In their new book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Future, David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw point the way into a genuinely “missional future.” They situate their work in our North American context in which two particular vision of the theology and mission of the two form a continuum. On the right end of this continuum is the resurgent Neo-Reformed movement (e,g., The Gospel Coalition) and on the left end resides the Emergent/Emerging church movement. These movements and the numerous variations along this continuum are symbiotically related by cause and effect in a variety of ways. They exist on a single continuum according to Fitch & Holsclaw (hereafter F & H) because they are each committed to the same “operating system . . . a bygone cultural consensus of Christian dominance that no longer exists.” (Kindle Location 496).
F & H do not seek to stake out a position on this continuum. Nor do they seek, in good Hegelian fashion, a synthesis of the two ends of the spectrum that somehow embraces and extends both into a new vision. Rather, like the Anabaptists of old (to whom they liken themselves) they want to operate out a different paradigm altogether. This paradigm they believe is both “radical” and “evangelical.” It insists “Christians must leave the comfortable structures of the past and live together radically under Christ’s Lordship for the sake of mission. We must trust the Lord of the harvest and give up control of a lot of things evangelicals have sought to control in the past thirty years.” (343-345)
The way into this largely unknown future they sketch using the image of 10 guideposts which they style as “splotches” requiring imagination and discernment to discover. The guideposts cover three main areas: life in the Triune God, how we make the journey, and the perilous journey we commit to take. In order to keep this posts as brief as possible, this one will cover the first two of the four signposts F & H propose for life in the Triune God.
The first signpost sketches “Post-Christendom” as the culture within which we live and relate to God. This part of the story is likely well-known to many readers so I will be briefer here than on other guideposts. F & H summarize this new cultural milieu under three rubrics: postattractional, postpostitional, and postuniversal. Put baldly, our culture no longer comes to us, no longer accords us importance or respect or looks to the church for guidance or leadership, and since language is formed by worldviews, and our culture is now very diverse, we can no longer assume that when we speak of God, Jesus, sin, redemption, forgiveness etc., that everyone around us understands what we mean.
The ends of the continuum sketched above respond differently to this changed and changing context. The right side tends toward retrenchment, that is, establishing the Bible as an inerrant authority, a firm commitment to rational apologetics, and a preaching focused on evoking guilt so as to present the gospel of forgiveness as God’s antidote to it. Unfortunately, none of this resonates with much of our culture any longer. This retrenchment then tends to isolate and insulate such churches from their communities.
The left side of the continuum tends toward relevance. It wants to embrace and involve itself in this new culture. Its leaders (e.g., Brian McClaren, Tony Jones) do not retreat to the tradition as do the retrenchers. Rather, they revise the faith to try to meet this culture on its own ground. They believe this is a standard operating procedure of all good missionaries. Here the concern is not so much the content of belief but rather the mode of believing promoted by the church. They call for a shift from holding right beliefs to a posture of a more Hebraic stance of relational believing. F & H describe this relational believing like this: “This recovery of a relational mind-set moves from a gospel of guilt to a gospel of compassion and mercy. Rather than a vengeful God seeking justice on all sinners, now the gospel calls all to seek justice for the poor and the oppressed. Instead of mounting arguments for absolute truth, caring for all is the absolute commandment.” (725-727)
Holding to the core of the church’s historic faith is a good thing, as is the concern for enlarging the scope of the gospel to address new needs and changed circumstances. Both of these, however, remain somewhat abstract and lack a basis in on the ground realism of actually meeting, knowing, and caring for the folks in our postmodern culture. In short, we are not prodigal enough in our living and loving!
“Accepting the postattractional, postpositional, and postuniversal realities of mission in North America,” write F & H, “gives us an opportunity to learn again the prodigal nature of God, for the Triune God 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. Instead we are sent into the depths of our neighborhoods to discover the prodigal God at work— the God revealed among the meek, in ordinary neighborhoods, within the languages and struggles of everyday life.” (891-897)
Signpost Two is also a much discussed though still not clearly understood concept of the “Missio Dei”” (“the Mission of God”).
As noted above we live in a world where language about God and religion bears no common meaning. Worse, distortions of the biblical God abound and are attacked today with a fury that suggests a sense of grief and betrayal far beyond mere intellectual disagreement. Whether it is what I like to call “the God with a Scowl,” perpetually unhappy with our performance and eager to punish, or the cruel God who intends/allows disasters, tragedies, and misfortune to fall on both the just and the unjust, or the God who satisfies his wrath against our sin by beating up on Jesus, distortions abound and unnecessarily prejudice others ability to hear the gospel.
In response to this distant and dangerous God, emergent folks have swung like to pendulum the other way to what F & H call the “everywhere God.” They further specify this as
“Rather than a distant guiding star, the idea that “God is at work in the whole world” can function like an enveloping cloud, close enough to touch, covering everything, so that no matter where we look, no matter where we go, God is already there. There is a certain progress toward the God engaged in mission, but claiming to see God everywhere can obstruct our ability to distinguish the illuminating work of God from shadowy semblances.” (1150-1153)
This understanding, they write, “gives us new inspiration. It fuels our passion because it is God’s love and compassion that drive us into partnership with all God is doing to free the enslaved and empower the hurting. The good news, in this view, is that God is bigger than the church and its activities, and we are invited to join in. (1118-1120) The distortion on this side of the spectrum is surrendering the particularity of our story – that God has invaded our world out of love in Jesus Christ and has remained present and active in it through the Holy Spirit. In other words, we must stay grounded in the biblical gospel.
At the heart of this biblical gospel is the triune God. In Jesus Christ we learn that this God has invaded his fallen creation to rescue it from its chosen destruction in an expression of unfathomable love. Even more importantly, we learn that this coming of God to seek and save is, in fact, what it means for him to be God! God is a missionary God.
If in Jesus we learn that God is a sending God who restlessly and relentlessly go out to draw near to us, then in Jesus we discover that we ourselves are a sent people engaged in the very mission of the God to whom we belong.
God is at work in the world; we to are at his work in the world. That work however remains tethered to its particular beginning point: the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth continued through his Spirit bestowed on his people at Pentecost. “All who claim to be Christ’s disciples are extensions of this sending. All Christians are by nature sent into this mission. We, all of his disciples, have been caught up in the radical prodigal mission of the Triune God.” (1300-1301)
We belong in the world, God’s world, doing God’s work there. This is the Missio Dei, the mission of God. Ours is a post-Christian world with all that means as we saw above in the first signpost. It is this world that God’s loves and seeks in his love. And it is this world we are called to immerse ourselves in and care for up close and personal as we participate in God’s missionary outreach to it. Such immersion and caring are definitional of who we are as God’s people.The shape of our immersion and caring we can learn only from the one was sent from God’s heart as “the” missionary par excellence taking up residence with us as one of us showing us what it means to be God in a human life. This takes us on the next two signposts in this series of posts.