Jesus said “streetwise people are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. I want you to be smart in the same way.” Are we? Shrewd begin with understanding the times. If Christians are exiles in a land of exile, the first implication is that a lot of us are guilty of whittling rotten wood.
In 605 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II became ruler of the Babylonian Empire. He defeated the Egyptian army with the result that Judah, a vassal state of Egypt, came under his control. Nebuchadnezzar had built Babylon by plundering other cities, so Jerusalem was next in line. In 597 the Babylonians swept into Jerusalem for the first of three deportations. The initial one included King Jeconiah and his court.
Exile should not have come as a surprise. For hundreds of years God had prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. Exile meant the judgment had come to pass. This was tough for some of the Jewish leaders to admit, so they denied the deportment was exile. They assured the Jews it was a brief excursion and would prove temporary. One such prophet, Hananiah, predicted that within two years the Jews would return to Judea and Jerusalem would be restored. But God begged to differ. Through the prophet Jeremiah, he explicitly called the Jews “exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:4). He told the Jews to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (29:7). They were to ignore their leaders. “Do not let your prophets in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them” (Jer. 29:8-9).
It’s not easy to ignore some of our recognized religious leaders. Exile was God’s plan for renewal (Jer. 29:10-14). Renewal is Greek for the Latin innovation. In his highly acclaimed book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” Harvard professor Clayton Christensen writes how this requires disruption, which presents a dilemma. Leaders of established institutions tend to resist disruption since it upends their system. They have a tendency to protect assets (i.e., jobs) and embrace only sustaining technologies that make incremental improvements. If the church is operating in exile, the implication is some of today’s religious leaders will protect their turf rather than admit failure.
I regret not giving this more consideration over the years, especially as a consultant. Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem in the frame that created it. You only solve problems by reframing them. I have consulted with pastors and parachurch staff who wanted to engage culture. We reframed the gospel as a broader story about reality and often saw success. Success however rattled supervisors who saw their programs being upended. In many cases, the staff I was working with was told to return to the fold or resign. Their leaders were not interested in reframing paradigms. They were looking for new programs. Consequently, I’ve been instrumental in getting 40 to 50 pastors and parachurch staff thrown out of work. Not very shrewd.
I’m not called to a ministry of getting people canned. I failed to take into account that trying to renew established organizations is often simply whittling rotten wood. The implication from exile is that religious leaders are going to be more likely to try to tweak the system, urging believers to be more determined and to work harder, rather than admit failure and overturn the system. Looking back, I wish I had more carefully gauged the kind of wood I was working with. Neil Postman said any change is total change. Innovation is total change, requiring repudiation of established assumptions. It is a rare individual who does this, but my friend Tom Nelson fits the bill.
Tom wrote “Work Matters,” a book about faith and work. Yet in researching the subject of work, Tom realized he had long overlooked the contributions of the European Reformers. I understand this, as Tom and I went to the same seminary. We didn’t learn much about the work of the Reformers. In fact, some of our professors seemed highly allergic to them. Tom’s admission is a repudiation of much of our educational tradition, and rightly so. But it takes a very secure individual to do this, and that describes Tom. Working with his church has proven to be whittling good wood.
Tim Keller says the best way to make new Christians is to make new churches, but with the right DNA. Being shrewd to whittle good wood is part of the right DNA. Yes, this will often prove disruptive and require repudiation of some paradigms, but that’s how reality works. Repudiation is what sociologists say is part of a paradigm shift. Such shifts require a long time – the second implication from exile. And the subject of next week’s column.