Struggling with Exile at #NEXTChurch2014

My notes from Tuesday morning at NEXT 2014

My notes from Tuesday morning at NEXT 2014

The two and a half days I spent at the 2014 NEXT Church National Gathering were refreshing and inspiring. I want to make a few general comments about the conference before diving into the theme that I wrestled with the most.

I’ve now been to all of the NEXT national gatherings except last year (including the first expansion of the conversation that took place in Minneapolis before the General Assembly in 2010). I didn’t go last year primarily because we had a three month old baby at home and it just didn’t make sense to take a trip to Charlotte right after my paternity leave. That baby is 15 months old now and I still wasn’t sure I could make the trip since I’m the primary morning caregiver for him and our five year old. So my first praise for NEXT 2014 is the awesome childcare option they made available. I loaded up both our boys after church on Sunday and we made a road trip up to Minneapolis. They very much enjoyed the childcare while I enjoyed the conference. We spent the evenings playing in the hotel pool and eating pizza together. Noah asked if we could do it again sometime. So I’m very grateful for the hospitable and forward-thinking move to make this a family friendly experience. I might not have been able to attend otherwise.

In previous years of NEXT, I earned something of a reputation for being critical of the national gatherings. I’d like to think they were constructive criticisms offered for my many friends and mentors involved in the leadership of NEXT, but I will admit that NEXT came into being during a period of my church life marked by cynicism and frustration. (I’ve consciously tried to pivot my posture here on my blog.) Still, looking back on previous posts (2011, 2012, 2013), I think I struck a balance between appreciation and criticism.

The 2014 gathering continued the basic trajectory of 2013. NEXT seems to be most interested in networking, inspiration, and providing a platform for leaders passionate about vitality and new directions for the church. The worship, preaching, testimonies, and ignite presentations were amazing. While I still wish for more theology and ecclesiology at these gatherings (Stacy Johnson’s 2012 talk on the adaptive challenges of post-Christendom remains a NEXT highlight for me), I was pleased to hear some of the first speakers note that “best practices” hold us back instead of move us forward. (I’ve long been frustrated with conferences that focus on best practices instead of big picture ideas.)

It was in fact one of the big ideas/themes of the conference that challenged me the most. All of the preachers were given as one of their texts Jeremiah 29:5-14a, with a particular focus on “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” (Jeremiah 29:7). I groaned a little when I realized that “exile” would be a central theme of the conference. As I’ve written about before (here and here), exile is a popular but inadequate metaphor for the situation the church finds itself in today. First, I feel like we are not exiled from some promised land as much as we’ve been left behind by our culture. Second, exile implies the hope for return, but it is neither possible nor desirable for us to return to the “good old days” of American Christendom in which Protestantism was the center and shaper of American culture (or vice versa). Third, whether we intend to or not, the exile metaphor also encourages us to be too self-focused. And fourth, as others have pointed out, it’s somewhat problematic for mostly white Protestants to talk about our post-Christendom loss of hegemony as exile when other groups in our society have experienced much more troubling forms of marginalization and oppression.

But my thinking on the theme of exile was tweaked by J. Herbert Nelson on Tuesday morning of the conference. Preaching on “The Common Good,” he helped me see that the church isn’t in exile. Rather, the church is called into places of exile to be God’s people there. Alika Galloway hit a similar note the day before by suggesting that we aren’t lost and that the Spirit is calling us into contested spaces. And MaryAnn McKibben Dana returned to this theme in her concluding sermon on Wednesday.

Inspired by this reorientation, I wrote the following in a moderator’s letter to the Presbytery of Chicago:

Let’s stop bemoaning our losses—as many and as painful as they are—and open our eyes and ears to the places of exile God is calling us to go to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind.

Where are these places of exile in your community? Where are these places of exile throughout Chicagoland? Where are these places of exile around the world?

What’s next for the Presbytery of Chicago? Whatever it is, I believe we’ll find it in not in a sense of our own exile but in the places of exile to which God is calling us.

While I still think that “exile” may need to be retired as a metaphor we use to describe what’s happening in the church today, I can definitely get behind this notion of following God into places of exile for the common good of all.

Comments

  1. That “contested spaces” language is powerful. I’d never heard that before, but I can’t get it out of my head. This is a really great reflection. Thanks.

    • Thanks for this reflection, John, and Rocky looking forward to yours – would like to hear some more about contested spaces.

  2. Kelley says:

    I’ve always struggled with this same thing, although it is usually voiced in the language of “persecution”. We stand in too many places of privilege to understand either exile or persecution but somehow the Jeremiah story is our story because it is our brothers’ and sisters’ storiy. Thoughtful writing. Thank you.

  3. Rob Hoch, from Dubuque Seminary, explores this in depth in his new book . . . http://store.fortresspress.com/store/productgroup/633/By-the-Rivers-of-Babylon-Blueprint-for-a-Church-in-Exile?c=285656. He deconstructs our casual use of exile as a metaphor and then visits and describes communities for which exile is reality. These communities can be the place where the church can go. But the church should tread lightly with the idea of “proclaiming the gospel of the salvation of humankind” when it goes there, and try, instead, experiencing salvation as it is lived there first . . . and recognize that the Church is already there . . . before it goes shooting its mouth off . . . So to speak . . . :-)

    • Carrie Mook Bridgman says:

      YES. Thank you. This is part of the adventure of people of faith in the “new world order”: we are no longer the center and the authority, but perhaps God has always been calling us out to where Jesus has always been–at the margins, with the last and least. It’s not that we have to carry the gospel there; we *follow* the gospel to find where Jesus already is and to join with God’s work there. We may put different words to that gospel than the people already there, and that’s OK as long as we have listened first.

    • Thanks for this reference, Rick. I’ll definitely check this out.

      Regarding the “proclamation of the gospel” language in my moderator’s letter, I threw that in there because this great end of the church is my moderator’s theme for the year. I totally agree with your take on this. Thank you.

  4. Charlotte Lohrenz says:

    John, thank you for this thoughtful reflection and for bringing your children and, especially, for your beautiful, illustrated notes. I hope you don’t mind if I use them in a Instagram post. I’m participating in the #100happydays and your image helps me sum up my joy in attending NEXT. I will give credit.

  5. John – thanks for a helpful and thoughtful post about Next 2014. As a member of the next strategy team, I appreciate your recognition that speakers and preachers were “playing” with the exile theme. I am intrigued by your “left behind” idea and imagery too. Could it be that there are several metaphors that might work simultaneously? I think so. Thanks to for the desire for a more theological and theorhetical framework. That is always an energized conversation and knowing that there are those out there who desire a re-visit informs the process. Thank for blogging.

  6. Dan Saperstein says:

    I watched as much as I could of the conference on streaming video (which was at times a painful medium). I share your feelings about the “exile” metaphor, for largely the same reasons you mention. I also agree that the attempts at reframing the “exile” imagery – especially by J. Herbert Nelson – were filled with insight and challenge.

  7. I understand the OT origins of the exile motif. I’ve just have never been convinced that it applies to our time. It may apply if a particular cultural form of Christianity is in eclipse. And I can see how both progressives and conservatives could rationally make the case for living in a time of exile. But not the Church of Jesus Christ that stands apart from those cultural forms. I do see a lot of churches choosing isolation, but not exile.

    Exile to me suggests advancement into alien territory. We are pulled out of the security of our practiced form of religion, and taken to wherever they are dragging us. The emotions of exile that I’ve heard for a generation sounds more like someone has stolen our mojo; it is a lamentation for lost influence. Circle the wagons, we are under attack, they are taking our hegemony. We are in the midst of a massive transition that feels like we’ve lost something, when we are really being stripped of what we don’t need, so we are better able to do what we need to do in the future.

    I see the issue facing us as closer to Abram and Sarai’s challenge of giving up the comforts of home and hearth to become missionaries. They were called by God. It doesn’t say that they were the best equipped to go, just that they were chosen. So, it is with all of us. The church is called and sent out to engage the world as it is, to be reconcilers and healers, to love people as they are, to believe in them, and to nourish their souls into living as disciples. We forget that the church is a relational business, not primarily an institutional one. And, so, if we are in exile, the only way to survive is to bind ourselves together in hope and commitment to being the people of God wherever he places us each day.
    And that is the hope that I see in Next Church.

  8. john wilkinson says:

    John —

    Thanks for this. Good to see you and yay for child care. Lots of thoughts. Exile doesn’t work for me on one level becasue it suggests a forced exit of some kind, crudely put. The church hasn’t been forced out of its previous role or even profile in society. On another level, we are in a place unfamiliar to us, and, for some, unwelcome. That might not be exile, but it’s something. Someone the other day asked me to compare the church of the 1st century and the church of the 21st. I noted similarities — as in we are living in a strange culture. The difference is that in the 1st century, culture was hostile; in the 21st, culture is more so indifferent. All worth considering as we move ahead, and why linking,a s you suggest, biblical study, theological rflection adn the practice of ministry. That’s the beautiy of looking at one text over several days. Thanks — and ditto on Stacy Johnson

    • John, good to read you here. I feel led to share a recent comment by a wonderful Episcopal Spiritual Director that the closest thing to the 1C church today are 12-Step Groups–self organized, active in the spirit of God by deep listening, with a focus on redemption. Folks who mostly find the dominant culture of spiritual dissipation through addiction toxic to helping them heal.
      I too like Ed Brenegar’s synopsis and imagery. Consider Brene Brown’s comment of the church as mid-wife to rebirth.

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