To be receivers of such a gift, we have to open the book, to read it with new eyes, new minds, new hearts, and to let go of past assumptions that no longer hold true in the church we have come to love.
Copenhaver, Robinson and Willimon invite us to learn a new language and to claim an identity as Christian people in a culture that is “sometimes friendly, most often indifferent and sometimes actively hostile” (p. 81). These three ministers, through their own experiences in the parishes where they serve, look for ways to do church in today’s cultural context, while never losing hope in how God works in the lives of God’s people through an earthen vessel we call church.
Copenhaver, Robinson and Willimon provide a pastoral-theological reflection on the changes in Protestant mainline churches, and the implications of those changes. Using the image of exile, these three pastors recognize and are able to name the strengths and limitations of civic faith and old-line “liberalism” and to share honestly why they find the liberal/conservative polarity tiring and unhelpful.
They also see that for North American Protestants it is a time of exile in that it is a time when “we no longer live under the illusion that we are in charge.” Paradoxically, that is indeed Good News! For they see that we have a real opportunity to begin the dialogue with one another. And to discover together who we are and what is church, and, in turn, to be the church and everything it does that “proclaims the meaning and practice of a way of life” that is specifically Christian.
Beginning with their own autobiographical stories, Copenhaver, Robin-son and Willimon give us more than a “how to” in developing effective ministry and pastoral skills for meeting the demands and hard realities of work and service in a changing church. They know first-hand the complexities of serving in a congregation, with the understanding that there are no easy answers. They put a human face and thus a human touch (sometimes gentle, sometimes straightforward) on the life and lives of pastors and congregations seeking to be faithful to God, while meeting new challenges of the gospel in their everyday congregational life.
With brilliance and candor, Copenhaver, Robinson and Willimon share with us their theological insights and pastoral experiences in the life of the church with chapters emphasizing the importance of Scripture, preaching, ritual and sacrament, Christian formation and the teaching ministry, mission and social action, and conversion.
From the chapter on Preaching and Speech, they say, “To become a Christian is to enter a ‘culture,’ a complex system of rituals, words, signs, symbols, habits and practices that make us who we are . . . . It takes time to be a Christian. It requires practice.”
From the chapter on Christian Formation and the Teaching Ministry, they say that “to be a teacher of the faith a person must be a lifelong learner.”
And from the chapter on Mission and Social Action, they say that “what the church has to offer the world is not common-sense approaches to the world’s problems. What the church has to offer is something uncommon, something that is not otherwise found in the world we aim to serve, something that is both odd and peculiar — that something called gospel.”
Good News in Exile is a must-read book. In using Good News in Exile to engage in dialogue with friends and colleagues of eight different denominations concerning the renewal in historically mainline congregations, I have found that even in exile we are not alone.