1. Name one or two key factors that prompted the original idea for this book.
Twenty-five years ago I read the book Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon and found it life changing. However, at the time I could find very few people in the church (including myself) who could imagine anything other than what Hauerwas and Willimon would call a “Constantinian” imagination of the church controlling society. Over those same years, as a pastor and professor, I have watched the church slowly realize that Western culture is becoming increasingly post-Christian. As a result, I kept looking for a biblical way to narrate that shift. I kept coming back to God’s people experiencing exile as a helpful way of re-imagining the mission of the church in an increasingly secular age.
I also found that preaching from the Major Prophets—each of whom spoke to people in exile—resonated with parishioners in uniquely fresh ways. Ezekiel said much about how consumption, sensuality, and the quest for power destroy faith. Jeremiah invited God’s people to lament and let go of what they were losing so, with empty and open hands, they could receive the new thing God was doing. Daniel reminded the church about how difficult it was to raise children in Babylon. And although Isaiah invited the people of God to confess their sins, he also spoke words of comfort, hope, and imagination.
2. What three key takeaways would you like for the reader to experience from this book?
First, exile is difficult. In Scripture, when God’s people went into exile they had to re-imagine how to live faithfully in a strange land, with no temple, and with many cultural practices antithetical to fidelity to God. Today the church faces the challenge of transformation of imagination. Imagining the world and the Church’s location within it takes time and can be very painful.
Second, God is up to something good. Again in Scripture, God would rather send His people into exile than to allow them to live unfaithfully in the security of the land. Living in a “post-Christian” culture helps the Church rediscover its uniqueness. That is a very good thing.
Third, we are prisoners of hope. Two texts that have become central for me out of this study are Isaiah 49:6 and Zechariah 9:12. In Isaiah 49:6 the Lord declares that it is “too light a thing” for God’s people to simply survive through exile. God will, through exile, make the people a light to the nations. I love when Zechariah calls us “prisoners of hope.” That image is profound to me. The Church is neither optimistic nor pessimistic about what is happening inside and outside its walls; God’s people are prisoners of hope.
3. Do you have a favorite passage or chapter in this book?
That’s a little like asking if I have a favorite child. I do have a favorite idea that appears in chapter four. I think it is very important that the Church shifts its imagination away from programs to practices. Local churches will never stop developing various programs, but what will sustain God’s people and allow them to thrive today are particular character forming practices.
In a world where many, if not most. people had some Christian memory or experience, the church could offer various programs to attract people into more regular attendance or participation. In a world and culture largely lacking that memory, the emphasis of the Christian community will need to shift to the particular practices of worship and living that form a diverse group of individuals into the Body of Christ. Also, what will be attractive to the world will not be the church’s flashy programs, but the kind of character exhibited in the lives of those formed by the church’s unique practices.
4. If you were sitting beside the reader, what portion of the book would you want him or her to spend extra time on?
The next to last chapter deals with “Raising Resident Aliens.” I’m convinced that the primary fear of God’s people living in exile—especially in Babylon—is that they will lose their children to the prevailing culture. Unlike Pharaoh, who misused God’s people and threw their children into the Nile, Nebuchadnezzar wants the children of God’s people to sit at his table, pledge allegiance to his image, and be dedicated to the values and dreams of Babylon. Daniel, in particular, seems to realize that it is one thing to be a child of God living in Babylon, and it is something very different to be a Babylonian who attends synagogue on occasion.
As I have been out speaking on these ideas, this chapter seems to connect most with people. It is a tremendous challenge for the church to help young people transition into adulthood deeply connected to Christian faith. Over the last decades, the church has finally realized that it is one thing to raise Christians who happen to live in America, and it is something very different to raise Americans who attend church on occasion. The lure of consumerism, individualism, and secularity is unbelievably strong on our kids.
What I would want to whisper in the ear of every reader in that chapter is that the answer is not to have the church try to compete with the coolness of the culture or to simply change the songs we sing in worship. When we do that, we are trying to change people shaped by consumerism by turning faith in Jesus into one more commodity to be sold. It takes a missional community called the church, living faithfully, honestly, and passionately for Christ working together to immerse our children into the story and imagination necessary to live faithfully as God’s unique people in the world.
5. What specific ways can this book equip, encourage, or instruct ministers?
I hope that the book, and the additional materials developed for churches, will help ministers preach and lead with hope, creativity, and faithfulness during a very challenging time to be a congregational leader. But my primary hope for the book is that small groups of laity will use it within the entire church to open up conversations that might help those in the pew and the pulpit to have a new imagination and excitement for the mission of the church in this challenging age.