The title of this post is taken directly from the title of the recent book co-authored by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity—Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier (Jossey-Bass, 2013).  The two authors share ministry responsibilities at Life on the Vine church in suburban Chicago, and both also teach at Northern Seminary.  Fitch has previously established himself as one of the best theologians in the missional movement.

The book plays off images taken not only from the parable of the son who leaves his home to live in the far country, but also from Tim Keller’s idea of the Prodigal God, and Karl Barth’s suggestion that a full reading of the parable must include the story of God’s sending of his Son into the far country. In the authors’ words:  “God is a prodigal God, not just in graciously receiving us back when we sin but by recklessly leaving behind everything and, in the person of Jesus, journeying in the far country. . . . To be Christian is to learn to become prodigal” (p. xxvi).

The path of prodigal Christianity is one that challenges both the emerging/emergent and Neo-Reformed approaches to post-Christian western culture. The emergent group (Brian McLaren, has combined deep cultural sensitivity with profound critique of the weakness of the church, but its proposals for moving ahead seem increasingly like another version of mainline accommodation.  The Neo-Reformed seek to address the cultural shifts by returning to a fresh articulation of the reformed tradition.  But the authors find them defensive and too often still attractional in their approach to mission.  As a result, both approaches remain trapped within the conservative-liberal theological debates of late Christendom.

The book thus becomes a sustained argument to think and act in a culture were Christian dominance is a rapidly fading memory. This will require that the church learn to bear witness once again where no Christian consensus exists and Christian language is not spoken. This is of course the way Christian faith initially made its way in the world, but in the culture of Christendom such boundary-crossing abilities are less needed and gradually atrophy.  The church in the west therefore needs to follow the Prodigal God to the far country of mission, to the broken edges of the world where the light of the kingdom is just beginning to shine.

The authors offer ten “signposts” for this journey.  Not ten easy steps, but general pointers to the future.  A number of these signposts will be the subject of future posts.

Meanwhile, what do you think about the decline of Christendom?  Are our churches living as if the Christian religion still controlled the assumptions of our culture?  Are Christian efforts to reassert cultural power likely to succeed?  Even if they did succeed, are they the best use of our energies? And if they are not, what are the alternatives?

Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary.  He has been married to Sharon for (almost) 44 years.  They have four grown children and (almost) seven grand children.

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