David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), pp. 190.
Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier is one of the latest contributions to the missional conversation, which is now well into its second decade. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw have written a brief and readable book that will benefit newcomers to this conversation as a primer, and that will also be helpful to longtime participants who are dissatisfied with two of the more influential expressions of missional church--the left-leaning emerging church and the right-leaning Neo-Reformed movement. The authors share their dissatisfaction with these movements in the book's introduction: "On the one hand, we are less than satisfied with what the 'new kind of Christianity' [the emerging church] has become.... On the other hand, the Neo-Reformed...appear to be defensive" (p. xxiii). For Fitch and Holsclaw, the first option seems like warmed-over mainline Protestantism, and the second option is too doctrinaire and attractional; in short, neither option is all that new. Prodigal Christianity presents another option, an alternative understanding of missional--a third way that is often (though perhaps not always) a middle way. Here missional means "prodigal."
The bulk of the book consists of ten chapters that each discuss a different signpost for churches that aspire to be missional. "Each signpost," write Fitch and Holsclaw, "gives us a vision for joining the mission of God through Christ in his Spirit" (p. xxviii). The authors name the signposts (in order) "Post-Christendom," "Missio Dei," "Incarnation," "Witness," "Scripture," "Gospel," "Church," "Prodigal Relationships," "Prodigal Justice," and "Prodigal Openness." The chapters typically open with an illustrative story from one of the writer's experience in ministry, follow with a discussion of the respective strengths and weaknesses of the Neo-Reformed approach and the emerging church approach to the chapter's subject, and conclude with an alternative approach that the writers believe is more prodigal--more open to "a journey that takes us to the frontiers of God's mission" (p. xxvi).
Signpost One focuses on the location of the North American church in the twenty-first century, a logical starting point. What characterizes our context? Failure to answer this question is likely to lead to churches that do not engage their neighborhoods and the people in them. Fitch and Holsclaw locate today's North American church in post-Christendom, a context defined largely by three characteristics: (1) it is "postattractional"--the "time when people gravitated toward the church building on Sunday" is gone; (2) it is "postpositional"--the church (and its leaders) no longer "have an inherent position of authority"; and (3) it is "postuniversal"--our culture is "no longer universal to everybody we meet" (pp. 7-8). Rather than seeing these culture shifts as obstacles, Fitch and Holsclaw (to their credit) see them as opportunities for mission that is more Jesuslike--after all, Jesus did not attract people to one location, chose humility over status, and practiced local rather than universal theology. This chapter is one of the book's most concise and strongest, and its ideas echo throughout the rest of the work.
The next three signposts--"Missio Dei," "Incarnation," and "Witness"--all point in the same direction. Fitch and Holsclaw move from the what of prodigal Christianity to the how of this missional way. The what is participation in the mission of God (missio Dei means mission or sending of God); the how is reconciling presence coupled with witness in deed and word. They write, "[W]e enter into these places [neighborhoods], inhabit them, and extend the presence of God in Jesus, who proclaims and makes present the kingdom of God" (p. 50); and later, "The term witness refers to an entire way of life that points to and embodies the reality of kingdom in the world" (p. 59).
Much of the first four chapters are a restatement of the early missional conversation (see, for example, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, Guder, Roxburgh, et al.). Fitch and Holsclaw note that the term missional has suffered from overuse, and they then push back against the use of missional language to repackage Puritanism or garden-variety evangelicalism or the church growth movement. They may receive push back themselves, however, from missional thinkers who argue that God is already at work in any given place before Christians arrive on the scene, and that our responsibility is to discern how and to partner in this work. Fitch and Holsclaw may be suggesting that Christians bring God with them when they write things like, "Jesus goes with us in our sending...extend[ing] his kingdom into the far country through us" (p. 63).
Signposts five through seven are "Scripture" (a chapter review of which I will post in the near future), "Gospel," and "Church." Having started with missiology, the authors now move to epistemology and ecclesiology. In chapter six, they present what they describe as "a bigger gospel"--bigger than either conservative Protestantism's version (which they think reduces the good news to forgiveness of individuals) or the emerging church's version (which they think reduces the good news to following the example of Jesus). I will leave questions about the accuracy of these claims to others; but insofar as any person or group holds to either of these versions, their gospel is undoubtedly reductionistic. In their place, Fitch and Holsclaw advocate a Christus Victor gospel: "[T]he kingdom of life and grace comes not just because Jesus is a good example of 'kingdom love,' but because although we were still sinners, Christ died for us.... All this comes through the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose death and suffering God has overcome sin and death" (p. 91).
The final three signposts are "Prodigal Relationships," "Prodigal Justice," and "Prodigal Openness"--broadly, the book moves from missiology to epistemology to ecclesiology to ethics. Of the concluding chapters, I found "Prodigal Relationships" the most interesting (perhaps because it is timely--it addresses sexuality); again, I will post a chapter review of this signpost in the near future. The chapter on justice begins with a story that illustrates a reality many leaders of local churches discover--different Christians define justice differently. Given this fact, Fitch and Holsclaw suggest an approach to justice that focuses less on government policies and more on local issues, engaging these immediate injustices relationally and with humility (here is an example of the ideas introduced in the first chapter continuing to inform).
Perhaps the greatest value of Prodigal Christianity is its recovery of many of the missional conversation's early emphases. Also, Fitch and Holsclaw deserve credit for engaging the strongest representatives of the emerging church (Brian McLaren) and the Neo-Reformed movement (Tim Keller). However, although they balance criticism with affirmation, it is not clear to me that they always read these theologians well, McLaren in particular; for example, although McLaren has clearly rejected the theory of penal substitution, I am not sure he has reduced the gospel to Jesus as moral influence. (Are Christus Victor and other ideas entirely absent from his work?) In any case, Prodigal Christianity continues a generative conversation.