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.

Post Everything World

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 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 mindset 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 postmodernity. 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 signpost 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: post-attractional, post-positional, and post-universal. 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?

About the Author

Dave Dunbar

Dr. David Dunbar

Dave Dunbar served as President of Biblical for 27 years before transitioning to the role of Professor of Theology at Biblical on July 1, 2013. He has been married to Sharon for 44 years. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Click here to view his faculty profile.


Written by David Dunbar Wednesday, 01 May 2013 00:00

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, et.al.) 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.


Written by Kyuboem Lee Monday, 29 April 2013 00:00

Often, I find myself preaching to the choir with regard to urban mission--these folks don’t need any convincing that urban mission is an important and urgent agenda item for the Church and we need to do all we can to learn about urban mission if the Church is to be faithful and fruitful in God’s mission.

But others will need more convincing. “I won’t be moving into the city to live and minister there; my role is a pastor in a suburban church or a small town context. Why should I care about urban mission? My plate is overflowing as it is.” I will try to speak to them through this series of blog posts. If you are the choir, perhaps you will find these posts useful as points of apologetics for urban mission.

1. Demographically, it’s an urban world.

The first reason the Church needs to become more educated in urban mission is that our world is an urban world that is becoming more urban even as you read this.

According to UN Population Division, some time in 2007, for the first time in history, the number of people living in cities surpassed the number of people living in rural areas. The rapid narrowing of the gap before then took place during the 20th century, when the global urban population rose from 13% (220 million) in 1900, to 29% (732 million) in 1950, and to 49% (3.2 billion) in 2005. By 2050, according to UN’s estimates, over 6 billion people (2/3 of total population) will be urban. It is an urban, and an urbanizing, world.

It follows, then, that if you believe that a core identity of the Church is its "sent-ness" to the world, you will also believe learning to reach the world’s cities is a top priority for the leaders of the Church. The Church ignores the rapidly growing city to its detriment.

2. It’s an urban world because of the city’s influence.

Not only is the city important demographically, it is also important because of its influence. Case in point: in the article “Gay Marriage and the Power of Cities to Change the Country,” Emily Badger argues the reason that tide of public opinion has turned so dramatically in favor of gay marriage recently has been in large measure due to gay activists harnessing the power of the cities to influence national society as a whole. Church leaders, take note.

Instead of seeing the rural and the urban as a dichotomy, the Church will need to see the city as culture-making centers of influence for the larger society. Indeed, urbanism as a cultural force is very much a reality in suburban and rural areas. Think of the large footprint of communication technology (TV, movies, Internet) on present-day rural life, say, or the rapidly growing presence of new immigrants in places like Allentown or Lancaster (places you wouldn’t have thought as big cities), and you start to grasp the totalitarian scope of urban influence.

Suburban and rural areas are not nicely sealed off from the influence of the city. Instead, these areas are vitally linked to the city. The influence of the city has only increased with the rise of globalization. Global cities and massive metropolitan areas are exercising greater and greater control on the way the world lives, in areas such as economics, migration, and culture. Church leadership should be taking this social dynamic seriously if it wants to reach the world, or even simply its own backyard.

3. It’s an urban world because the Bible tells us so.

Ray Bakke has famously said, “The Bible begins in a garden, but ends with a city” (in A Theology as Big as the City, 1997). It can further be argued that the garden itself holds the seeds of the city, or is a city in its infancy. The cultural mandate of Gen. 1:28 is an urban mandate to humankind as a whole (Conn & Ortiz, Urban Ministry, 87) that we see developing by God’s sovereign design and under his redemptive rule throughout the unfolding narrative of Scriptures. The urban mandate finds its culmination in the New Jerusalem of Rev. 21 and 22, which was secured by the salvific work of Christ. I refer you to Conn & Ortiz’s Urban Ministry, Part 2, “Biblical Perspectives,” for a much fuller examination of this biblical story. Their treatment will bring you to a place where you can begin to grasp the grand vision of God’s urban intentions and the coming of his kingdom in the cities around the world. The world, both now and after, is urban, by God’s sovereign design.

As servants in God’s kingdom, those who are in positions of church leadership and those preparing for such positions need to give urban mission their attention, and seek to learn the body of knowledge this field has garnered. Such efforts will prove to be invaluable for kingdom mission in our urban world.

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com).


Written by Charles Zimmerman Wednesday, 24 April 2013 00:00

Where have they gone & where are they now? 

This month I continue with updates on some graduates of Biblical Seminary.  This month we visit with Jim Donnelly, a 1977 MDiv graduate. 

I began attending Biblical in 1972, graduating with a Master of Divinity Degree in 1977.

Soon after, I found myself pursuing both marriage and a pastorate.  My wife, Peg (nee Jerchau) and I have been married for 33 years, and have four wonderful children: Amy and her husband Thom Smith live in New Hampshire with our five grandsons, and one granddaughter, all under ten years of age.

Jill lives in Queens Astoria, New York, and works in Manhattan for an investment firm.  Tim and his wife Bethany, newlyweds, live in Lynchburg, Virginia.  And Stephen, our one day old and yet 23, who has preceded us to Heaven, we look forward to being with him once again.  Peg’s Dad, Al Jerchau, age 87 lives with us in Souderton.

I have two memories while at Biblical, one sublime the other mysterious.  The first occurred while I was studying  on a Friday night, in the library, on the second floor, just above the Chapel;  when  suddenly  I heard the voice of Elford Stephens, singing “My Anchor Holds”, again, and again and again, while he practiced for  Chapel.  I love that song that Elford engrained in my soul that night.  The other, at 8 a.m., a normal class day, yet abnormality in the classroom; as students arrived, there in the middle of the room, standing on a chair was Ed Welch, just staring into space.  To this day, his bizarre and unique behavior remains one of those unsolved mysteries.

From 1978 to 1989 Peg and I served a Conservative Baptist Church in Secane, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.  Peg and I had the privilege during that time at Secane of co-pastoring with Wayne and Beth Heffelfinger, for 2 and a half years, Wayne is a Biblical Alum ’87.  After 3 years pastoring, I was encouraged to pursue the Army Chaplaincy.  In 1983 I was commissioned into the United States Army as a Reserve Chaplain.  In 1987, I had completed all the course requirements for a Doctor of Ministry Degree from the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation located in Laverock, PA.   In 1990, I had deployment orders in hand for Operation Desert Storm, Saudi Arabia.  During that time of war, Peg and I were experiencing one of the greatest storms of our life, we lost our fourth child, who was born almost full-term, and we wept uncontrollably as we named him Stephen James and said our goodbyes the same day he was born.  In the early 90’s I was asked by Peg’s parents to consider managing the family business with their son Chris.  I have now been there for these past 21 years, helping to run C.L.Weber & Co., a wholesale supplier of Industrial Pipe, Valves, and Fittings.

Soon after 911, the 1215th Garrison Support Unit, Willow Grove, PA mobilized at Fort Drum, the home of the 10th Mountain Division.  I was the Unit’s Chaplain and spent the next two and a half years working with the Installation and Division Chaplains, as we saw over 20,000 Soldiers deploy downrange to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.  Mine was the privilege of serving many of these Soldiers and their Families, many of whom were National Guard and Reserve forces, mobilizing at Fort Drum, New York, just south of Canada.  Upon leaving Fort Drum in 2004, I spent the next several years serving with the 99th Regional Support Command in Pittsburgh, PA, as we continued to deploy forces in the continuing war on terror.  Our nation is not able to fully understand the sacrifice and suffering of our men and women in the Armed Forces, their families and their communities that have served and suffered along with them these many years now.  In June of 2007 I retired from the Army after 27 years in the Military, this includes 4 years Active Air Force, in my pre-Biblical days. Currently, my wife and I are members of Calvary Church in Souderton, Pa.  I am working on a commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes, which I began back in 1983.  There is a time for everything, so I started a BLOG http://tomantheorg.wordpress.com. I cannot think of a better way to represent my class at Biblical than continuing to be actively engaged in this verse “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” Colossians 1:28.  My deep appreciation to all at Biblical, faculty and staff, who prepared me for the work of the Gospel these many years.  Jim Donnelly Class ’77.

Charles Zimmerman is the Thomas V. Taylor Professor of Practical Theology.  He also serves as Teaching Pastor at Calvary Church in Souderton.  He is married to Kim and they have two daughters, Ashley and Megan.


Written by Susan Disston Monday, 22 April 2013 00:00

Leading Missional Communities is the title of the upcoming Doctor of Ministry course during the week of June 10-13. It will be taught by professor and pastor Larry Anderson, Jr.  Pastor Anderson is senior pastor of Great Commission Church in the West Oak Lane community of Philadelphia. His years of visionary pastoral leadership qualify him to teach this course and facilitate students’ growth in self-understanding and ordering of their lives and ministries. I asked Pastor Anderson to talk about his course.

SD: What are some of the key skills and capacities needed for leading missional communities in particular?

LA: To lead a missional community, one has to personally sell out to the mission of God. There cannot be an agenda greater than fulfilling that mission. Success is not determined by finances or the size of your congregation; rather it is determined by your own spiritual awareness and vibrancy of the mission. A missional leader must be a person of prayer; it is impossible to speak for God without listening to Him. Having discernment is paramount to leading a missional community because one must be able to exegete the Biblical text, their church context, and their physical community simultaneously in order to create a synergy that produces a holistic ministry.

SD:How can a course like this make a difference in developing self-awareness and a sustainable leadership style?

LA: This course will challenge the student to take an honest look at him/her self. Each student has to examine: 1) what truly motivates them to serve the Lord, 2) what entitlements they have grown to expect, and 3) how have they in the past and how do they currently handle failure and disappointment. It’s impossible to sustain leading a healthy church if we are not healthy people. Students must demonstrate they have a healthy base with godly people to whom they are accountable. A cohort in their local body that will help protect and remind them of the sinful practices that have perverted and derailed God’s people from God’s call.

SD: Why is this course in the DMin curriculum?

LA: The historical critique concerning seminary education has been based on an education that increases one’s academic acumen and one’s apologetic fortitude while neglecting ones spiritual growth and communal awareness. Thus there is a false sense of spiritual maturity based on one's academic credentials. This course challenges the heart of the theologian to wrestle with the idea that knowledge, faith, and sacrifice without love is nothing.  I’m praying this course will be used by God to battle the embarrassing trend of falling and failing leadership in the church due to an increase in personal ambition and a decrease in spiritual character.

If you want to register for this course (DM913, June 10-13) or know more about the Doctor of Ministry program, email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Susan Disston is assistant dean of curriculum and assessment at Biblical Seminary. http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/adjunct-faculty-theology


Written by Bryan Maier Friday, 19 April 2013 00:00

What parent has not heard their child voice this demand on a trip? I have always thought this is a somewhat silly question as the fact that we are all still in the car is clear evidence that we indeed are NOT there yet. But if we are honest, it is not just children who are impatient. We all are. Our culture seems to be getting faster and faster and thus waiting becomes more intolerable.  Activities that used to take days now take only as long as it takes for electronic waves to reach a cell phone or computer.  To cite just one example, letter writing on paper (which is now referred to as “snail mail”) has advanced to email and now has progressed to texting, tweeting and other instant forms of communication.

 Sadly, in my profession, time, particularly time for healing, has also been contracted. I wrote in a previous blog how the newest diagnostic manual of psychological disorders will be reducing the time allotted for “healthy grief” down to around two months. Anything longer becomes “complicated grief” or depression and thus warrants intervention. But it is not just grief.  Most disorders have a quick fix (or at least a treatment) of some sort. Usually this push comes from managed care and the desire not to drag out a treatment, but I would suggest that the culture at large also supports this idea that there is a quick identifiable remedy for almost any problem.  Life is too short to suffer. Fix the problem and move on.

When I read the Bible I see a different view of time.  Let me remind you of just one example.  

The book of Exodus tells us that the Israelites were in slavery to Egypt for four hundred years. Four hundred years! How could they remember anything about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob after that long (indeed many of them had forgotten)?  How many of us consciously live our lives based on anything that happened in the 1600’s? On an individual level, Moses was 40 when he left Egypt, 80 when he returned, and 120 when he finally got a glimpse of the Promised Land just before his death. The Bible records what God wants us to know for the purpose of redemptive history but imagine interviewing Moses when he was 68. He had left Egypt 28 years previously and had established a family and a life out in the wilderness. 

But according to the Biblical record, it would be twelve more years before anything “exciting” would happen (from our perspective). What would
Moses say about God and his faithfulness on his 68thbirthday? Then suppose we fast forward to Moses 100th birthday party.  What a milestone, but at this time, Moses had been wandering around the wilderness for twenty years with a bunch of disgruntled whiners who, two decades prior,  had  demonstrated their unwillingness to trust God and take Land he had promised.  It would be two more decades before God finally gave them the land.  What would Moses have to celebrate on that day as he blew out the multitude of candles on his manna cake? What accomplishments did he have to show for himself at one hundred years old? Sure he could look at his staff and remember the Red Sea and all the plagues but that was old history especially as that generation was dying off.  Again, it would be several more laps around the desert before anything “productive” would happen.

Apparently, God does not seem to be in near as much of a hurry as we are. In fact, sometimes he seems to be doing nothing.  We know that a missional God is always up to something but most of the time he feels no compulsion to inform us of his plans (other than the “big” ones like the gospel).  So what do we do while we wait (or plod around the desert)?

This I believe is where faithfulness comes in. God does not call us to be inactive but to keep on trusting him. Things really are going according to His plan, whether we recognize it or not. Not everyone will get to conquer a city by watching God supernaturally knock down the walls. Most of us won’t get to walk on water (or through it). But we are all called to trust and love a God that we cannot see or control. For many of us that may mean a life of a “long obedience in the same direction”.   

May he find us faithful while we continue to wonder if we are there yet.

Bryan Maier, Psy. D. is an Associate Professor of Counseling & Psychology in the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He maintains a private practice at Diane Langberg & Associates. 


Written by Dan LaValla Wednesday, 17 April 2013 00:00

As children, we quickly learn that life isn’t always fair and that part of becoming an adult is adjusting to the challenges and trials that come our way. However, many of us still seem to expect that as a Christian, Christ is going to help our life become easier and help us to succeed and prosper in our efforts. After all, didn't Jesus say that His yoke is easy and His burden light (Matt 11:30)?

It is much easier to cope with life when it is going smoothly and the challenges are within our capacity to handle them through our own resources and capabilities; or when our personal desires or circumstances are not challenging our faith or conflicting with our spiritual calling.  However, what happens when our challenges go beyond our resources or present capabilities and the injustices of this life either interfere with our standards of living or create pain that strikes at the core of our being? Or, what happens when our personal desires or circumstances are in conflict with our faith or spiritual calling? If we respond to such difficult challenges and situations with anger, frustration, or resentment, these are coming from our selfish, fleshly desires (Gal. 5:19-20). But if we respond with forbearance, peace, and self-control, then these are signs we are in unity with God’s Spirit. Out of the trials of life come the opportunities for strengthening our faith and our unity with God’s Spirit; even if we don’t get it right the first try.

As chair of our church’s missions committee, I have become more attentive to the personal stories and ministries of the missionaries we support. A couple of years ago a medical missionary we support came to our church while on furlough. After becoming a medical doctor, he and his wife accepted God’s call to practice in third world countries. What is even more incredible about their story is that they were not only called to raise their children in third world countries, but in third world countries that were in the midst of civil war. After more than twenty years of service in such circumstances, with their children grown and on their own, he and his wife wanted desperately to stay in the U.S. and have a chance to save for their retirement. They felt worn-out from the impacts of war, living in prolonged physical endangerment without the conveniences of modern life. They so desired to stay in the U.S. where it is safe and life is much easier with modern conveniences and have a chance to save up for retirement which is not that far off. Instead, they were feeling called to Sudan. The thought of going to a third country in the midst of civil war where they would be living in tents or temporary housing made out of shipping containers was dreadful.

They explained what a struggle it was for several months throughout their furlough. Initially, they were frustrated because they felt they had demonstrated their commitment through more than twenty years of faithful service and sacrifice and thought they should be able to return to the U.S. at their age. However, it wasn’t until they made the decision to go to Sudan that they felt an internal peace. Further, shortly after their deployment to Sudan, the Sudanese Civil War came to an end and the area they were called to serve in became the new country of South Sudan. They were also able to move into a permanent house and their ministry has developed into reestablishing primary health care services in South Sudan where millions of refugees from the north are returning now that the civil war is over. In hindsight, they admit that God was aware of their limitations, but also knew they would not have to live in civil war conditions for very long. They are so grateful that they did not choose physical safety and comfort over peace and unity with God’s Spirit. If they had not humbled themselves to God’s mission, they would have missed the privilege of impacting a brand new country and the millions of lives that their ministry is influencing through Christ.

Dan LaValla is Director of Library Services and Development Associate at Biblical. He is Chair of the Endowment Committee for the American Theological Library Association; he serves as vice chair of the Ministry Board and chair of the Missions Committee of First Baptist Church in Lansdale. He is very active in his community, coaching youth baseball and football and has served on several community boards. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/daniel-lavalla.



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