My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It regularly worries me when I hear Christians panicking and clanging the alarm, "We're being persecuted! Everyone is out to get us! Woe!" So it was refreshing to read "The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom" by Lee Beach, assistant professor of Christian ministry, director of ministry formation, and Garbutt F. Smith Chair of Ministry Formation at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario. In this 240 page softback, Beach's premise is not that Christians are being targeted and persecuted in the West, but that after centuries of being the privileged religion, we have now only become one of many. We have been pushed out of, or slipped out of, the limelight and set off to the margins. And our task in the present is to rethink what it means to be the church in exile, and how we do our tasks from the margin. In Beach's words, "I will attempt to help us begin to consider both a biblical theology of exile and some of the ways that the church can appropriate this theology in its practice as a church on the margins" (25). Though anyone can easily engage with the book, it is primarily written to church leaders.
The first half of the book surveys the Old and New Testament, showing how Scripture addresses exile, and the place of God's people when they have become the displaced people. Though Beach accepts the notions that Jonah, Esther and Daniel are only advice tales for exiles (not real people in real situations), and that the exhilic prophets were simply recording their prophetic imaginations, yet the insights he brings from those biblical books is very helpful and clarifying. From the Scriptures, and especially those addressing exile, Beach concludes that rather "than succumbing to the challenges of our own exile, we can choose to take another approach altogether and seek the road of a church renaissance, attempting to bring renewal" (135). I found this section to be very sensible and encouraging.
The second half of "The Church in Exile" is a thought-provoking attempt to tease out ways of being church in exile. For me, this section was hit-and-miss. Beach gives away too much with regard to liturgy and ecclesiology in order to become a renewed church in a displaced situation. Sometimes he slides into the doomsday-naysayer when he declares the demise of established congregations within a generation, especially if they don't change along the lines he's presenting. Alarm sells, and it helps to sell newfangled programs (I have mentioned before that church renewal movements assume a specific ecclesiology and sacramentology, and usually declare the demise of churches that don't buy their program. You can see it here). And yet this section sketches out several important perceptions. For example, leaders need to guide their congregations away from a Christendom mindset, into a church-in-exile frame of reference. In the contemporary setting, church leadership must offer an "imaginative vision to the church, one that refuses to be overcome by the circumstances around us that often speak of decline, demise and death...it is the kind of vision that offers new possibilities for understanding who we are as the church and what we can be in the midst of our current circumstances" (142). From there Beach works on several suggestive ways this can be done, and how it might work out.
"The Church in Exile" is important, especially for church leaders. It is a helpful starting point to launch a discussion on how to be Christ's church from the margins. It is normally free of alarmism, and speaks with a fairly level head and hopeful voice. If readers will work through it with discretion and discernment (not always accepting every conclusion or outlook), they will find they were glad they read it. With that caveat, I recommend the book.
I'm grateful to my friend, Paul Rebelo, for sending me this book as a gift way back at Christmas time.
If you're interested in obtaining the book, you can purchase it here: The Church in Exile.