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.
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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)