Written by Dave Dunbar
Friday, 03 May 2013 00:00
In an earlier blog I introduced the important new book by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity. The authors challenge the American church to follow the Prodigal God into the far country of missional engagement. In today’s blog I will examine the first “signpost” directing us to the frontier of mission, the signpost of Post-Christendom.
Successful missionary endeavor always requires careful attention to context. Most Christians recognize this principle as applicable to “foreign” missions—new languages must be learned, different customs and religious ideas understood, etc. But we have been much slower to realize the importance of context in our own circumstances because for centuries we have lived under a form of Christendom, which is simply a term describing a culture in which Christianity is dominant. In Christendom the church feels little need for culture-crossing; Christians are relatively comfortable because they own much of the culture.
But now that has changed. In many places in America Christendom is rapidly dying off, and other places it has already passed. Many of us feel this. Some Christians engage in culture wars “to take back the culture.” The authors view this as a lost cause.
Others basically ignore the changing context and press on with the message and methods that used to work. Often this strategy is one that preaches to convince people of their sinfulness and guilt so that they will see their need for forgiveness and trust in Jesus. The authors are thinking here of the Neo-Reformed movement, but the basic approach is widespread in Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. The problem is that the success of this approach depends on a culture of Christian “memory” that grows weaker by the year. “Arguing people back to the truth or back to guilt is merely a retreat to a lost modern mind-set and forgotten Christian culture where we can still assume that everyone is basically a Christian” (p. 5).
What do you think? Does the loss of Christian memory change the way the gospel is heard? And should it, therefore, change the way we communicate?
On the other hand, Brian McLaren and others of the emerging church propose a strategy of relevance and revision. The collapse of modernity suggests that the church should embrace post modernity. A rationalist approach to faith should be replaced by a relational approach. Orthodoxy (right belief) is less important than orthopraxy (right practice).
Fitch and Holsclaw want to take the best from the Neo-Reformed and from Emergents. But they want something more: “We need a way to engage the cultural dynamics of day-to-day life while compromising nothing of what God has done in Christ for the world or his very presence in the world. We need to journey deep into people’s everyday lives, trials, hurts, and desires” (pp. 5-6).
The first sign post for this journey is Post-Christendom. By understanding this cultural shift we may find clues to greater missional effectiveness. The authors elaborate this shift by three other posts: postattractional, postpositional, and postuniversal. The first refers to the decreased “pull” of church buildings and programs, especially for non-Christians. The second refers to the church’s loss of authority and influence in the broader culture. The third speaks to the loss of a common universe of language, concepts, values, worldview, etc.
Fitch and Holsclaw encourage us to follow Jesus deeply into this “post” world: “These days, when our compasses are spinning and all the street lights are out, when our familiar routes are blocked and our maps are torn, this first signpost of post-Christendom directs us toward a prodigal Christianity that does not stand still in order to attract, does not sit in the seat of authority, and does not walk in the ways of the universal, but instead delights in the paths of the prodigal God” (p. 15).
What do you think about this “post” world? Do you agree that Christendom is dead or dying? Is this a big problem? Should this significantly impact our understanding of church and our practice of mission?
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.