In conversation with Prodigal Christianity 4

Prodigal Christianity, by David Fitch & Geoff Holsclaw

Prodigal Christianity, by David Fitch & Geoff Holsclaw

The NuDunkers are discussing Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can join in the Hangout discussion Friday, 5/3 at 11 AM eastern. A YouTube recording of the conversation will be posted afterward.

First, some disclosure on where I’m coming from: my approach to faith has been primarily formed within the Church of the Brethren, a historic peace church tradition with roots in Anabaptism and Radical Pietism. That said, over the past 7 years I’ve also developed a deep appreciation for and found great conversation partners within the emergent/emerging/emergence church.

I start this conversation with David Fitch & Geoff Holsclaw’s Prodigal Christianity with such a disclosure because they too make a point to name their influences as radical neo-Anabaptists, namely neo-reformed theology and the Emergent church. Each of their ten signposts goes on to engage these two streams, which they deem as lacking the ability to “bring the transforming work of God in Christ across boundaries to those outside the influence of the Christian church.” Ultimately these signposts point toward a “way beyond” the authors describe as “evangelical Anabaptist” or “radical evangelical.”

There’s much I resonanted with in Prodigal Christianity, which is what I hoped for given some of the overlapping areas of identity and formation between myself and the authors. Their emphasis on the importance of communal discernment to seek the Spirit’s leading on difficult matters jives with my own commitments and experiences. Their portrayal of the church as an incarnational expression of the body of Christ fits well with the Church of the Brethren tagline of “Continuing the Work of Jesus, Peacefully, Simply, Together.” I’m 100% on board with their depiction of the Missio Dei (mission of God) as already taking place in our lives and the lives of those around us, and that our role is to recognize it and join in.

It does feel that Fitch and Holsclaw still skew a bit more evangelical than my own beliefs and practices, however I very much value what they are contributing to the  larger conversation and their attempts to, as a friend recently put it, infect evangelicalism with a strain of Anabaptism. Overall I would say that I’m on board with the approach to life, faith, and discipleship they describe as “prodigal.”

Still, I found the book much more difficult to relate to overall than I might have expected. Perhaps this comes from my strong, positive identification with the intersection of Anabaptism and the Emergent church, in comparison to the authors’ claim that emergent Christianity “lack[s] the substance on which we could live” and that it has “settled into another version of mainline Christianity.” Much virtual ink has already been spilled about this particular framing, by Tony Jones and David Fitch, among others, and I won’t go any further into this than to say that as someone who has experienced both my Anabaptism and my “emergence” as reactions against (or at the very least alternatives to) mainline Protestantism the assertion of becoming just another version of mainline stings quite a bit and inclines me to read the book with a defensive posture.

As a critique to their critiques of Emergent Christianity, I found their depictions to often be narrower than my own experiences. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been putting emergent ideas and practices into conversation with my own Anabaptism all along, but from my vantage point it seems that several of the ways they try to move beyond emergent theology toward something more missional don’t necessarily put them outside the larger conversations of emergence. Part of this comes from their primary use of Brian McLaren and Tony Jones as the exemplars of what it means to be emergent. In comparison, they draw from a noticeably broader set of voices in their critiques of neo-Reformed theology and practice.

The other thing that I found challenging to relate to was their use of language of the Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I know these are excellent traditional, biblical ways of describing the new reality that Christ revealed, enabled, and established. I myself even use some kingdom-language now and then. I get that they’re trying to re-define what “lordship” looks like, in the biblical tradition of proclaiming Jesus is our supreme ruler, not Caesar, and that Christ’s reign is vastly different than that of earthly rulers. Still, I find such archaic, patriarchal, exclusively masculine language less-than-complete when trying to convey the gospel. Christ is Lord and King, but Christ is so much more than that. The idea of submitting something to the Lordship of Jesus Christ may resonate well with someone who is coming from a post-fundamentalist or post-evangelical background, but in my experience such language just seems antiquated and difficult to make relevant for the post-Christendom “audience” Fitch and Holsclaw claim to be trying to make inroads with. Reclaiming language is an important act, but when the language you’re trying to reclaim offends and cuts off opportunity for such reclamation the effort is short-circuited.

Time and again I found myself thinking “if they just weren’t trying so hard to supersede the Emergent conversation” and “if they could just use a few different metaphors for Christ’s Lordship” this book would be a home run. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good, solid double, maybe even a triple, but in the end I’m still left a bit wanting.




  • Nancy B. Fitzgerald

    with you Matt, Haven’t read this one so I’ll put it on my list, but I agree about language that can be so off-putting.
    And when we are in an open congregation that is willing to seek and adapt to what God is already doing in the world, it makes these conversations, titles, definitions, not as important as the work of connecting people the ‘The Way’ and helping them follow it. (As we try to do the same.)

  • DanaCassell

    Agreed, brother, thought it wasn’t the language itself that caught me up, but the general starting point of contra-emergent/neo-reformed. I really appreciated the book (and the hangout!) but there remains some dissonance that I can’t quite figure out…maybe it’s language, maybe it’s theological starting points, maybe I’m just too sectarian for my own good.

    Thanks for this post and for joining in the hangout, brother!

  • Laura Stone

    Great post, brother. I like your point about Lordship language being particularly obtuse for post-Christian folks. That makes a lot of sense to me. Also, making sure we have myriad ways of naming God is always good… as soon as we think we’ve got God named, we’re in a very dangerous place. So, amen to the “Christ is Lord but so much more than that.”
    Can you say more about what things you particularly resonate with in Emergent conversations? How have you combined it with Anabaptist/Pietist stuff?
    Also, when I read the book, I also had to keep reminding myself that they are addressing a much more evangelical audience than me. I recommended the book to a friend of mine with exactly that preface. It provides a helpful middle language, maybe, but I found myself doing some internal translation here and there.

  • Pingback: Summer Reading | Stumbling into Abundance