Prodigal Christianity: An Interview w/ Geoff Holsclaw

Geoff Holsclaw is a co-pastor at Life on the Vine, a professor at Northern Seminary and is married to Cyd Holsclaw. Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch have written a theologically accessible new book titled Prodigal Christianity.  

I deeply appreciate David and Geoff’s work. Both are giving a fresh voice to the Missional-Anabaptist expression (check out my review here). Together they forge some tough ground beyond the exhausted Conservative, Liberal, and even Emergent landscape.  
At the heart of Prodigal Christianity is a deep wrestling with how to be the presence of Jesus as the vestiges of Christendom’s influence crumble.

I recently caught up with Geoff Holsclaw to chat about his new book and how it lands for him as a pastor.

Dan Jr: This was the first book that you wrote (with David Fitch), what did you find to be the main challenge in writing it?

Geoff: Yes, this was our first book written together.  The main challenge we had in writing it was blending our writing styles.  Each of us was convinced that we were the better writer, so we were constantly battling over just how to phrase things (ha).  Thankfully all our theology was congruous, so really, we were just working on matters of presentation rather than substance.

Dan Jr: What is your favorite chapter in the book and why?

Geoff: By far my favorite chapter in Prodigal Christianity is the third on the Incarnation. I think understanding how and why God came to save us is essential for all missional churches.  Too often we have a small view of the Incarnation as God joining our context (the human condition) and that being ‘incarnational’ as a church also means entering our context more fully. This of course is essential, but the Incarnation is so much more than this. We talk about how, in the baptism of Jesus, the heavens are torn open and God is breaking out (coming down). Through the Incarnation God is loose in the world, on a mission to renew all things.  For us, being incarnational means that God is still recklessly breaking into the world through a prodigal people.

Dan Jr: You co-pastor at Life on the Vine in Chicago, what do you observe to be the most challenging in cultivating community in a Post-Christendom, Post-Attractional, Post-Universal, Post-everything context?

Geoff: The most challenging part of cultivating community in our post-everything context that we live in such a transient culture.  Without relying on positions of authority, without amazing people by our services, everything is based on relationships. And relationships take time. But very often people move away or just don’t make the time for deep relationships.  On top of this, we often send our deepest friends out on mission, so because of mission we add to this transience (but in a good way).

Dan Jr: I’ve probably never been more aware of how polarized our culture is.  Passions run deep on our preferred political issues.  How has Life on the Vine created space for both more conservative leaning and more progressive leaning Jesus-followers to unify around community and mission together in the same church?

Geoff: Let’s begin with the last question’s answer: it is all about relationship. It is funny that the more conservative people in our church think that our church is mostly filled with liberals. And then the liberals all think they are the minority in a church full of conservatives.  But I think it is good that people still stick around.  We create space for this by continually proclaiming that the church is a different social and political space, that we are never totally continuous or discontinuous with political parties and policies.  We constantly speak of how Jesus is Lord, and that we have given our allegiance to him. 

Of course this is difficult to maintain and takes constant work.  Sometimes we still have people question my pastoral qualifications based on what they perceive to be my political views.  The best way to lead people through these issues is to ask questions about why these things are so important to them, find out where they are coming from, and then just keep re-directing them to Jesus as Lord (Lord of our political systems, Lord of our economic systems, Lord of everything).

Dan Jr: What aspect of the Missional-Anabaptist perspective do you often feel is most misunderstood?

Geoff: I think what it means for leaders to practice mutually submission to one another.  For some this means there is no leadership, that everyone just stands around looking at each, and no one makes a decision.  Others time is people think this is just passive-aggressive behavior—that those who are in charge claim they are not in-charge, but everyone knows they are really calling the shots behind the scenes.

But true mutual submission is both a posture of humility and a practice of dialogue.  As a posture of humility, every leader must live the pattern of Philippians 2:5-11: Even though the leader has the position of power, they do not consider this power something to be clung to, but becomes a servant of all.  This posture never coerces or demands, but always offers and invites, trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work in the community.  As a practice of dialogue, mutual submission engages in faithful and trusting conversation that is not passive or meek, nor demanding or demeaning.  This posture of humility and this practice of dialogue require that we truly believe in the priesthood of all believes, filled by the Spirit, guided by the non-violent ethic of Jesus.  Let us not valorize non-violence as just pertaining to physical assault.  Rather, every practice of leadership should be non-violent.  This, I believe, is one of the most revolutionary, and yet most often misunderstood, aspects of a missional-Anabaptist perspective.

Dan Jr: The book has received some rave reviews but has also received some heat for its labeling and criticism of the Emergent movement.  Brian McLaren responded to your book by saying “they seem to be trying to seize the radical middle as moral high ground”. How do you respond to this?

Geoff: I would agree with the first half of the statement, but not the second half.  Certainly Dave and I are trying to articulate a “radical middle” that is not just the “best of” pulled from conservative/progressive theology, but is something truly different, something more than just the “middle” of a continuum.  In Prodigal Christianitywe claim that the endless oscillation between conservative and progressive is merely a pendulum swinging, anchored in the ceiling of Christendom.  We don’t want to be on that continuum at all, and see the radical middle as breaking out into something totally different. And yet it is still connected to orthodox, even evangelical, beliefs and practices.  We are articulating the radical-evangelical-anabapstist-missional-middle.

But we in no way seek to claim the “moral high ground.”  This kind of talk is used of those who seek to take the “moral high ground” while at the same time throwing their opponents under the bus (i.e. we have to make an enemy of somebody in order to feel good about ourselves).  Dave and I, even while make distinctions and criticism, never merely dismiss those we disagree with as if on some heresy hunt.  You can never do this if you have the posture and practice of mutual submission, which is what we are trying to do, and is what we advocate in the last three chapters when it comes to issues of sexuality, justice, and pluralism.  Only Jesus has the “moral high ground,” and he didn’t wipe people out because of it, but suffered and died to show a new way to live, to disarm the powers that perpetuate that lies violence, and destroyed the penalty of sin. If he, having the “moral high ground” but did not use it against other, then shouldn’t we also do the same as his followers?

Dan Jr: Why did you see it essential to use labels and comparisons (Emergent, Neo-Reformed, Mainline) in writing this book?

Geoff: ‘Essential’ is perhaps too strong a word, but we did think it useful to use these labels.  Comparing things is necessary for all thinking and understanding (even though certainly labels can be used to degrade and exclude), so we thought it useful to be specific in what we think about mission by articulating it alongside other options.  As we note in the Introduction of Prodigal Christianity, “missional” is a very misunderstood though often used term.  We wanted to start to bring clarity to some of these differences.

Dan Jr: The term “Missional” gets a bit testy for some, bringing up images of colonization and imperialism.  How do you respond to these negative reactions to missional theology?

Geoff: Yes, “missional” can have that connotation, along with “evangelism” and “conversion.”  But I think we need to keep these words, but understand them from the perspective of the “crucified and risen Messiah.” This means that as crucified, Jesus calls people to himself non-coercively, humbly and through love.  And as the risen Messiah we must enter into mission knowing that Jesus is Lord and therefore we don’t need to “win” people, but that he is already doing this, and we just join him there.  The pressure, aggression, and potential imperialism should fall away as we follow the Crucified One.

Dan Jr: I attended the Missio Alliance Gathering and am curious what potential you see in this gathering?

Geoff: This is not the official statement of Missio Alliance, but I think the potential of a group like Missio Alliance is to gather communities, individuals, and institutions who don’t fit the mainstream (media/Neo-Reformed) narrative of being “evangelical” but still hold to a broadly evangelical perspective that Jesus loves the world and is doing something to make all things right, that the scriptures are essential to knowing God and God’s ways in the world, that knowing Jesus will change you, and dare I say, that the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in the people of God and the world beyond.  I see Missio Alliance as for all the “other evangelicals”, or perhaps as an “alternative evangelicalism.”

Dan Jr: What are you currently reading now?

Geoff: Right now I’m reading Christology at the Crossroads: A Latin American Approach by Jon Sobrin, and Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church by Basil Studer.  I really want to dig into the doctrine of Christ as part of my next writing project. Also, I’m reading The World Is Not Ours To Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson.

Geoff’s blog geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/

Purchase the book Prodigal Christianity

Check out short Prodigal Christianity Videos

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