THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY ONCE WERE FOR THE CHURCH. IT’S NOT ALL BAD.
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Kathy passed by the soda crackers and canned tuna and turned into the soft drink aisle. Halfway up were two women smiling and talking animatedly, each holding a bottle of San Pellegrino and in no hurry to put them into their carts. As Kathy passed them she saw one reach out and put her hand to rub her companion’s back.
Kathy still needed laundry detergent. When she got to that aisle, there was a man with dark brown skin and a woman in a flowing, navy-blue-and-gold Indian sari. Kathy said a friendly "Excuse me" and got a quick smile and an equally friendly, "Oh sorry, let me get out of your way" from the woman. Kathy noticed a red dot on the woman’s forehead – a decoration she had never seen in her childhood but an almost everyday sight these days.
Kathy also had to pick up an extra dozen eggs. Her daughter’s class was doing a Spring Fun Festival egg hunt, which required each student to bring in six hardboiled eggs to decorate. The teacher said there would be prizes for those who found the most eggs, but Kathy was pretty sure every student would get roughly an equal amount in the end. The hunt would take place on the Thursday before Good Friday, but there had been no mention of the term "Easter" in the school’s newsletter.
At the checkout counter, Kathy halfheartedly glanced at the pictures and headlines of the magazine covers. One featured a scantily clad celebrity and Ten New Ways to Make Him Say Oh! Another featured an angry-looking Hollywood star and a headline promising details about why she was divorcing her unfaithful husband.
There was nothing special about the shopping and the checkout – just life going on as normal. On the way home she passed a church sign that read, "Know Jesus, Know God. No Jesus. No God." As a Christian, Kathy understood the idea, but she wondered how much resonance it had with people like those in the grocery store.
While only in her early 40s, Kathy remembered a time when her town was different, when the world was different. When a saying like that on a church sign did not seem so … out of place.
Kathy’s story hints at many of the cultural changes in which the Church finds itself. In fact Canadian culture has gone through a massive shift over the last several decades, and it’s not over yet. These changes encompass a significant reconfiguring of religious, family, ethical and community life.
If it were true that at one time in Canadian culture the Church occupied a place at (or at least near) the centre of culture, this is no longer the case.
As the Church experiences an overall decline in numbers, as Christianity holds far less influence, and as more people become disaffected by religion as a whole, Kathy’s uncertainty about how the Church should understand its new place in Canadian culture and how it should respond are questions for all of us.
Actually the experience of Christianity being at the centre of culture, which seems so normal to most of us, was not the experience of the Early Church or of the people of Israel in the Old Testament, and today it is not the experience of much of the Church in other parts of the world. Biblical history and much of international church history is informed by a far different experience – one of exile.
If you were a citizen of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, you would have experienced marauding hordes of Babylonian soldiers overtaking your city, destroying your most sacred buildings, killing your friends and family, and sending many of them off to live in captivity back in Babylon. Your experience would be one of loss and drastic change. The world you once knew was over and a new normal was beginning.
For Israel this was the start of their experience of living away from home. Going from a people who had control over religion, ethics and political life to a people whose control was now limited and tentative in all those spheres. This was exile. Most of the Old Testament is written as a response to this experience.
Likewise, the Early Church knew nothing of being at or near the centre of cultural power. Rather they were a people of exile (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11).
Exile is an apt motif for the Church in Canada today. Exile does not always have to entail violent or drastic expulsion from your homeland. It is the experience of living away from home. Exile can take place even without leaving your physical locale. It can happen when the place that once felt like home no longer does – when we lose autonomy, status or power. When these things happen, the place that once seemed like home is no longer as welcoming or comfortable a place to be.
In many ways this is the current experience of the Church in Canada.
While this might provide reason for lament, it should also provide encouragement because exile generated a fresh appropriation of their identity as the people of God for Israel, and provided the Early Church with the creative impetus to bring the hope of the gospel to the first-century context in which it found itself. Similarly exile has generative possibilities for the Church in Canada.
Exile has a way of clarifying things. It calls for answers to the questions, "How did we get here?" and "Who are we now?" Exile calls our identity into question. It prompts us to consider what went wrong and how we should now live in light of this new reality.
For the Church in Canada the reality of our circumstances is producing this kind of reorientation. The missional nature of the Church is being rediscovered. It was roughly true at one time in Canadian history the Church could employ a "build it and they will come" approach to mission.
Today, anyone paying attention knows that is not a strategy for church planting or growth. The Church must go into its community and engage it in a way that seeks to serve it. Exile is forcing the Church to re-engage with its biblical identity as a missional people called by God to go into the world to bring a message of hope, and embody that hope in our actions on behalf of others in our local context.
Exile is also causing sectors of the Church who might have neglected the social aspect of the gospel to reorient themselves to this essential aspect of what it means to identify as followers of Christ. Churches are rediscovering an understanding that the gospel is not just a message of salvation of the soul for a place called heaven.
Rather it is also a message that has implications for the way we live today. It is a message of healing and transformation for people and communities in the here and now as we are called to help our communities flourish.
While in exile the prophet Jeremiah said to the Hebrew people, "Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:7). This was a call to understand their identity as an exilic people and it captures the call on the Church in Canada today just as poignantly.
Crucial to reclaiming our identity is to learn and practise the ways of holiness. Holiness is about being set apart or distinct from the world. However, holiness does not mean separating ourselves from it. Christian holiness is another way of describing what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to pattern our lives after His example – which inevitably calls us to live lives of deep engagement with the world.
To live a life of Christ-centred holiness is multifaceted, but ultimately rooted in love. Love is a concept often misunderstood, but Jesus Himself said the primary distinction His followers should be known by was their love (John 13:34–35). This begins within the church community itself, but then spills over into the neighbourhood.
While holiness certainly has important ethical dimensions to it that can’t be ignored, perhaps one of the greatest ways the Church can express its distinct identity in Canadian culture today is by living as a community of genuine hospitality. Individualism and isolation from neighbours, even from work colleagues, is common today. The Church is connected to the God who welcomes all people.
What would it be like for us to live as a people of genuine welcome to those around us?
- opening our homes and churches to our community, neighbours and friends
- forging more meaningful relationships
- learning to genuinely care for one another.
It would be a sign of how being in relationship with Jesus actually shapes our lives in a distinct way. In a day of increasing marginalization, the Church is invited to consider how it can take the risks that showing God’s love inevitably calls for. Expressing God’s love through hospitality and service will help us rediscover our identity as God’s incarnational people.
Finally, as already touched upon, exile has the potential to reignite the missional identity of the Church. This must be expressed in tangible ways.
Approximately 40 years after the Babylonians captured Israel, they were conquered by Persia. Out of the Persian captivity comes the biblical story of Nehemiah.
As a Hebrew who had risen to the position of the king’s cupbearer, Nehemiah had ascended the ladder of empire successfully. However, his real concerns lay back in his homeland – he had received a report that the walls of Jerusalem were in utter disrepair. This reality was not simply one of aesthetic concern. It had deeply theological and spiritual implications.
To help re-establish the identity of the Hebrew community, he managed to get Persian government funding to complete the mission of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and initiated a renewal movement within the Israelite community.
This kind of missional initiative, which is not hostile toward the prevailing powers but seeks to find lines of collaboration to advance the mission of God, is the kind of missional imagination exile inspires.
Nehemiah is a model of tangible missional initiative ultimately concerned with getting on with the work of God despite challenging circumstances. For the Canadian Church in exile, this kind of leadership is necessary. What are the tangible initiatives your church can undertake? What lines of collaboration can be forged with community partners that can lead to mutual benefit? This is how life on the margins should inform mission and ignite missional imagination in the Church.
The half-formed questions that came up in Kathy’s afternoon shopping expedition – how she should understand these changes and what they might mean for her as a Christian and for the Church in her community – are the key questions before the Church in Canada today.
The way forward is found in taking seriously the hard reality of our cultural context and refusing to be defeated by it. Instead we must be engaged by it. It must propel us into a time of rediscovering the true identity of the Church and its mission in a new context.
Our ancestors in the faith have been there before us. We are not alone. We have a blueprint to follow. It is up to us to embrace the challenge and seek the leading of the Spirit so the Church can fulfill its calling to be a blessing even in the midst of living in exile.
The next time you are grocery shopping, take in the sights and sounds around you, and ask God to help you and your church learn to live as exiles in the world – that is, as God’s missional people in the unique time in which we find ourselves in Canada today.
Lee Beach is associate professor of Christian ministry, Garbutt F. Smith chair of ministry formation and director of ministry formation at McMaster Divinity College, and author of The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom (IVP Academic, 2015).