The experience of living in a Post-Christian culture is settling in as a reality for the contemporary North American church. The ongoing move to the margins can leave Christians feeling discouraged and even doubtful about where God is in this time of exilic experience. Why would God allow this to happen? Why does God not show his power more clearly in a time like this? How are we supposed to move forward in a time when the Christian message is losing traction in an increasingly secular culture? These are all questions and that one should not feel guilty for asking.
The experience of cultural displacement is not new for the people of God. Ancient Israel experienced a similar displacement when they were conquered by the Babylonians in the early part of the 6th Century BCE. For them living in Babylonian captivity brought about questions of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. If one reads the biblical book of Lamentations and the exilic Psalms (44, 74, 79, 89, 102, 106 and 137) it is easy to spot the fact that Israel did not find the experience of marginalization an easy one to embrace in light of their understanding of who God was and who they were as his people. These biblical texts reflect a “spirituality of exile” that may offer the contemporary Canadian church some insight into how to process our own cultural dislocation. These texts offer a way for church leaders to give spiritual direction to their congregations in a time of exile. The following four movements reflect the exilic wisdom of our ancestors in the faith.
The first response that Israel offered to God regarding their reality of being deported to the margins of Babylon was lament. Lament is the language that gives voice to the anguish of spiritual exile. It is the genre of prayer that expresses the incongruity of life experience with what one previously understood to be the character of God. The laments of the Hebrew Bible during the early exilic period are bold acts of discourse which reveal Israel’s unwillingness to remain passive in the face of their plight. So too does the church in Canada today need to lament our situation by acknowledging the losses and challenges we face as well as our doubts and fears about the future. Church leaders must allow room in their congregations for this kind of conversation.
An important part of Israel’s finding their way forward in a time of exile was their remembering how God had worked in the past, particularly in his delivering power for Israel from their internment in Egypt. The call to remember that God had been faithful in the past was a catalyst to Israel’s belief that God would be faithful to them in their exilic context. Church leaders today must connect their congregations to these biblical narratives in a fresh way so that they may also be inspired by how God has worked in the past and be reminded that our exile is nothing new, nor is it in any way antithetical to the way that God works in the world. We are in good company and remembering the way that God has been present in the previous exilic experiences of his people forms a foundation for us to move forward.
In understanding their situation Israel had to come to terms with the fact that they had not been faithful in their covenant relationship with God and exile was the result. This required them to honestly define their reality and respond with repentance and a resolve to live differently. In a similar way leaders in the contemporary church need to help their churches understand what has changed and how those changes affect us. They need to help the church come to terms with the way the church may have contributed to its own demise and how we can repent from unhelpful attitudes and behaviours and respond effectively to our current circumstances.
The exilic prophets never ceased providing hope to Israel and reminding the people that they still had a central place to play in God’s overarching plan for the world. They offered a hopeful vision for the future (Isaiah) and also directed some tangible initiatives that expressed faith in action (Nehemiah). Church leaders today must also cast a hopeful vision into the lives of their congregations and must also help them to determine ways that they can serve their communities constructively so that God’s kingdom can grow in their specific context. The combination of keeping hope alive through good words and embodying the kingdom through good works is foundational to cultivating hope in the church today.
Forming an exilic spirituality in contemporary Canadian congregations is a key work of ministry leadership today. As we help develop the disciplines of an exilic spirituality in the life of our congregation we will offer the kind of spiritual direction to the local church that will help it flourish in Post-Christendom Canada.