The new book by Fitch & Holsclaw is called Prodigal Christianity. It uses Luke’s Prodigal Parables (Luke 15) as a metaphor for Christian ministry in a postmodern world. I attended a conversation about the book at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. The authors presented a brief outline of the text and then took questions from those present. (Yes, I asked a question…)
The book presents 10 Signposts for the Missional Frontier and shares 7 Behaviors the church should engage in as we navigate these signposts. Certain chapters look like they will be very exciting. David Fitch has been part of the missional church conversation for a long time. Like me, he found some really good energy in the early Emergent conversations as well. However, the last several years have seen the Emergent group head off in directions which are no longer satisfying. In so many of those models, the church and the gospel seem to collapse into Postmodernism. There’s no good news and no reason for the church to gather. So Fitch has come back to the Missional term as more descriptive. He believes strongly in the church as the place where the Spirit is most active. The community formed there is God’s agent of change in our world. I couldn’t agree more. Fitch also rejects the extreme neo-reformed overreaction to Emergent and other groups. These folks have locked down the gospel so tightly, they’ve reduced it to a particular view of the atonement which is a fairly recent arrival in church history. The gospel is bigger than this. It’s more than a set of religious beliefs to be argued. It is an experience, a way of life, a vision of justice, an agent of healing, and a transforming journey. For Fitch, this is a journey into what he calls the Far Country. As best I can tell the Far Country is a metaphor for this postmodern, post-Christendom world many North Americans find ourselves in. A world where fewer and fewer people give automatic authority to the Bible, to the Church, or to Christian positions on social issues. Christians have tended to just get absorbed into the Far Country, leaving the gospel behind, or have built enclaves where we hide out from the world until Jesus shows up to beam us up.
I like how Fitch doesn’t want us to accept either one of those. Like the Prodigal God who leaves the 99 sheep, sweeps the whole house, and looks longingly for the return of his son, we can choose to “Go” like Jesus taught us to. But our “going” will look differently since we’re in the Far Country and not 1957 Churched America. I like the questions Fitch is asking at the beginning of this book. I like that Ecclesiology (what we think about the Church) is at the forefront of how he’s doing theology. It’s the lens through which he understands the gospel and how to live it out. So, preaching and the sacraments are central to his theology and missional outlook. I love great theological conversations. But this is a piece that has been absent for some time… I’m excited to dive in, with no imagination that I won’t find lots to disagree with along the way. But the Holy Spirit spoke to me at that gathering that there are some important things in this conversation which will speak directly to me and my church community as we also navigate uncharted territory in our culture…
Fitch is a CMA pastor (Wesleyan denomination similar to my own Nazarenes) teaching at a Baptist Seminary, who has Anabaptist leanings in how he views community, justice, and discernment. Now that’s a lively mix. I’m also a pastor who teaches at a Christian university and enjoys dialogue. I’m intrigued to read on…
The 2nd 50 pages have been full of surprises as well, but I’ve found more common ground with Stanley.
I like and have used the image he borrows from The Gospel of John “full of grace and truth.” John uses it in chapter one to wrap up the Logos passage in describing the essence of Jesus. Stanley uses it as a mantra for ministry decisions. He says they are not driven by policies. Instead they have nearly endless conversations with people and make decisions. I have to say that those who advised me to setup policies so we don’t get bogged down and criticized for decisions were not as “right” as I thought. Often the broken and messy situations in the lives of real people are our best opportunities for ministry. We need to get bogged down in the details. We need to engage with them where they are. I used to go by policies. Now I get involved.
I’ve gone to court to get someone released without bail. I’ve listened to couples describe situations they never taught me about in school. I’ve been lied to, used, rejected, and blamed. I’ve also been loved. Most importantly I’ve learned to do better at making sure people see the fullness of grace and truth as we understand it. I’ve tried to teach our leaders the same and they’ve reminded, challenged and taught me as well. And this was quite a process o transformation. It’s still a work in progress.
So I really resonated with Stanley’s big picture here. He’s done a far better job on a bigger scale of developing a place that lives with these real ministry tensions, especially on issues of homosexuality and divorce.
But then he throws out his procedure on baptism and frankly it’s just wrong. He says on page 81: “You have to allow us to video record a three-minute version of your story to be shown on Sunday morning in order to be baptized. No video, no baptism. We don’t have any verses to support that. But baptism is central to our worship and arguably our most powerful evangelism tool.”
It’s this kind of stuff that keeps popping up. Stuff where even the sacraments must submit to promotional convenience. And all his talk of messy truth gets undermined. I’ve done video, audio, written and live testimonies. We’ve worked hard to let the reality of the person’s story and of the gospel dictate the format. Public? Yes. Profession of faith? You better believe it. But some people have aspects of their journey which make video a personal challenge too great to overcome. And it basically weds baptism to a certain technology. I’m an early adopter of tech, but I can’t swallow this one. I loved his example stories. Some of them were incredibly similar to ones I’ve had the joy of participating in. But too many stories are edited out for non-biblical reasons. This causes me to question a lot. Can you tell I’m stoked by this one?
But…still it’s only 100 pages in. Now we’re arriving on the doorstep of Spiritual Formation. This is what I came for. I’ll extend grace and get off my high horse to see what I can learn in Section Three: Going Deep. Rethinking Spiritual Formation.
Thanks for reading.
Today we had a great worship experience as part of Ashes to Fire. After the sermon, where we received a new church member by profession of faith, we moved through three prayer stations reflecting on needed change in our lives.
First, we sat by candlelight and considered areas of temptation we’re facing right now. Most people wrote down areas of testing. Then we moved into the darkness. No lights. We sat and reflected on negative ways we cope with testing. These don’t lead us toward God. They don’t really help at all. In order to grow we must make the choice to leave these behind.
When people were ready, they moved into the light, kneeling at the altar and praying Psalm 25 to the Lord. It was powerful to see people taking tangible steps toward God. There was a strong godly presence in the light.
Then a bunch of us went ice skating! Church life can be like that. We just gave the ashes of past sinful patterns to God. Now we were floating on ice to rhythm of happier music.
Ashes to ice. It’s not a bad place to begin the journey. Can’t wait for the FIRE!!!