A colleague of mine at the seminary where I work recently presented a paper on the places in the world where the church had once been a strong and vibrant entity but, for various reasons, had become extinct within a few short generations. In each case, he pointed out that, at the height of the church’s cultural power, the idea that one day it would cease to exist in those countries would have been utterly unthinkable. Yet it happened. The possibility of such a thing happening in North America seems very remote, and yet the majority of us who participate in local church life understand that things have changed in terms of the church and its place in culture. At one time, not so long ago, the church stood at or near the center of cultural life. It played a vital role in helping to shape the contours of North American culture and was a significant part of the lives of most people within society. This is increasingly less true. Recent research done by the Barna Group indicates that just one quarter of American adults possess an active faith, with “active” defined as engaging in weekly prayer, church attendance, and Bible reading.1 In Canada a recent poll showed weekly church attendance at 17 percent.2 Similar polls show that younger generations are even less inclined to engage in traditional Christian rituals. While such data is limited in its overall analysis of religious life, few of us would question that trends in western culture are moving away from fidelity to traditional Christian beliefs and practices. This creates a new cultural reality for the church and continues to challenge church leaders as they seek to help the church find its way through the murky waters of contemporary culture.
Perhaps in these days of immense cultural change, where the once sure foundation of pseudo-Christendom that shaped Western culture slowly (and at times not so slowly) crumbles, exile is an appropriate motif for the church to understand itself. Several scholars, notably Walter Brueggeman and Michael Frost, have affirmed as much, pointing out that the experience of exile goes beyond simple physical dislocation. It is a cultural and spiritual condition where one feels at odds with the dominant values of the prevailing cultural ethos. Put simply, people can feel as if they are in exile without ever being
“cast out of the land.”
It many ways the biblical people of God are, by nature, exilic people. Has there ever been a time when the people who worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have not been a threatened minority, struggling to preserve their particular identity and beliefs? From the nomadic journeys of the patriarchs, to slavery in Egypt, to the constant threats of enemies throughout the period of the monarchy, to the drastic events of being conquered by Babylon (597–587 B.C.), and their subsequent existence under Persian, Greek, and Roman rule, the people of Israel have never lived as a super power.
In the New Testament, Peter describes his audience as exiles (1:1, 2:11). Perhaps this should be the experience of Christians within any given culture. Exile is, in its very essence, living away from home. This is at the heart of the Christian faith as we live away from our ultimate eschatological home, called to live in and see the world in a different way from the dominant culture.
If the paradigm of exile can help the church understand itself more faithfully in this current age, are there any resources that ancient Israel can offer to the contemporary church from their exilic experience? As the people of Israel responded to Babylonian and Persian exile, there are at least three contours of exilic life that connect with the 21st-century exile of the church in North America.
Learning the Language of Exile
The first priority for exilic living is identifying where we are and how we got here. In order to orient the church to its changing place on the cultural landscape, it will take honest reflection on our experience. Further, that experience must be given a voice if it is to become formative and ultimately redemptive in the life of the church. For ancient Israel, it was through the language of prayer that they named their experience and began to shape it in hopeful directions. It is in the bold prayers of lament, penitence, and hope that the experience of exile was described and understood. Just as these acts of speech formed the core of a spirituality that sustained the ancient community, so too can they inform modern communities in exile. In particular, the book of Lamentations and the exilic Psalms (44, 74, 79, 89, and 137) provide a canonical foundation for giving expression to the experience of exile.
While lament is not a practice widely utilized in many sectors of today’s church, it is the language that gives voice to a sense of loss and allows for the voice of protest to find its generative expression. In congregations throughout North America there is a sense of loss and sorrow that must be given voice. It comes out in church board meetings, informal conversations, and seminary classrooms. The sorrow is found in the cultural realities that remind us that the Christian faith holds less and less influence over the culture. Old certainties are not so certain, old institutions are eroding and carry less attraction to new generations; social fabrics seem to be fraying and are replaced with confusion, frustration, and sometimes anger. There is a lack of clarity about truth, authority, ethics, and what is “right.” The church itself struggles (sometimes unsuccessfully) to hold its membership, and finances are an ongoing struggle. These are sorrow-producing realities that are lamentable. To properly appropriate the resources of exilic spirituality, the congregation should find ways to lament these changes. There must be a refusal to decorate our marginalization with platitudes or empty complaint. In giving voice to our sadness the church will gain a voice that is honest and realistic, just as the voice of the poet was in Babylon.
He has cut down in fierce anger
All the might of Israel;
He has withdrawn his right hand
He has bent his bow like an enemy
With his right hand set like a foe;
He has killed all in whom we took pride
In the tent of daughter Zion.
The Lord has become like an enemy;
He has destroyed Israel.
Helping give voice to the sorrow of loss is a crucial pastoral task in the post-Christendom church. Further, prayers of lament allow us to speak a word of protest toward our host culture by expressing our sorrow at its idolatry and our refusal to be co-opted by it. Just as the gods of Babylon may have seemed powerful to Israel (after all, they “won”) and the opulence of the city may have been alluring, the faithful used lament as a voice to speak ill against both. Thus lament was subversive speech, rejecting both the idols and their seductive powers. We need to speak in a similar voice, naming the prevailing “isms” of contemporary culture as idols and clearly stating our opposition to them. Lament enables such expression. This happens through leadership. Leadership must help congregations define reality: How is culture changing? What impact does that have on ministry? How can the church faithfully respond? This is a significant task in the church’s life today, as helping people understand the answers to these questions is crucial to giving voice to their sense of loss and orienting them to new cultural realities. Also, corporate prayer, sermons, and formal and informal discussion groups, where people are invited to share their concerns and frustrations with the situation that the church finds itself in, are other venues for exploring and employing lament in its various forms. Without an honest articulation of our reality and a frank naming of those things that have contributed to our marginalization, incl
uding our propensity to be co-opted by them, the church can never fully engage the new reality of a postmodern, post-Christian society because it will never truly be oriented to it.
Prayers of penitence (or repentance) can also be easily brushed over in our corporate worship services. We either neglect the discipline or we are guilty of denying our complicity in things, instead blaming others for our demise and powerlessness. Yet lament must be accompanied by penitence if it is to become meaningful and ultimately give way to the renewal of hope.
For ancient Israel, repentance began to break through as lament gave way to the trickle of confession in their prayer tradition. Psalm 79 demonstrates this emerging voice:
Help us, O God of our salvation,
For the glory of your name;
Deliver us, and forgive our sins,
For your name’s sake. (Psalm 79:9)
How does the church go about the practice of corporate penitence? Further, what do we need to be repentant about? In 1971, as the Vietnam
War dragged on, the editors of The Christian Century issued a call to American Christians to lament their attitudes toward the war. They challenged the church for being too tolerant of those in power and too forgetful of the victims of war.
From here they listed several accusations against the governmental leaders and their handling of the Vietnam crises. Based on this lament they pressed further and called the church into a time of genuine repentance during holy week of that year. Following this, five statements were listed, calling for action and changed behavior on the part of the church in response to the war.
This example of a call to corporate repentance reminds us of the place for such activity. Are there places where the contemporary church has remained silent about (or even co-operated with) systems that injure others or advance agendas that ultimately lead to further human suffering? Maybe our collaboration needs to be assessed and confessed. While it can be controversial and painful, it is also a profound act of spirituality that sustains corporate life in the midst of exile. Having the courage to be honest about those things and calling for repentance through corporate prayer is a vital act of leadership for the church’s existence in a time of exile.
This is true because lament and penitence create the possibility for hope. Though the people of ancient Israel lamented their lot, they still believed that God was present to bring deliverance:
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
Restore us to yourself O Lord, that we may
be restored. (Lamentations 5:20-21)
The prayer functions as both a plaintive cry regarding God’s seeming absence as well as an acknowledgment that God is still present to restore. The writer/pray-er of Psalm 44 bursts forth in hopeful prayer after a time of lament and repentance:
Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast
love. (v. 26)
This is the fulcrum of hope for those in exile. God is never fully absent, thus restoration can still be part of the vocabulary of exilic prayer, and hope remains alive.
Even in the midst of drastically changing times the church can face its exile when it is willing to honestly name its circumstances, confess its sin, and ask God to move in fresh ways. Leading the church in the language of lament, penitence, and hope is foundational to contemporary pastoral leadership.
Living Life in Exile
When a people feel threatened and are displaced in some way, the community is always thrown into a situation where agreement on what to do next is not always clear. Ancient Israel found itself in such a situation. There was no agreement as to how to respond to exile. Some thought accommodation to Babylon was best, some resisted new cultural traditions and recommitted themselves to former ways. Others fled the mainstream to isolated communities where they could live their traditional lives unfettered by pagan influence. Still others took aggressive action against their oppressors. Finally there were those who sought to work with their occupiers to bring the benefits of the empire to Jerusalem.
While there was not a uniform response to exile among the people of ancient Israel, the prevailing canonical response clearly included a renewed call and commitment to holiness. Put another way, there was a call for the people of God to behave differently from their hosts, to present themselves as an alternative community. This is most distinctly present in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra, where the people of Israel are commanded to exclude non-Israelites from the community because they may contaminate it. However, it is also seen in the call to conscientiously renew the practice of Sabbath keeping (Jer. 17:19-27; Isa. 56:2-6, Ezek. 44:24) as an act of faithfulness to Yahweh, which in Babylon would have been a confessional act that would have made Israel stand out from its environment. The book of Daniel explicitly presents a Hebrew hero who is able to thrive in the court of a foreign king by being faithful to the ways of the God of Israel. Daniel embodies the call to holiness that was understood as being essential to Israel thriving as a people living with minimal power and influence in a foreign culture. His story gives testimony to the exilic ideal of presenting an alternate, set-apart way of life that challenges the status quo on one hand and yet brings blessing to it on the other.
The church is called to continue this calling and, in exile, it is even more important that the church show itself to be something other than a duplication of the ideals and ideas of the empire in which it resides. Instead, the life of the church must be marked by a distinct quality that allows it to be a continuation of Jesus’s own incarnational life.
This compels church leaders to explore with their congregations what exactly makes the church distinct in North American culture in 2008. In what ways are we called to live that reflect the beauty of God’s holiness in, and against, the place that we live as exiles? It may be that the most significant thing we can do as church leaders is to lead our congregations through a prolonged, careful consideration of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and ask what it would mean for us as a Christian community to truly embody its principles in contemporary life.
Engaging in Mission While in Exile
For ancient Israel the loss of land and political autonomy was a catastrophic and potentially terminal event. They were, after all, a people whose identity as God’s people was predicated, at least in part, upon their appropriation of the land promised to them by God himself. Such a disorienting turn of events could easily lead them to neglect their calling to be a witness to the life and ways of God to the rest of the world. However, the exilic prophets would give the people no such option. Isaiah reminds the people that they remain a “light to the Gentiles” (42:5-7). The story of Jonah reveals God’s intention that Israel be a witness to their subjugators so that they may come to repentance despite Israel’s resistance to such a notion.
As the church’s power and influence as a predominant shaper of cultural life ebbs away, it leads the church to struggle with its identity in a new societal arrangement. Yet, if the church is to find its way in its new exilic reality, mission must take a central place in its self-understanding. Further, it must understand that being involved in mission is not the same as it used to be.
For many years churches have had the luxury of being able to engage their culture by simply being present. A church could open its doors and, by offering Sunday worship and some standard programs, it could develop a congregation. This may be an oversimplified description of reality, but not by much. Churches that grew faster and larger often did so
by running innovative programs that were deemed to be “relevant” and thus reached more people because of their “cutting-edge” approach to church-based programming. This model is becoming less and less useful. As the gap between church and culture increases and the general population becomes increasingly unchurched, attractional or invitational models of mission can no longer be counted on to work. If the church is to live out its calling as a witness of the gospel it will become necessary for it to see itself as a missionary to its culture. This means discerning ways in which the church can go into its community and engage it with acts of servanthood and proclamation instead of running programs in the church building itself and hoping that people, in a culture that is increasingly distant from organized religion, will keep coming to them.
For ancient Israel, setting up a temple in Babylon was not an option. Even if it had been, would it have been in any way realistic to expect the citizens of that city to ever set foot inside? Instead, Jonah is called to go and proclaim a message of mercy to the people of Nineveh. Daniel is called to a place of secular service where he is able to demonstrate the superiority of his God as compared to the gods of Babylon. The people are instructed to settle in Babylon and “seek the prosperity of the city.” (Jer. 29:7) This is the place of mission in an exilic setting. Church leaders have to figure out how to emulate this in the post-Christian culture of North America.
This involves at least two key activities. The first involves the work of education. For many within the established church there is an inertia that causes them to think that not much has changed or, at worst, that those changes are superficial and have little impact on the life and ministry of the church. In Canada the cultural shifts that have taken place in the last 40 years are almost unfathomable. While the situation in the United States may not be as drastic, and in some places the concept of the church being in exile may even seem ludicrous, this is a temporary lag. As we have already noted, the work of researchers like George Barna demonstrates that cultural and ecclesiastical norms are in tremendous flux. Helping our people see the realities and their looming impact on ministry is a major responsibility for contemporary church leaders, just as warning Israel of pending judgment was for the prophets.
The second vital activity for leadership is to increasingly look outward and identify the needs in the local community in which the congregation resides. As these needs are discerned, the temptation is often to create programs within the walls of the church that will meet those needs. Instead, the work of the church must become more outwardly focused, and there needs to be a growing understanding that its work is accomplished outside of traditional church programs and through mobilizing its membership to “go” (Matt. 28:18) and serve in creative ways outside the walls of the church. Thus the work of discerning community needs and helping church members see how their ministry energies can be best expended in helping to meet those needs is primary pastoral work for a church in exile.
While exile presents immense challenges to a people, just as Israel found its way through exile so, too, will the church today. Not because we are so astute but because God is always faithful to his promises and is constantly working in new and inventive ways. The work of ministry in an exilic context is to discern what God is doing and how he may want us to collaborate. These are challenging times. The move into exile was a devastating event in Israelite life and faith, and it is disconcerting for many in the contemporary church. But, as Episcopal priest and theologian Ephraim Radner eloquently states, “Exile is also a movement by which our Lord delineated deliverance. As such, it can hardly be a cause for fear.”3
NOTES1. Seewww.barna.org to access this report.
2. This comes from a recent Ipsos-Reid poll, as reported bywww.canadianchristianity.com.
3. Ephraim Radner, “From ‘Liberation’ to ‘Exile’: A New Image for Church Mission,” The Christian Century, October 18, 1989, 931–934.
Questions for Reflection
- Do you think exile is a viable way to begin thinking about the church in contemporary culture? Why or why not?
- Can your congregation begin to utilize the disciplines of lament, repentance, and hope in its life together? How can they be implemented as a part of congregational life?
- What are the educational needs within your congregation in terms of being attuned to the realities of an increasingly postmodern, post-Christian culture? How can you begin to help your church grapple with these realities?
- How can your congregation engage in mission in its community? What are the opportunities and needs there?