The first four signposts F & H identify for our search for a prodigal Christianity deal with a journey into the life of the missional triune God – our context, God’s mission, missional Jesus, and missional witness. How we make this journey is the subject of the next three signposts: scripture, gospel, and church.
Signpost Five takes on the contentious issue of scripture. F & H begin to develop a new approach in line with the narrative and missional theology they deem integral to prodigal Christianity. Scripture, contrary to the tenor of much biblical study in the last three hundred years, is a source/resource for our journey that we cannot control but must proclaim and live. No matter how closely we read the text and grasp its language and teaching in detail, the text never becomes an object we can domesticate and (worse) use for our own purposes. Rather scripture, God’s Word, remains irreducible subject, a sovereign Word to us that we must “hear” (in the sense of the Hebrew shama which means both to hear and to heed).
That raises the vexing matter of authority. Does the authority of the Bible lie in its inspired propositions of truth? Or its historical accuracy? Or ethical rules? None of these according to F & H. Rather, they locate scripture’s authority within the story of the missional prodigality of God. No other approach allows this divine prodigality to show through it.
Within this story and its articulation of God working out his purposes through Adam, Israel, Jesus, and the church God’s authority is manifest in his “authoring” (my word, not F & H’s) of people through whom he will bless the world. They write, “If the authority of scripture becomes disconnected from God’s mission in the world, it becomes disconnected from God. It becomes a disincarnate collection of facts or feelings, lacking the ability to participate and extend the incarnation of God.” (2588-2590)
The Spirit uses the scripture to confront each of us with the claim of God on and over us to be a part of the people through he intends to bless the world. It becomes a book whose story both looks ahead, looks at, looks back at the story’s (and the world’s) main and supreme character, Jesus Christ. His call for our participation in the ongoing movement of his story carries the authority of his own enactment and embodiment of God’s prodigal mission. Thus, “we should rarely find ourselves defending the Bible’s authority. Rather, its authority becomes undeniable when its compelling reality becomes visible among us. The story of God as displayed in a people speaks for itself.” (2645-2647)
Granted the importance and centrality of this story, they turn in the next signpost to its contents and impact.
Signpost Six delves into the gospel as the answer to the “so what” question about the biblical story. What does this story “do” to set right the mess we have made, heal our hurts, resolve our inner and intra-personal difficulties, deal with our sin and guilt?
Since Martin Luther’s question “Where can I find a gracious God?” as he wrestled with his guilt for failure to please God in the 16th century, we in the west have worked within that framework. However, the questions we struggle with have changed, especially in the last hundred years or so. The great question of the 20th century was “Where can I find a gracious neighbor?” while in the early years of the 21st century it seems to be “Where can I find a gracious church?” The gospel that effectively addressed the question of the 16th century, and remains a vital part of any biblical version of the gospel, has not effectively addressed these changing questions. F & H conclude:
“But the prodigal God chooses to enter recklessly into the sin and struggles of our everyday lives. The Son does not come as a distant judge, but as one who is reestablishing a kingdom of renewal, reconciliation, and blessing. The gospel that only addresses a person’s guilt before a detached God is not prodigal enough. The entire person, the entire human existence, is being renewed in what God has done in Jesus Christ. (2796-2799)
In responding to these changing questions theologians and missiologists have recovered the centrality and importance of the “kingdom of God.” Central to Jesus’ proclamation, and indeed, the entire biblical story, this reality had too lost or reduced to the inner life of the individual under God for much of the history of the church in the west. Biblical scholars rediscovered it in the early 20th century and theologians and missiologists built on that rediscovery to find the shape of biblical, gospel, answers to our search for God’s peace and healing in spheres beyond the personal.
As with every swing of the pendulum, the reaction often goes too far in the other direction. This may well have happened with the use of the kingdom of God by emerging church leaders such a Brian McLaren and Tony Jones. The cross, as a symbol of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, and the kingdom, as a symbol of God’s intention to birth a new humanity and new creation of reconciliation and justice, get separated and are liable to be played off against each other. But according to F & H this is a fatal error:
“the cross has been ignored as the place where God’s final victory is accomplished. The prodigal gospel (of the Son sent into the far country) affirms God’s victory in the cross and the resurrection as the inauguration of the kingdom, new creation, a kingdom of love and justice. Here, on the cross, God has definitively dealt with sin in such a way that not only are our sins forgiven but the power of sin and death has been overcome. The gospel holds together both the cross and the kingdom.” (2836-2839)
The gospel in thrall to 16th century questions of personal sin and guilt constructs it presentation of it in the form of God’s love of us, our sin problem, and Jesus’ death to resolve that problem. A more kingdom-focused view of the gospel runs (based on 1 Cor.15:1-5) the death of Jesus, his burial, and his resurrection and appearances. In other words, the gospel is not a “plan of salvation” centered in the individual’s need for forgiveness, but a “story of salvation” centered in Jesus’ work for us and world and how through him and his work “God has become King” (N.T. Wright) over all creation.
“The gospel is the good news that in Jesus, God has fulfilled the story of Israel for the nations. God is now reigning over the whole world, making the world right. In the victory of the cross, he now rules over all sin, death, and evil. Wherever his rule is extended, the world is reordered and restored. In Christ, the promised blessings through Israel are now making their way to all nations. And in this way, God is making all things right.” (2927-2929)
This answers the “so what” question posed to the gospel above. This is what God has done through Jesus Christ and is doing through Jesus’ people and in the world at large in the power of the Holy Spirit.
If this is the gospel, this story of salvation, how do we share it and invite others to come to Christ? Clearly, the “plan of salvation” approach most of grew up with is too small and finally misleading on this point. But, as F & H confess, this is no simple task. We’re on new ground here. They write, “We should be asking something like, ‘Have you entered the salvation already begun in Jesus Christ that God is working for the sake of the whole world?’” (2934-2935) While certainly some refinement is needed here, I believe they are on the right track. I’ll have more to say about this in the review post which will be the last post in this series.
Growing out of a lengthy process of listening and discernment in their church, F &H report the four “on-ramps to the kingdom” they discovered for this church in Chicago:
-“God is reconciling you in all your relationships”
-“God is at work”
-“God has put the power of sin to death and is calling you into life”
-“God is calling you into mission”
In this way their church seeks to announce, enact, and embody the multifaceted gospel found in the biblical story. These four on-ramps give them a way to address the many concerns they encounter without lapsing into a reductionist gospel or becoming simply one more social service agency in the city.
The first set of signposts on life in the triune God culminated in the fourth signpost of witness – a total way of life oriented to and animated by the prodigal love of the prodigal God seeking and saving his world. The second set of signposts culminates with the church, the community in which alone this way of life can be lived in a way that gives our witness credibility and marks a space in which the God who has journeyed to the far country may be encountered.
Once more the reduced “gospel” we met in the last signpost plays us false. As F & H see it,
“The gospel becomes about individual status before God, witness becomes limited to verbal proclamation, and the church becomes a collection of individuals who can get the right information about salvation in order to believe and follow. These believers then have a job to do: give this information about salvation to others. God’s mission becomes something we do. The gospel becomes secret information. This approach to gospel, Scripture, and mission sequesters the kingdom of God to the interiority of our hearts. It can quickly turn defensive because it is based on knowing the right information. And because this Christianity focuses on our personal status with God, it can devolve into “being about me” and become narcissistic.” (3141-3146)
On the other hand, many who have turned toward a more holistic gospel of social transformation run a danger of another sort. F & H explain:
“People like McLaren and Jones push us toward an understanding of God’s kingdom that looks for its presence beyond the church. But it is hard to tell just how Jesus would or should make a difference outside the church. Has the church merely become another social service institution amid the many others in the world? And if it has, how do people like Austin and his volunteers keep from burning out as they try to do some good in the world? How do we keep such an institution from becoming just another thing we do? This kind of church, we fear, becomes a “kind of spiritual gas station from which all and sundry [can] draw energy for a great variety of worthwhile projects.” And it eventually runs out of gas.” (3182-3188)
The problem here is another version of separating the cross and the kingdom. The authors claim that in McLaren’s vision of the cross there is no victory over evil, sin, and death, rather it is a consequence of living faithfully in a violent world. Jones, for his part, turns to the “God everywhere” strategy, critiqued in an earlier signpost, and fails to show how God is at work “everywhere” thus hindering the incarnational thrust of prodigal Christianity.
Another pair of well-known authors Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are applauded for the main thrust of their work in missional directions. However, F & H find an individualizing tendency in them. The individual needs a fresh encounter with the living Christ to catalyze for mission. But apart from the church and its practices, how do we know “the living Christ” when we meet him?
In each of these positions a robust, prodigal church is missing. F & H summarize their view like this: “The church is nothing if not local, incarnational communities practicing the kingdom.” (3258-3259) They hold the church, the kingdom, the incarnational, and the communal together is ways appropriate to both the scripture and the gospel and that impel churches into prodigal missional practice.
New churches, they claim, ought to be started around the fundamental practices of the church, not programs. “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.” (3262-3263) Indeed, it is through such practices that we meet Christ and are nurtured by him into becoming a church.
Such time-honored 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 marked genuine missional engagement with the world throughout the churches history. Our authors claim that
“These six practices, together with the Lord’s Table and the founding practice of baptism, shape our life together in neighborhoods. . . This not a shapeless church that joins in with whatever is going on in the world. It is a church that extends the presence of Christ from the times we gather in worship, to the times we gather in our homes, to the everyday interactions we have in the neighborhood. This is the church that extends the in-breaking kingdom: the prodigal church.” (3428-3433)
If they are right, and I believe they are, one can only hope that we will listen to them!