Exile’s Song: Welcome to the Post-Establishment Church
In the first chapter of Good News in Exile, Martin Copenhaver offers this provocative statement, equal parts lament and hope:
Today the world is different from the one into which I was born, and today’s church is different from the one in which I was baptized. … The “kingdom” of American liberal Protestantism no longer exists. We are not in charge anymore, if we ever really were in charge. … I have come to believe that for liberal Protestants there is no returning to another time and circumstance when we seemed to be in charge, and that there are ways in which we can welcome these changes, as unsettling as they may be. That is, I am convinced that there is good news in exile.
… The future beckons us into a wonderful new world, the outlines of which are only now coming into focus. But it is a vision we can see only if we cease to expect that the future will look just like the past.1
Copenhaver’s words capture a reality that millions of mainline Protestants share. Like our exiled forebears in Babylon, today’s churches are now trying desperately to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.
As the Canon for Missional Vitality in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, my vocation is to be a companion to leaders who are navigating this strange land – the multicultural, multi-faceted, often secular neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. It’s a cultural landscape quite different from the one where most came to understand being Christian.
Good News in Exile helped me to name that experience of disorientation and the challenge before us. But the book also gave me pause. Looking at the copyright – 1998 – I realized just how long we have been caught in this spiral.
I also realized, with a shock, that the book was published the same year I was baptized. That means the church in exile is the only church I have ever known. And that strange land of which we speak, where the church is on the margins and exile is the norm, is actually my home. In this reflection, I seek to offer a word of welcome to the churches as they sing the Lord’s song in a land that is strange but also quite beautiful. It is a gift to be here, in exile.
I grew up in the South in the 1970s and 1980s, in a black family that somehow dodged deep commitment to Christian faith. I majored in religion at Wake Forest University, a Southern Baptist school in North Carolina, but dodged classes on Christianity. I even earned a divinity degree at Harvard, but dodged the big questions on my own faith.
Of course, God would not be deterred. A friend was teaching Sunday school at a poor, mostly black Lutheran church in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. He asked if I would help him with the kids. I asked if we could go to brunch afterward as well. He said yes. And thus began my delayed sojourn into Christian community.
It was at that church, in 1998, that I was baptized. Resurrection Lutheran was a ragtag community with a part-time pastor who loved Jesus so much you were a little embarrassed to look at him. It had a faded red door and an organ so decrepit they often ditched it and rocked the electronic keyboard instead.
It was a tiny church with a huge heart for a neighborhood filled with the city’s most broken people: foster children, gaunt HIV-positive men, crack addicts staying clean one day at a time. They weren’t just near the church or served by the church – they were the church. Most of the white folks had left for the suburbs years ago. Most of the people with money felt too nervous or too guilty to show up in Roxbury. It was just us: mainline liturgical Christians in exile.
Singing With Mary
It was my first church home ever, and it was glorious. I look back and wonder why. Why that church with its crumbling walls and broken people? Why that moment when Protestants were weeping and despairing of all they had lost? And I think I know.
I was not drawn by the hope of established privilege or perfectly executed liturgy. If anything, it was the opposite. I heard this powerful little church singing the Lord’s song as the prophet Mary, Jesus’ mother, had proclaimed it before them. They sang of a God who is turning the world around, a mighty God who is using poor people and bleeding women and illiterate fishermen and mighty ones who have fallen a long way down and single mothers in back-water towns with bellies bursting with the life of the Spirit. They sang about a God who used all these castoffs and outcasts and exiles to embrace and turn the world.
Nothing had ever sounded so sweet to my ears, and nothing has since. It is the good news, and it takes on special poignancy and urgency when you sing it in exile.
As a church leader, I also recognize the grief of Israel, the psalms of loss, despair, even anger. No one asked to go to Babylon. No one asked to lose all they had known. I see why they feared this was God’s judgment, or worse, God abandoning them altogether.
The World Has Turned
Our exile is not a judgment – not from God, not from me. There is no reason to demonize or dismiss conventional models of church and those who continue to meet God in them. But the call has become more complicated. The world has turned. We are not in that land anymore. I will tenderly hold those who miss the comfort, predictability, and status of an established church, the way Israel missed its temple. I am sorry for everyone who thought you only needed good preaching, good music, good pastoral care, and a good outreach team, and the people would flock. But we are not in that land anymore.
This is a real loss, and we need to take the time to grieve. Even as we wipe away tears, we need to look around. Our churches could make a home here in this new land. We could welcome this new reality – new languages and cultures, different faiths side by side, a church on the margins – and discover here great blessing, beauty, and wisdom. We could sing the Lord’s song as we never have before, here in this land. And we would find plenty of people who long to sing it with their whole hearts too.
Forging those relationships with our neighbors, the church in exile will have to take up new practices, the kind that the established paradigm did not require. Mainline Protestants will have to cultivate what Bishop Mary Glasspool of the Diocese of Los Angeles calls “cultural humility”– being humble and curious about the gifts of the communities around us, rather than trying to master and dominate them.
We will have to show up in strange lands and ask those who know the terrain to show what they have found beautiful, where they have also met God. And we will have to learn to sing the song of good news in exile with them, most likely in a new key.
What I know in my bones is this: It is a gift to be here in this strange land. You could weep or you could sing. I hope that, when morning comes, we hear you singing.
The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers oversees new and redeveloping congregations in the Diocese of Long Island. She is also author of Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation (Church Publishing, 2006) and co-author of the upcoming The Episcopal Way (volume one of the Church’s Teachings for a Changing World series), which will be published by Morehouse this fall.
1. Martin Copenhaver, William Willimon, and Anthony Robinson, Good News in Exile: Three Pastors Offer a Hopeful Vision for the Church (Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 6, 7-8.