Michael Metzger

Are exiles genuine exiles? For decades, scholars have described the Western church as toiling in exile. Millions of Western believers feel this. They’re called exiles, but I’m beginning to doubt whether most of them are genuine.

Exile seems to explain today’s church. “The experience that faced the Jewish exiles mirrors the church’s experience today,” writes Michael Frost of Morling College in Australia. In his book, Exile: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian World, he notes how “the biblical metaphor that best suits our current times and faith situation is that of exile.”

David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, agrees. In You Lost Me, he describes three types of young adults who have essentially dropped out and become “lost” to the church, including eight to twenty million exiles between the ages of 18 and 39.1 They feel like outsiders (exiles) in church as well as the wider world. I know exiles older than 40, so it’s reasonable to assume the total number exceeds Barna’s estimate.

My question is whether these exiles are the real deal. Walter Brueggemann, considered one of our most influential Old Testament scholars, believes the church is in exile. But in Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, he urges us to feel the “dislocation of the Jewish exiles in Babylon.” Dislocation is the operative word in exile.

A synonym for dislocation is Diaspora. Diaspora first entered the English language in the late 19th century. Drawn from the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, it means living “outside the land.” It described the Jews being scattered, living outside the Promised Land after being taken into exile in Assyria and, later, Babylonia. The Jews’ hope was to return to Jerusalem, to the Temple and its glorious worship. This formed their religious practices and cultural identity. For millenniums Jews have longed to return home, repeating “next year in Jerusalem” as an acknowledgment of hope.

I don’t see this sort of hope in today’s exiles. Most hail from the Protestant Reformation (1600s) or modern evangelicalism (early 1800s). These traditions were keen to do away with the concrete expressions of the faith in any one place, writes Iain McGilchrist.2 The invisible Church mattered most. It’s everywhere all the time, so “actual churches became less significant: every place was as good as any other in which to hold a service.” The church came to be associated with no place.

The Greek word for no place is utopia. I wonder whether the majority of today’s exiles are actually utopians. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, describes modern evangelicalism as “highly individualistic and consumerist.” This sort of faith orbits around a little sphere called self. Church tries to meet customer demand. It attaches little value to places. You can worship God equally well anywhere anytime—in nature, in bed on Sunday morning, or over family breakfast.

This is not the experience of genuine exiles. Throughout history, they longed to return to a place of communal worship and religious practices. How can modern evangelicals return to a place if they’re utopians—no place? You can’t return to a place you’ve never been to.

In one sense you can’t blame exiles. Most don’t want to return to individualistic and consumerist churches. I get it. But if they’re genuine exiles—a new Diaspora—they’ll long to return to ancient practices and places. Colleen Carroll Campbell’s The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy describes these sorts of exiles. They’re opting for faith traditions featuring “thick liturgies”—rich historical practices—as well as regular church attendance and participation in communion.

Iain McGilchrist notes that a faith “freed from having to consider the actual qualities of existing places” becomes “frictionless.” He observes how “the wheels of words lose their purchase, and spin uselessly, without force to move anything in the world in which we actually live.” Exiles feel this. If they’re genuine, a new Diaspora, they’ll return to orthodoxy. Otherwise, they’re simply utopians, a brand of believer that is of little benefit to the kingdom or the world.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011)
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)


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  1. Mike, I agree. I think the term “exile” gives people a pass! You are right, the church is still there… they may not like it, but it is there. Daniel et al did not have that luxury. Your point on “longing” is spot on. The longing I see is largely for self gratification. If “religion” does it, they wil take it… if not, they’ll take something else. Good insight. Thanks!

  2. Is ‘heaven on earth’ possible ? Isn’t this the reality that is sort? One resonating with the Christmas story. Are we reluctant to find Christ in a stable or by a well ? Is the present imbalance due to power dynamics between ‘temple’ authority and personal ‘temple’s ? Primacy being the presence of ‘love’.

  3. Mike,
    As an exile, I can only say that many of the faith traditions of the rich liturgical orthopraxy and orthodoxy is desperately void of sound expositional theology. I don’t long to return to women having a reduced role in Kingdom life, to rules and regulations surrounding baptism practices and I certainly reject the self-centered ideology of much of American Evangelicalism.

    The debate that we are having among our ekklesia’s is whether to do away with church or redeem it. As an exile, I don’t have hope that it can be redeemed, but I don’t believe McGilcrist is correct in his assessment that a faith “freed from having to consider the actual qualities of existing places” becomes “frictionless.” That implies that exiles aren’t engaging the great commission, and that hasn’t been my experience, although Barna’s data certainly states the opposite.

  4. Erik:

    You make many fine points. Agree with some while others require a bit of pondering on my part. My larger question – and I’m open to any responses – is to what degree American Evangelicalism can be redeemed (if at all). Comments?

  5. I think American Evangelicalism could be redeemed (in a small part) by accepting geographic limits and taking responsibility to love their location. I think the attraction model of regional churches is big business and will continue to be the main evangelical offering for a while.

    We are exiles in a number of ways. The theology of glory that Western Christendom practiced obscured that principle. Sentimental evangelicals and prosperity Gospel preachers deny that we should expect the lifestyle of aliens and strangers.

  6. Trent:

    Your observation regarding geographical limits has a historic parallel in government. Ancient Athens felt that democracy faced two obstacles: scale and human nature. Athenian democracy rested on a population of people able to appear on day’s notice from a restricted geography. Its most distinguished theorists, in fact, found Athens too large for a true democracy. Montesquieu echoed this idea in the 18th century. He felt that geographically large polities could only be held together by coercion–military might. Madison disagreed, feeling that checks and balances allowed for geographically large polities.

    Geographically large churches face the same obstacles as polities. Scale? Face time is too infrequent. Human nature? That would require built-in checks and balances, including a prophetic voice calling into question today’s “givens” regarding geographical scale.

  7. Mike,

    I’m reaching back to comment on this post, although I enjoyed today’s post on “Joy.” I am concluding our series on 1 Peter around themes of exile at Eastbrook and still wrestling with whether the American evangelical church in particular can recover both the dislocation and hope of exile.

    I want to believe that it’s possible but all around me (even within me) I see the strains of a consumer Christianity that is built on something other than the good news in Jesus Christ and exile faith. I am trying to chart a new course but, as we discussed before, it takes the courage to cut a new path in the jungle of inane American church-ianity.

  8. Mike, When I get busy I have to wait to re-read – or just not read past entries. I’ve come back to this one even tho I read it earlier because it is such a “loaded” (in a good way: rich) topic. It feels like the real concern hovering in the background is: how are we going to get young people back into the church? And I’d rather say “nevermind” as to whether there’s any authenticity to “exile-ness” for those missing from churches or those still in our churches in our present Western culture. When you’re unlikely to get nominated to run or elected as President as an atheist in at least one party (GOP) then we’re still a Christian culture as moldy as we might be. Maybe we’ll always be just cruddy & moldy as a church if you insist on counting up the millions and giving us a collective grade – but frankly we always will be. Can we really point to any time in 2,000 years when the collective church got A+ in every subject as a church? We’re a C-average world-wide church – and the disciples were no better. Extraordinary “scores” and martyrdom comes to individuals, not bodies. In a lot of ways when the conversation goes abstract – like it has when you compare ancient Greek politics with the church – I think you miss out on fine Christian testimonies of individuals and some local churches being extraordinarily faithful and loving. But hey, I like abstract thinking and the asking of questions and I really like the last paragraph. Friction comes with each other and the world and it can be very healthy – and yes – very unhealthy to not have it – and utopians don’t have it – and they’re to be pitied – but I think there are ways to win them over.

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