Monday, January 09, 2006

The Western Church in Exile? Encounters on the Edge

As I reflect on Israel in Exile in the Old Testament, and Jesus' stern rebuke of certain Christian churches in Revelation, I have often wondered about the implications of such things for the Western church in the twenty-first century. Is it possible that the church in the West is, in some sense, in Exile, or at least under some kind of judgment of God? I'd like to put forward this idea at the risk of being dismissed as a modern day Chicken Little or questionable would be prophet standing on a street corner warning of impending doom. If Israel was judged and sent into Exile for failing to be a light to the nations (and with it the attendant idolatry and other sins), and Jesus rebuked lukewarm churches in the first century, why should our generation be excluded from the possibility of judgment for our failures to be missional in the Western world? Before you quickly dismiss such a possibility, consider some interesting quotes from a publication produced by an organization out of the U.K.

While doing some Internet research on this topic a year or so ago I came across an interesting thirteen part series of publications called Encounters on the Edge, published by Church Army of The Sheffield Centre, and written by George Lings. Earlier I had the privilege of connecting with Steve Hollinghurst, a member of his team who does work in the area of Paganism, the New Spirituality, and postmodern spiritualities. In an article in the series titled "Encountering Exile," he begins his reflection on the decline of the church in the U.K. and wonders which parts of Scripture might be most appropriate for understanding the decline of the church in this country. He writes:

We are not in a climate of clear spiritual hunger that positively relates that hunger to Christianity. Like it or not, being "post-Christendom" gives us a history to draw on, a burden of structures to carry and parts of a story to live down. So where in Scripture could we look?...My hypothesis is that the Exile brings me insight and perspective. From its depths, I bring out attitudes and perspectives that help me stay with hopes I entertain and to cope with fears I cannot banish. Without suggesting that there is any explicit or inherent repetition of Jewish history around the 5th Century BC, the number of echoes is uncanny. (Emphasis in original here and following.)
The echoes Lings discusses include a declining influence in culture, a long process of decay within churches, the domination of establishment values, and superficial change in response to cultural shifts. Having laid this groundwork, Lings then considers strands in the prophets during the Exile that have important echoes for us today. As I read through his development of this portion of the article I found the following quotes of interest that are scattered throughout the remainder of the article:

"Plausiblity structures" supporting Christianity have collapsed in the public arena and are only maintained in a private world; pluralism repudiates the centrality of Christian motifs and has little interest in the questions addressed by Christianity.
In discussing the change in Old Testament Jewish society as it shifted from Tabernacle to Temple, he writes:

We too have a heavy emotional dependence on, and heavy financial burden of, religious buildings and public worship, exaggerating the sense of the importance of place in guaranteeing the church's future stake in an emerging society. What might Jeremiah [7:4] say to us?


At the end of [the] Decade of Evangelism, cynics observe that the language of everything has changes to mission yet nearly everything has remained much the same.


Resources directed to preserve the existing order is the standard response of institutions in decline.
In discussing Israel's lament at being disposed from the land of promised and subjugated to foreign powers, Lings writes:

Psalm 137 laments "how shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" Yet that very difficulty of being worshippers surrounded by a hostile and alien culture could be precisely the point.


I have heard of several dozen Alternative Worship events. These are different from youth congregations in that their age group is wider. They are keeping existing people from falling out of church, more than attracting new people.

While the situation facing the church in the U.K. is surely more dire than that in the U.S., nevertheless, the data indicates that the cultural forces of postmodernity, secularization, and pluralism that are heavily impacting the rest of the Western world are having an impact here as well. Do we have the ability to learn the lessons that the church is learning in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, and respond missionally, or will we continue to pursue the same course of action in the face of cultural change and expect different results? We have some time to prepare for the cultural currents sweeping our way from the rest of the Western world, but I fear that American Christians are more likely to prepare for literal tsunamis than spiritual and cultural ones.

George Ling's paper is worth a read. I'd encourage anyone to contact the Church Army to order a copy. It will serve worthwhile in reflection on the possibility of the church in Exile, in America as well as the U.K.

1 comment:

Call Me Ishmael said...

If I recall from my reading of the Old Testament prophets, the people's toleration of and cooperation with paganism in their midst had something to do with the exile. I wonder what the implications of that might be for us today?