We have read those books and come away with an idea or two about a particular practice or method, but rarely have we plowed deeply into the ground for something more substantive. Minding the Good Ground is an impetus for that kind of thinking and conversation. Although barely 150 pages in length, Vickers, who serves as Associate Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, identifies and addresses the issues thoroughly, yet precisely, but more importantly, theologically.
In fact, the author’s treatment of the reasons for our anxiety about the current and future state of the Church is the clearest, most precise analysis that I have read in any single volume. He summarizes the issues of decline, scandal, intra-denominational disputes, secularization, entertainment-obsession, globalization, the professionalization of ministry, and pervasive religious illiteracy. Ways to address these realities of Western culture and their impact upon the life of the Church have been offered by a host of prophetic leaders and movements. Ranging from “sticky” and “liquid” to “deep” and “purpose-driven,” there is no shortage of suggested solutions. Vickers identifies the task: “What is needed, then, is a theological vision of the church within which we can begin prayerfully to discern what the Spirit is saying to our churches through the many prophetic leaders and movements surrounding us today, and into which we can integrate their best insights and suggestions for how we ought to respond” . A “theological vision of the church”—here is the task, the value, the contribution.
Like a sermon structure of old, Minding is divided into three parts: the nature of the Church, the mission of the Church, and the sacramental life of the Church. When Vickers writes about the nature of the Church, his roots and training among Wesleyans becomes evident with his emphasis upon Pentecost, the Spirit, and life lived as a response of gratitude and generosity. Within the discussion, there is deep, meaningful, theologically-intricate language and imagery, but it is accessible with a bit of time, effort, and reflection.
As Vickers turns to the mission of the Church, he continues to write with precision and insight. In his treatment of “the language and logic of mission,” his identification of the “criterion of simplicity” and the “criterion of comprehensiveness” is enlightening as it reveals theological truths about our tendencies as believers in the postmodern West. When he describes how we, in our culture, have typically responded to pervasive church “decline” , it becomes very clear that he knows us—you and me. His list of solutions as we “seize control of the situation” calls to mind my conversations with my pastoral colleagues over lunch. Additionally, his four suggestions about how to respond to conflict involving worship “forms and media” [58ff.] is historically informed and theologically astute. Priceless.
The final section of Minding is devoted to the sacramental life of the Church and seeks to address the issue behind the issue: the why of church-life involvement and participation rather than the how of getting people to come. The axiom—“outside the church there is no salvation”—guides the chapter and is provocative for folks on either end of the conservative-liberal spectrum of theological affirmations.
It has been a long time since I read a book in which I constantly checked the endnotes to see the foundations or influences of a particular thought or conclusion. Minding the Good Ground had me turning back and forth, circling, underlining, and marking in the margins. It was a book for which I have been waiting, and I expect that I will be digging into this good ground again and again.
BRAD ESTEP is senior pastor of Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene