How should the church function in a post-Christian world?

How should the church function in a post-Christian world?

Fitch and Holsclaw introduces the missional journey to churches by discussing ten signposts to guide them on this journey. These signposts come out of their own ministry experience in leading a church in mission in a post-Christianised world. The authors, dissatisfied with the missional attempts of the left-leaning Emergent Movement and the right-leaning Neo-reformed Movement, attempt to create a new path through this vast, largely unexplored frontier of post-Christendom. Using Barth’s explanation of the parable of the prodigal son, the authors argue about the radical missional nature of God who sent his Son into this world to redeem it; thus making Him a prodigal God, one who is more than generous and extravagant in the measures He takes to redeem the world.

In their book, Fitch and Holsclaw spend a chapter on each of the ten signposts, with each chapter opening with a ministry experience from one of the authors. This is followed by an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the Neo-Reformed view and the Emergent view of the signpost being discussed. The chapter then concludes with a third view that the authors believe takes the readers into the ‘far country’ of post-Christendom to live the gospel anew in their context. The ten signposts are Post-Christendom, Missio Dei, Incarnation, Witness, Scripture, Gospel, Church, Prodigal relationships, Prodigal Justice, and Prodigal Openness.

The first four signposts capture the thinking that came up in early missional conversations when the church recognised they no longer exist in a Christianised society. The only difference is that Fitch and Holsclaw seem to suggest that Jesus goes with us where He sends us (p. 63) whereas other missional practitioners would argue that God is already at work before the church gets there and that it is the church’s responsibility to discern what God is doing and to partner with that work.

Signpost One focuses on the post-Christendom context the North American Church is in. To understand this concept, Fitch and Holsclaw break down post-Christendom into three additional “posts” in order to paint a picture that describes the situation the church is in. They are
1. Post-attractional – society is no longer drawn to the church like in the past; they are more likely to be repulsed by the church.
2. Post-positional – the church no longer occupies a position of respect, influence and authority in society. Instead respect has to be earned.
3. Post-universal – There is no longer a universal language or culture within the western society. The narrative of redemption needs to be taught in a society where such narratives are viewed with suspicion.

Instead of these culture shifts being barriers to mission, Fitch and Holsclaw see them as opportunities for a mission that is more incarnational and Christ-like. However this means that there needs to be a more prodigal Christianity that invites people to see and experience little glimpses of the Kingdom, or to pray and seek God’s Kingdom for neighbourhoods thus bringing hope, peace and justice to our neighbours. Instead of isolating society with the moralistic power-narrative of Christendom, the church needs to be more grace-extending in allowing people to ‘taste and see that God is good”.

The next three signposts point to both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of being missional. Signpost two focuses on the ‘what’. This is participating in the mission of God or Missio Dei. Instead of God being a God of the orthodox, who is one of wrath and judgment, or the God of the liberals who is all-embracing, the authors present the God of the Bible as one who is on a mission to redeem and restore all things through Jesus.

Signposts three and four focus on Incarnation and Witness and explain the ‘how’ of being missional. It is about entering into our community incarnationally and extending God’s presence in that community. To be a witness refers to “an entire way of life that points to and embodies the reality of God’s Kingdom in the world” (p. 59). Just as the God of mission became present in the world through the incarnation of Jesus, the church is called to be incarnational and missional in the local neighbourhood, giving opportunity for God’s Kingdom to break through in and through lives, by word and deed.

Having started on the first four signposts that are more missiological, Fitch and Holsclaw move on to the next three signposts that focus more on theology and ecclesiology.

In signpost five, the authors focus on Scripture and argue against the Neo-reformed view of inerrancy and the Emergent view of interpretation. Instead, they affirm the authority of Scripture as the product of God’s mission in Christ by the Spirit. The Scriptures come alive as it connects the people to the Missio Dei.

Signpost six is about a gospel that is bigger than either the Orthodox version of forgiveness of individuals or the Liberal version of following the example of Jesus. Quoting Scott McKnight, Fitch and Holsclaw explains that the gospel is the story of salvation, not the plan of salvation. It is the story of how, in Jesus through the cross, God is now ruling over all sin, death and evil; and wherever His rule is extended, the world is reordered and restored. The Gospel is a Spirit-led invitation into a radical encounter with God’s Kingdom breaking into the lives of people. This invitation includes 4 on-ramps that enable the Gospel of the Kingdom to bring healing and transformation to all kinds of brokenness. These on-ramps are:
• On-ramp 1. “God is reconciling you in all your relationships”. God first invites people to reconcile with Himself by seeking His forgiveness and then to reconcile all other relationships through seeking forgiveness or forgiving others.
• On-ramp 2. “God is at work”. God not only invites people to reconcile all relationships; God also invites people to let Him into their different circumstances and crises. When they do that, people enter into His Kingdom and see a Kingdom breakthrough.
• On-ramp 3. “God has put the power of sin to death and is calling you into life”. As people find themselves powerless, trapped and overwhelmed by sin and addictions, God invites them to trust Him to remove the power of sin in their lives and to bring His breakthrough as they experience His Kingdom.
• On-ramp 4. “God is calling you into mission” God invites people to share in His mission in the world by seeking His righteousness, justice, and wholeness for the neighbourhoods they are in. By accepting the invitation, people enter into His Kingdom work in the world.

In Signpost seven, the authors go on to talk about the church as Kingdom communities where the focus is on practices rather than programmes. It is these practices that shape a group of people into a Kingdom community within a neighbourhood, enabling them to come together and submit themselves to the reign of Christ in their neighbourhood. When the church is immersed in these practices, they become Kingdom communities on mission. The authors list seven practices and they are
• Hospitality where Christians gather around the table of fellowship,
• Gospel Proclamation where Christians submit to the reality of the Lordship of Christ in every situation they are in,
• Reconciliation where relationships are continuously restored,
• Making Fringe People or the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25:31-46) as part of our everyday relationships,
• Welcoming Children into the life of the Church rather than keeping them separate in their own programmes,
• Practicing fivefold ministry and spiritual gifts
• Praying the Kingdom Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13).

The final three signposts focus on ethics – Prodigal Relationships, Prodigal Justice, and Prodigal Openness.

Signpost eight looks at Prodigal relationships where the authors address sexual brokenness. The chapter starts with the illustration of a Christian struggling with pedophiliac tendencies seeking guidance on whether he should serve in a youth camp. The church needs to be a safe place for sexually broken people to find healing in an appropriate manner. The authors encourage church towards being an ‘open and mutually transforming’ Christian community, where people facing sexual struggles can find love and healing.

In Signpost nine, Fitch and Holsclaw look at Prodigal Justice and challenge Christians to focus less on government policies and more on local issues, and engage with these issues of injustice relationally and humbly.

Signpost ten is about Prodigal Openness. The authors argue that the church is no longer in a period of a common story, practices and overall understanding of the biblical narrative. Instead of an overwhelming affiliation of all things Christian, the church in the west finds itself in a pluralistic society where the uniqueness of Jesus is shunned by society. It is in this society that the church needs to be open to the movement of God in the midst of pluralism. Fitch and Holsclaw argue
against the Neo-reformed approach asserting objective truth like they did in the past as well as the Emergent approach of listening and mutually respecting other views in order to reach a common good. Instead the authors explain the need to enter pluralism incarnationally. This means that even though the church holds the conviction that Jesus is Lord, it enters incarnationally into every dialogue or situation trusting God’s Kingdom to come into the conversation.

Conclusion
The greatest value I found is that the book resonated with my own thoughts and experiences that I have had in ministry over the last 25 years or so. With the shift towards a non-Christianized culture, there needs to be a new way of living for Christians that depicts the prodigal nature of God in His mission in the world. This new way of living takes the church on a journey that breaks down the boundaries around the post-Christendom, relationally scarred, sexually broken, estranged and marginalized peoples of our day. It is a journey that takes the church into a new frontier of God’s mission. In order for the church in the 21st century to be more effective, it needs to become prodigal.

One Comment on “How should the church function in a post-Christian world?

  1. This is a very complicated search for truth… Okay, so are we looking at the church as the prodigal? Church being Christians living in a modern non Christian world? Or are we looking at the non Christians as prodigals? As I remember the story, it was the Prodigal son who decided to return home without any pressure other than the realization that it was the best place to be… And he was welcomed back by the father.. But the rest of the family were miffed by it….
    The fathers rules had not changed and presumably life went on unchanged since the Prodigal left… So what does that tell us about this idea….
    The story of Jesus walking on water has been interpreted by some as his frustration that his teachings had not had the impact he had hoped for because Peter and the rest of the disciples had not kept faith with his teachings… so the message remains the same whatever way you present it, and to whom it is made.

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