January 1, 2010
The Church in Exile
We live in a spiritual society. Bookstore shelves are lined with books on God, angels, the afterlife and spiritual self-help from every conceivable perspective. The evidence of a growing spiritual hunger is overwhelming, but as the sales of books on spirituality increases, attendance in churches is declining. Many Americans now profess to be “spiritual but not religious”—which is not a rejection of God altogether but a rejection of the God manifested by institutional church. It is the God revealed in the lives of Christians that is so distasteful to those seeking spiritual truth. The American church has entered a cultural, moral and intellectual exile. The outside world rejects the church and its teachings because it believes the church has nothing to offer.
Our exile is analogous to Israel’s experience of exile in the fifth century B.C. God had judged Israel because of their idolatry, injustice and ritualism—in short, they had failed to love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves. By the time of Nehemiah the people of God had been living in exile for a hundred years, Jerusalem lay in ruin and the Jews bore the communal weight of guilt and shame. Israel had become a laughing stock, the object of guilt and shame. Abraham’s children, who were to be a blessing to the entire world, were scattered throughout the Persian Empire, and Nehemiah understood this exile as the consequences of Israel’s sin (Neh 1:4-11).
Christians have been exiled from the cultural, moral and intellectual center of our society. With every article detailing the moral failure of a Christian leader, new accounts of priestly impropriety, lawsuits over church property or Christians amassing fortunes in the midst of poverty, we grow increasingly irrelevant. This irrelevance is not the result of the church’s inability to keep up with contemporary musical tastes or its insistence on traditional theology. Our exile is the consequence of our failure to live out our vocation: making disciples. This vocation is more than convincing people to pray the sinner’s prayer or apply for church membership; it is the process by which we help people discover the new life made available in God’s kingdom.
Disciples of Christ are not defined primarily by what they believe but by who they are—or perhaps more correctly, whose they are. But when the outside world looks at the church, they do not see people living changed lives marked by love and holiness. They see a group of people living defeated lives of compromise, desperately trying to convince the world they have all the answers. We must accept that the only proof for the truth of the resurrection is a life changed by the grace of God.
Nehemiah was called to unite God’s people and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, fulfilling God’s promise of restoration. So how do we begin “rebuilding the walls” of integrity and trust? It would be tempting to begin by rethinking how we structure our churches—casting a new vision for what a community of believers should be, but Nehemiah knew that the first step is repentance (Neh 1:4-12). We must confess our sin, not just our private sins but also our corporate sin. The sin of the one is the sin of all—we learn that lesson all too clearly from Achan and his family (Josh 7). This is a slap in the face of Western individuality, but it is absolutely crucial for a genuine understanding of community.
Of course, our job doesn’t end with confession; it is only the first step. We must prepare ourselves for the long journey ahead. So grab your hammer. We’ve got work to do.