define post-Christendom. “Christendom refers to the Middle Ages of Western Europe when all of society (church, state, schools, work, art) was united under the umbrella of Christianity. All of life—work, commerce, education, politics, family, and money—was ordered toward the church and around the core beliefs in Christianity. The Reformation did little to change this. It only put more options on the religious menu.”

Fifty years ago the church was still at the center of culture in North America. But those times are gone. The authors suggest that the shift into post-Christendom can be best understood by three other “posts” — post-attractional, post-positional, and post-universal. (7)

Post-Attractional. People in Canada and the USA no longer wake up in the morning and think about church on Sunday. Yes, the converted (mostly) still do this, but the dynamic is gone in the larger culture. In fact it has reversed, with the church under suspicion as an institution.

Post-positional. The church no longer carries respect or influence in post-Christendom. Now authority has to be earned, and earned relationally.

Post-universal. Language and worldview are no longer universal to everybody we meet (and they never really were). We can no longer assume we are speaking the same language when we talk about God, Jesus or sin in our neighbourhoods. We are in cultures that are post-universal. They write,

“Accepting these… realities of mission in North America gives us an opportunity to learn again the prodigal nature of God [who] crosses all boundaries into our world of poverty and affliction in the Son rather than merely attracting us by magnificent displays of power and glory. He climbs down from a position of prestige and authority and becomes like us in our weary and despised state. He gives up a universal perspective and inhabits the flesh of a Jew in the Roman Empire. A prodigal Christianity understands each “post-” as opportunities for faithfulness rather than problems to be solved. Neither retreat nor revision will do.

“The Sent One is not an abstraction living above the daily grind, a lofty thought beyond everyday concerns, a universal perspective outside our common blind spots. Rather, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 Message)… That God would become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth was a great scandal to the Greek philosophical mind. They thought God must be without a body, outside time, beyond emotion—like the Roman Caesar, scandalized by a God who would give up a position of authority; a God who would give up universality and take up particularity scandalized the Greek philosopher. It is only a prodigal God who would come in this way [and] we must follow the prodigal way of the Son. We must enter each local context, each neighborhood, each place of work, and each social space.” (14)

What do you think of these three “posts” as helping us frame the reality of post-Christendom? Are they helpful? Comprehensive enough? Do they allow sufficient connection between the cultural shift and they way we must live out the gospel as an alternative polis? Do they sharpen your own lenses for viewing the changes we are experiencing?

Next: Signpost TwoMissio Dei, and Signpost Three — Incarnation.