I spent yesterday and today at NEXT: A Leadership Conference for Presbyterians. It was the expansion of a conversation that began with a small group of pastors about what is emerging within the PC(USA). A first expansion of this conversation happened in Minneapolis right before the General Assembly. I was part of the 40 or so people that attended that gathering. This conference in Indianapolis drew 350 people—pastors, elders, and over 70 seminarians. I’ll have more to say about this conference in the days to come, but here is the first thing I was struck by yesterday.
The opening worship service featured an incredible sermon by Scott Black Johnston called “Sent Into Exile”. It was a powerful statement about the current situation the church finds itself in. Scott set the stage for the conference, challenging us to think about the changing context of church in the 21st century. He drew a provocative analogy between the church today and the exiled Jews of the 6th century BCE.
Talking about the post-Christendom church as living in exile has become a popular theme, apparently introduced by Walter Brueggemann many years ago. While I can appreciate the power of this metaphor, and think that Scott put it to great use yesterday, I do wonder if exile is really the best metaphor for where we are right now.
Exile presupposes two things: a previous establishment and hopes for the restoration of that establishment. The exiled Jews longed for the restoration of their lost kingdom. If exile is the prevailing metaphor of our post-Christendom church, it suggests that our hope is the restoration of Christendom. I’m not sure that’s what we want. Or, if it is what we want, it is not what we need.
As an archetypal narrative, exile is a powerful story. It recognizes that something has been lost—perhaps even taken away. It gives voice to the longing for restoration. Even more, the biblical archetype of exile moves us toward that restoration. But, a return to Christendom is not the answer for the 21st century church.
In is brilliant book, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann uses the story of the exodus from Egypt to talk about what the biblical prophets were doing in ancient Israel. This story of exodus partakes of the exile archetype but takes a different turn. Brueggemann suggests that when Israel escaped the oppression of Egypt and established their own kingdom, they eventually succumbed to the same imperial consciousness that they were liberated from. I would argue that the post-Christendom church has once again been liberated from this imperial consciousness and we must not insinuate—consciously or subconsciously—that we need to return to this way of being.
It seems to me, then, that for all of the evocative ways exile feels like a good metaphor for the state of the church today, it is in fact a flawed metaphor that we should be very careful with. Rather than exile, I think we should talk instead about the emergence of the kingdom of God.
When Jesus came on the scene announcing the arrival of God’s kingdom, he was clearly suggesting something other than empire. The emergence of God’s kingdom in opposition to the Roman Empire is a much better narrative in which to locate the contemporary church.
God is not calling the church today to return to that from which we have been exiled. God is calling us to participate in the emergence of something completely new. Christendom was the church corrupted by imperial consciousness. Rather than see ourselves as exiled from that, let’s open our eyes to the new thing coming into existence all around us.