The final three signposts F & H identify are where “the rubber hits the road.” They are also in my opinion the most exciting and ground-breaking sections of the book, worth the price of the book (or especially the Kindle version). This is where the theology sketched in the first seven signposts takes on flesh (incarnation). In other words, it is in these sections where it truly becomes theology!
These three signposts take us right into the middle of some of the most vexing and divisive matters the church and society face today. I’m not going to play spoiler for these signposts. I want to leave them for you to read and savor yourself. They are richly narrative coming out of the life of Life on the Vine church. They are creative postmodern theological reflections on ministry at these knotty places in the church’s life – sexuality, justice, and openness to others and their faiths. And most importantly, in my judgment, they ring true to character and approach of the Jesus we meet in the gospels. And that means, they are true to the authors’ intent to be “prodigal.” Please read them for yourself.
I’ll spend the rest of this post offering some evaluative reflection. In the interest of full disclosure, I find myself in fundamental agreement with the authors’ approach and argumentation. So I do not have criticisms of the focus and thrust of what they do. You’ll have to look elsewhere for that. That does not mean I think there is nothing that could stand improvement! But these are things within a basic agreement with the book.
First, let me say I think is the most important and accessible book written to date on missional church. And one the signal contributions is F & H’s identification of missional with prodigal. This offers a way to salvage the promiscuous use of missional as a buzz word for new programs in the church. Prodigality as a mark of missional gives a criterion by which to sort out the buzz word use of the term from its legitimate usage. Further, the linkage of prodigality with incarnation refines the former as a criterion by driving the missional right into the very ground at our feet! If missional does not mean in-depth, crossing of boundaries to be in substantive relationships with others in humility and hope, it is neither incarnational nor prodigal, and hence, not missional.
Missional as prodigal as incarnational brings into bold relief its oft overlooked or neglected claim that being the people participating in God’s own mission will require a from the ground up rethinking and re-praying the very structures, aims, and strategies of who and what we are as “church.” This is no cosmetic overhaul or programmatic recalibration. In my judgment and experience (not necessarily our authors), I don’t believe we can “get there (missional) from here (church as we know it).” I think our time, energy, and resources are better spent raising up new communities as missional from the get-go rather than to inch traditional churches in a direction they are not designed to go and, once the cost of such change is realized, don’t really want to go.
This is why I think it essential for me not to inadequately summarize these signposts but for you to read and reflect on them yourself. Here the missional, prodigal, incarnational being and work of the church leaps off the page and out of theory and into lived experience from which each of us can reflect on our own churches and experiences.
So much for the accolades and affirmation. I mentioned in an earlier post that some might have a theological quibble with F & H’s use of the terminology of “extending the incarnation” through the church. And I encouraged us to wait till the end to judge the significance of that concern. For my part, I would not make much of this matter because the intention of the authors is clear and if one needs to make a conceptual change in terminology each reader can probably make that change themselves without engaging in extending debate.
I also promised further comment on the authors’ section on evangelism, how we approach others in sharing the gospel with them today. I think they get part of the way in the direction we need to go. I would like to briefly add some further reflection. I go back to this comment from signpost five on scripture.
“Within these blessings, humanity is given the task (or mission) of “ruling” over creation by caring for it. . . We could say that in Genesis 1 and 2, God charges humanity with ‘the great task of ruling over creation through keeping and serving the earth in which God has placed them.’ There’s an authority given to humanity out of a harmonious relationship with God that serves creation.” (2478-2483)
I suggest we start here and envision human beings as those who have forfeited their primal dignity and vocation through breaking faith with God through sin. As long as we see them primarily as sinners we cannot help but focus on God’s remedy for this failure (as F & H would agree). Both our authors and I believe we can do better than that.
If we proclaim the gospel, God’s victory over the powers of sin, (d)evil, and death in Jesus’ cross and resurrection to reclaim us through forgiveness and restore us to that primal dignity and vocation vouchsafed for us now in Christ, we have a different entrée to talk to others about the gospel. F & H sense this, yet their formulation of this different approach seems halting and stilted to me. 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?” Of course, how we ask that question, how we invite people into this new world, is different for every person and situation we find ourselves in. And that is the point. This is the prodigal nature of the gospel itself. . . We have moved from, “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?” to, “Have you entered God’s kingdom with your life, your circumstances, your very soul?” (2934-2938)
I suggest a formulation along these lines. In light of Jesus’ victory for the kingdom of God, of which the church is a sign, sacrament, and steward, we can say something like this, “God intends for you to be a part of his kingdom movement. He has equipped you with gifts for the role he wants you to play. Even though you’ve spurned that role and call, God offers amnesty for that and wants you back and offers to restore you to what he created you to be: his royal representatives in the world and overseers of the well-being of the creation.” Or something like that.
I am trying to marry creation and salvation here, as they are in the scripture. This counteracts the dualism that still clings to the word and popular notion of “salvation” and ties the “image of God” together with the new creation we enter through faith in Christ. And it styles the evangelistic invitation as a call to join the vanguard of the new creation whose vocation is to subvert attitudes, actions, and structures established by fallen humanity and demonstrate the counter-attitudes, actions, and structures life in God’s new creation makes possible. Even here and now amid the debris of a fallen world. And all this without recourse to the usual vehicles of force, coercion, intimidation, and bullying!
Whether this is an advance on what F & H have done, you’ll have to decide for yourself. I think it is a bit richer and pulls in more aspects of the biblical than their offering. You?
I offer this different way of approaching others with the gospel with deep gratitude to David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. They have done us all a tremendous service in their labor to produce Prodigal Christianity. Thanks to you, David and Geoff, and the glory be to God!