Film / Book Reviews

Faith in a hostile environment

Feb 2002    

Good News in Exile: Three Pastors Offer a Hopeful Vision for the Church
Authors: Martin B. Copenhaver, Anthony B. Robinson, William H. Willimon

 

 

IN THE foreword to this book, Walter Breuggemann describes Martin B. Copenhaver and Anthony B. Robinson of the United Church of Christ and William H. Willimon of the United Methodist Church as “post-liberal pastors”.

 

 

He did not mean that they have reverted to fundamentalism or conservatism. Instead they have moved beyond liberalism of the past. They find themselves now “in something of an ‘exile’, that is, in a context of doing faith in an environment that is variously hostile and indifferent to that faith”.

 

 

They were all nurtured in liberal assumptions – individual is the sovereign unit, certain values are universal, truth is self-derived, and common philosophical grounds. From their pastoral experience they recognised that fundamental changes have occurred and they have identified the changes in the life of the church. They have moved on to the post-liberal position and sought to characterise it.

 

Scripture: Our Home in Exile
Once again, as in the Old Testament time of exile and in the Reformation period, the centrality of Scripture is affirmed. “Scripture derives its authority not only from how the words got on the page, but also from how the words get off the page. That is, we believe that the best way to test the validity of the sayings of Jesus found in the Bible is to try to live by them! The greatest test of Scripture is the ways in which it has the power to shape faithful lives.”

 

 

The Bible comes alive when it is lived out in the life of the congregation. The Scripture is interpreted through faithful lives. In a sermon the responsibility is given to the preacher not just to share the views that he or she thinks the congregation needs to hear but “a chance for us all to consider what God thinks we need to hear through the words of Scripture”. We preach not to please the congregation but to please God.

 

Preaching and Speech: Words Make Worlds
The Church is generally very noisy and involves lots of talk. The Gospel we proclaim is meant to change the world. Words make worlds. “The Gospel doesn’t want to speak to the modern world. It wants to change it. God’s primary way of change is through words, by bringing a new world to speech.” A sermon is not meant to comfort the congregation, but to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

 

 

We are reminded that we are called not to conform to the world but to transform it. Our preaching is directed to a different world from the one we come from and familiar with. We are to “lure people to a different citizenship”. It is to the kingdom of God where God reigns.

 

Ritual and Sacraments: Beyond Words
In the situation of exile the rites and sacraments of the Church sustain us. “They enable us to tell, to hear and to act out the truth about ourselves and our world, and the truth about God.”

 

 

Rituals and sacraments separate those who participate from others, remind us that we are receivers of grace, and help us to discover the power of symbols and stories which takes us beyond the rational.

 

Christian Formation and the Teaching Ministry: Becoming Christian
The role of a pastor as teacher needs to be reclaimed. The three post-liberal pastors agree that “a renewal of the Church’s teaching ministry, of the Church as a learning community, and of the larger task of Christian formation is now essential”.

 

 

The pastor in charge is not a CEO of the local church or conference managing the organisation or responsible for church administration. He or she has the important pastoral and educational roles. They are complementary to one another. Teaching is not an option for the pastor but an imperative and an obligation.

 

 

The teaching ministry is not only for the elite or the experts. It has to do more with formation rather than just passing out information. People and congregations need to be in the process of formation as disciples and followers of Jesus.

 

Mission and Social Action: Beyond Common Sense
For the church in exile the very existence of the community that worships God becomes also a form of mission and witness. When we recognise that “those in need have a special claim on those who have encountered God, if the virtues required to address human need are cultivated in the community of faith, if more than being informed we need to be formed into faithful people for the sake of the world, then we tend carefully to our worship”.

 

Mission and Social Action: Beyond Common Sense
For the church in exile the very existence of the community that worships God becomes also a form of mission and witness. When we recognise that “those in need have a special claim on those who have encountered God, if the virtues required to address human need are cultivated in the community of faith, if more than being informed we need to be formed into faithful people for the sake of the world, then we tend carefully to our worship”.

 

 

Our missionary obligation is not just to pray and support financially our missionary work in foreign lands. More and more committed Christians want direct involvement or “hands-on” mission efforts and social action. They want to give of themselves in service.

 

Conversion: New Creation
Conversion calls for real change for God wants something better in our lives. In our encounter with the living God we experience a radical conversion, a turning away from pre-occupation with ourselves to devotion to God.
 

This book provides us with a template to be placed upon the life of the believer, the pastor and the church that we belong. It calls for a re-examination of our Christian ministry. Do we just continue to administer and maintain an institution and keep it going? What is the hopeful vision of the church in exile? These are some of the questions that we have to address as we confess our faith and profess that we are Christians and proclaim the Good News in our world today.

 

PASTORS’ ROLES

The pastor in charge is not a CEO of the local church or conference managing the
organisation or responsible for church administration. He or she has the important
pastoral and educational roles … Teaching is not an option for the pastor but an
imperative and an obligation.

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Malaysia and Singapore.

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