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Speaking directly to pastors and church leaders who find the liberal/conservative polarity tired and unhelpful, the authors interact with the theoretical work of George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and others as they trace strategies for a new way to do church. The three authors also provide autobiographical sketches that tell how their years of diverse church experiences have led to their new perspectives.
It is said that it is amazing to see a dog play checkers, even if the dog does not win, because it is an odd and unnatural act. In some circles, given the diminishment of ministry, it is thought as odd to see pastors doing theology as it is to see a dog playing checkers. These three first-rate pastors, against such a parallelism between checkers and theology, make clear that doing serious pastoral theology is neither odd nor unnatural, even if it has become rare among us. It is rather one of the most normal, appropriate, and needed acts of pastoral ministry, for critical theological reflection is urgent and welcome in church traditions that have nearly lost their way.
This book by these three remarkable colleagues (who represent quite different and distinct theological backgrounds) is a welcome contribution to the current ferment in church life. Of course this offer of practical theology does not begin de novo, for they have read and thought seriously about the interpretive offerings of George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas. They have understood that the old "liberal," mainline churches are now deprivileged and sidelined and are in a new situation that requires different perspectives, different categories, and different interpretations. This "post-liberal" posture, however, should not for an instant be understood as any concession to old-line conservatism, for that is not what they intend. Indeed, they see clearly that old-line liberalism and old-line conservatism are two peas in a pod, and neither will avail much now. Their work is rather a recognition that the old-line "liberal" churches are now without privilege, advantage, or clout, and so find themselves in something of an "exile," that is, in a context of doing faith in an environment that is variously hostile or indifferent to that faith. Such a new context may turn out to be hugely emancipatory for the church.
I am encouraged that these three pastor-theologians are not in any direct way "church politicians" who vie for impact in organizational enterprises. They are not trying to impose. Gratefully they are not one more voice announcing that they occupy the "middle ground," for it does seem that every contentious caucus in the church offers itself as the "happy center."
Rather than making such a characteristically self-serving claim, these three understand that the deprivileged church now faces an invitation to a peculiar identity so that it can travel light, because it does not need to be a "cultural carrier" for all things good and noble. Insisting that now "it is all conversion," the book suggests that the United States is a mission field in which all sorts of would-be believers still wait to be invited to the peculiar missional identity of the Christian.
Not everything here is new, for much of the book reflects what is now standard fare in such discussions. What is new is that here speak pastoral voices considering how this new challenge of the gospel takes shape in the actual practice of congregational life.
— The book teems with concrete pastoral examples that show how new interpretive categories work "on the ground."
— The book pays attention to the discipline of the lectionary. While the lectionary is of course open to criticism, it does deliver the church from "Lone Ranger ministry" and hints of ecclesial and integral dimensions of the pastoral office.
— The book is acutely sensitive to sacramental matters that count for a great deal with exiles. When the congregation cannot any longer depend upon mechanical cultural supports, it must fall back on its own peculiar indices of the holy that make life livable.
— The book hints at openness to the traditions of Pentecostalism as an alternative to old-line liberal rationality, an awareness that God's purpose and power do not necessarily inhabit social respectability and control.
— The book underscores the teaching function of the ministry, an accent on the central claims of faith that override the emotive quality of "therapeutic" models of ministry.
One can see why the authors conclude that "the natural habitat of theology is the church." The book is a powerful summons and invitation to focus upon the congregation as the primary unit for the church. That will require, in many places, a serious reappropriation of the pastoral office and an ecclesiology that goes back to missional categories. Thanks is due to Martin, Tony, and Will for their courage in making such an insistence.
In the context of checkers, one can occasionally hear the dog say to the playing partner, "Your move." In this powerful work of pastoral theology toward new missional identity, one can hear these three saying to the church they address, "Your move." They are calling for a move of repentance, passion, and intentionality, a move into the liberty of exile, unencumbered, free for distinctiveness that eschews any pet project — liberal or conservative — distinctiveness that is a gift from God before it is mission in the world.
Columbia Theological Seminary
March 26, 1998
This book began as a conversation among three friends. It took shape as we swapped stories about our congregations, reflected on our experiences, and talked about our convictions, as pastoral colleagues are wont to do. Through those conversations we discovered that, from quite different starting points, we have come to something that resembles a common destination.
We were raised in three different denominations that used to be referred to as "mainline Protestant." We now serve congregations in two of those denominations: the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ. We are from the South, the Northwest, and the Northeast. Currently, we serve as pastors in very different settings: a college campus in the South, the center of a major city on one coast, and a suburb of another city on the other coast.
Yet, out of that diversity of background and setting, we have much in common. We can imagine some of our colleagues responding, "Of course you have a lot in common! You are all white male pastors who were born at one end or the other of the baby boom!" It may be best to come clean about that from the beginning. That is all true.
Nevertheless, there are other points of commonality that run deeper than that. We were all brought up in churches that are often called "liberal." We use the term "liberal" not so much in the political sense — as in the dichotomy between "conservative" and "liberal" — but in the philosophical sense. That is, we were nurtured in the assumptions of liberalism: that the individual is the sovereign unit of society; that there are certain universally experienced values inherent in all people everywhere; that there is no truth other than that truth which is self-derived; that it is possible to find some neutral philosophical ground whereby conflicts between points of view can be resolved.
Yet each of us, by our own winding paths, has departed from that way of approaching the world and has ended up somewhere quite different. That is, we have come to question the basic assumptions that governed the churches that nurtured us and that, in many ways, are still evident in the churches we serve.
We know that we are not alone in this. Increasingly there is a sense among those who serve the church that something fundamental has changed. So this is not so much a book about how our minds have changed as it is a book about how the world has changed and about how the church might respond faithfully to those changes.
The changes we see are not easily summarized. The implications spread out in so many different directions that no aspect of the life of the church is unaffected. So, in part, this book is an attempt to identify what has changed in various aspects of the life of the church and to trace the implications. We have tried to "connect the dots," and then to stand back far enough to consider the picture that emerges.
This emerging way of understanding the church is sometimes called "post-liberal," but that, of course, is more of a label than a description. And it is not even a very good label at that, because, although clearly we are surrounded by the vestiges of an old and familiar era, we are entering a quite different era, full of risks and opportunities, that is only now beginning to emerge.
We believe that, in many ways, this new era can be described as a time of exile. For North American Protestants it is a time of loss, of relinquishment, of disestablishment. In short, we no longer live under the illusion that we are in charge. That would be "bad news" for us if we did not remember that our God already has considerable experience in working powerfully among those who are in exile. As the history of Israel demonstrates, a time of exile can be particularly rich and fertile. There is opportunity in relinquishment. When we let go of an old reality we have the chance to welcome a new reality in ways we could not have foreseen. The Good News is that now this new world is breaking in among us.
Again, we know that we are not the only ones who have observed this. We write, however, from a particular perspective, grounded in the realities of the parishes we serve. As pastors, we have seen the ways in which these changes touch down in individual lives and in the lives of our congregations. That is the perspective we aim to share in this book.
We begin with three autobiographical prefaces. In each of these accounts we speak individually about where we started and how we ended up where we have. Then, in each of the succeeding chapters, we consider a particular aspect of the church's life, tracing what we see as some of the changes that are evident in our congregations and the particular opportunities that accompany those changes. The areas we address are illustrative of changes that we are sure could be traced in other areas as well. That is, they are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive.
As this book began in a conversation, it is written in the hope that the conversation might broaden to include others who love the church, and worry about the church, and yet live with hope. That hope is forged on hard realities, including the loss of much that the church has held dear. If ever there was a time for us to hold fast to a resurrection faith, this is it. And that is Good News, indeed.
|Growing Up Liberal and Beyond||5|
|The Making of a Post-Liberal||13|
|Up from Liberalism||27|
|Scripture: Our Home in Exile||33|
|Preaching and Speech: Words Make Worlds||45|
|Ritual and Sacrament: Beyond Words||59|
|Christian Formation and the Teaching Ministry: Becoming Christian||75|
|Mission and Social Action: Beyond Common Sense||91|
|Conversion: New Creation||107|