It’s getting harder and harder to have good theological conversations around Mission and missional church. And yet, the manifestation of our many problems in the movement itself begs for more discernment.
One of the things I and Geoff Holsclaw were aiming to do with Prodigal Christianity was to open up some new avenues for discussion on what it means to be church, gospel and witness in the world. We saw it as important to take careful note of the contributions of the Progressive/Emergent Church voices as well as the Neo-Reformed/Gospel Coalition/Acts 29 voices. We put forth a distinct Anabaptist/Holiness/evangelical path towards engagement on these issues. We offered why we felt this history had things to offer our churches and leadership in these times when culture in the West has turned decidedly post-Christendom.
What has happened since? What conversations and discussions have happened?
A Google Blog search on “Prodigal Christianity” reveals that, generally, progressive Christians have engaged the book, pushed back and/or had an adverse reaction. Friends who were already inclined towards this “radical” form of Christianity have embraced the book’s exhortations and been encouraged. The voices of my brothers and sisters in the Neo-Reformed camp have been largely non-existent. Here’s a summary.
1.) The Progressive Camp have pushed back. Sometimes aggressively. They are however generally the most active in blog conversations. They are practiced at it. The Homebrewed Christianity podcast is one of the best places for intelligent conversation with plenty of time to nuance answers. It’s progressive. I recommend subscribing to the podcast to every one no matter what theological ilk you may be coming from. On the recent podcast with me on Prodigal Christianity, Trip asked questions about my pushback on FB concerning Rob Bell’s public pronouncement on gay marriage. We had a good discussion on my “Refusal to Take a Position” approach to the church’s engagement on various LGBTQ sexuality issues. I want to continue to limit Christian discernment on alternative sexuality issues to local spaces. I can see supporting LGBTQ civic unions/’marriages,’ which I think makes sense in a post Christendom world and offers justice and support to gay and lesbian people who get discriminated against via the legal system. Indeed I think it may finally force us Christians to define what marriage/sexuality (and our practices for nurturing both) means for the Christian versus alternative understandings. This is something we desperately need to do. But as to the how our sexuality is to be shaped and formed in our lives out of one’s submission to the Lordship of Christ and the Kingdom, that is something we must enter into communally, locally and out of one’s submission to Christ. We must make space for this kind of presence and work to take place in our lives and we cannot always predict or control what God is doing.
The reactions however in the comments of the podcast were largely negative. They reveal some of the most common progressive responses to Prodigal Christianity. One of the main complaints is that I asked my own church (evangelicalism) to “shut up” on the LGBTQ sexuality issues, stop making pronouncements, pay attention to our own duplicity and the lack of wholeness in our own sexual lives and marriages, and “be present” with LGBTQ people in their own lives and neighborhoods, opening pathways for the Kingdom. I got exuberant in the midst of it all and asked my church on the podcast to“just shut-up.” But what is odd is that people in the comments thought this act – telling yourself and your own church to shut-up – was duplicitous in itself. Telling yourself to shut-up is duplicitous? while urging others as well to not take a position? It’s duplicitous evidently because I am making a pronouncement (“shut-up!!”) about how the church should not make pronouncements.
To me this logic may just be too cute. It smacks of drawing an internal contradiction for the sake of scoring points on finding contradictions.
Nonetheless, to me, this whole conversation reveals my inability to communicate on the epistemological/political/cultural/theological frameworks I’m using to understand the church’s place in the world. I’m asking for a way of engaging culture that overthrows the grand Enlightenment posture. I’m suggesting we are not in power and need to work from a posture of humility working out our discernments in communal spaces of the Kingdom. I’m asking us to be aware of how easily our engagements with society can be over-determined by the ideologies offered to us and how we must discern this as a hermeneutical social body. This takes listening, and “shutting up” and tending to what God is doing among us. This undermines the way we have understood our engagement with society, our idea of who is in control (we are not) and the way God works (something we cannot predict). And so Homebrewed Christianity has forced me to think about my communication style, how I am not connecting to justice concerns outside the church that somehow get missed in my excessive push for local discernment (for instance I think I need to talk more and explain more what I think about civil unions/marriage. Admittedly, my sometimes laser focus on the local has distracted me from addressing those concerns). So these discussions have been helpful. Moved me further. Thank you Homebrewed. Thank-you Trip and Bo. Thank-you progressives for getting on my case.
2.) The NeoAnabaptist/Holiness/Post Foundationalist Evangelical Camp has offered a lot of positive feedback from that podcast (albeit privately via email etc.). Many blog posts applaud our approach from people who already understand the issues in the ways I am framing them. We’ve been in these conversations for a while. Zach Hoag did mention the shortcoming mentioned above. But by and large Zach’s post and many others seem to get what we’re trying to display in this book. These are people most often found in the Neo-Anabaptist Camp, the Holiness evangelical camp, the Missio Alliance camp. No surprise here. There’s a lot of us out there, but we don’t blog as much. Nonetheless, the feedback, discussions etc., both in person and via internet, have been helpful.
3.) The Neo-Reformed Evangelical Camp has been largely silent. In the midst of all this other conversation, there has been a glaring lack in conversation with the Gospel Coalition, TG4, Neo-Reformed people. By this I mean no blog interactions, no facebook interactions, no intersection of our streams of theological work in conferences. This to me is a problem.
I remember the crickets in 2011 from the Neo-Reformed camp on Scot McKnight’s book King Jesus Gospel. The Gospel Coalition seemed to avoid the immense conversation generated around Scot’s book (except for one review. See my comments here). Why? Perhaps the Neo-Reformed blog/media groups are suffering from the sting from from John Piper’s infamous tweet that literally catapulted Bell’s book Love Wins into NY Times bestseller status. I get why they would want to be more careful. So let’s go small, local, invite our churches to hold conversations in the neighborhood between churches. I remember we tried to pull in some larger “Neo-Reformed” voices to dialogue with us on the gospel at Missio Alliance. Granted the persons we asked were likely just plain overbooked and we did probably ask too late. I’ve asked some of my friends in the Neo-Reformed world to review Prodigal Christianity and have a dialogue. To this point we haven’t been able to get anything done?
So my question is, has the Neo-Reformed quit talking? (because of the Rob Bell episode maybe?) Are there concerns about too much dispersal? Is the rest of the Christian conversation, including progressives, Missio Alliance, Holiness church movements, (including Prodigal Christianity) too small to be worth the conversation Have we the Holiness/Anabaptist/Centrist Baptist/ Centrist Reformed been too unfriendly/alienating in our engagements (I am sure I myself can improve on this)? If so we need to repent. Conversations, cross polinating via blogs, is good. We need to do it via conferences.
In my opinion, the state of conversation in the new missional movements is not good. We need to keep and refine our theological distinctives (only by doing this will good conversation and theological development occur). But we also must seek to overcome the dividing of turf before it happens. What do you think?