I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of exile as a way of understanding the challenge of church leadership today. It’s a helpful way of thinking about the church’s place in the world right now, especially in Western culture.
What is exile?
The truth is, most of us in the West are unfamiliar with the experience of exile, even if we understand the concept. Perhaps we think of Napoleon who was exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany. Or maybe we think of the Apostle John who wrote the book of Revelation while exiled on the island of Patmos. Or, if you’re anything like me, maybe you think of Yoda who exiled himself to the remote swamp planet of Dagobah!
We tend to think of exile as primarily a geographical experience. When someone is forced to live in a place they don’t want to live, that’s exile. For instance, the forced resettling of Native Americans was for them an experience of exile. The bringing of African slaves to Europe and America was a form of geographical exile.
We might also think of the ancient Israelites who were taken into exile in Babylon.
In 586 B.C., the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, essentially starving the city out. When Israel’s King Zedekiah finally surrendered, a huge portion of the population was taken captive and resettled in Babylon.
For seventy years, the Israelite captives were forced, not only to live geographically in Babylon, but to assimilate into the ways of Babylon. This is the true pain that exile brings. Not geographical relocation, but the loss of identity. In Cadences of Home, Walter Brueggeman says, “Exile is not primarily geographical, but social, moral, and cultural.“
Think of the stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. All of these Hebrew men experienced exile as a stripping of their identity. They were given Babylonian names. Daniel was given the name, Belteshazzar. Likewise, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abenego are their Babylonian names; their Hebrew names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. All of these men were pressured to succumb to Babylonian practices—to speak the Babylonian language, eat Babylonian foods, and to worship Babylonian gods.
Exile is never merely geographical. It is always much more than that.
Christianity in the West is also experiencing a kind of exile. It feels like we’re less at home in our culture today than we used to be—even if we haven’t moved geographically. If Christendom felt like home, Post-Christendom feels like exile.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Exile
When I think about the church’s exile in Western culture, I sometimes think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As Nazism began to take hold in Germany, Bonhoeffer and others like him felt less and less at home in their own country. Germany was becoming a foreign land to them. Bonhoeffer eventually fled to England out of frustration with the German Christian response to Hitler. There he pastored a German-speaking congregation in England.
This is what it means to feel socially, morally, and culturally dislocated, even when in your own geographical home. Bonhoeffer no longer recognized the Germany he loved and had grown up in. In 1933, Karl Barth wrote a letter to Bonhoeffer urging him to return to Germany. “One simply cannot become weary now. Still less can one go to England!” wrote Barth. “You must now…think of only one thing, that you are a German, that the house of your church is on fire, that you know enough to be able to help and that you must return to your post by the next ship.”
Bonhoeffer did not return immediately. He wrestled with what he should do and who he was being called to be. He finally returned sixteen months later, after Barth had been exiled to Switzerland.
Germany never again became home for Bonhoeffer during his lifetime. It was for him a place of exile. It was a place that felt foreign and that was dangerous. And in the end, Bonhoeffer lost his life in that exile.
The Flipside of Exile
But here’s the thing about exile. Even though exile can be extremely painful and involve a great deal of grieving, good things can happen in exile. In Germany, faithful churches joined the “Confessing Church” movement that refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler. For Israel, many of Israel’s spiritual practices were developed while in exile. For instance, because they couldn’t worship in the Temple, Jews developed the synagogue, a practice that continues even to this day.
Likewise, the Babylonian exile is where the Hebrew Scriptures—what we often call the Old Testament—really came alive. It was in exile that many of the Hebrew scriptures were written and compiled. Walter Brueggeman says that “the situation of exile created an enormous theological crisis in Israel and evoked astonishing theological creativity.” The Babylonian exile was an incredibly formative experience for Israel. “From the margins, after seventy years of painful theological work, came the reformation of Israel as a new, powerful, and more transcendent spiritual nation.”
The Pain and Danger of Exile
The truth is, exile hurts. But God can use exile to help us become more fully ourselves. It can help us get clear about our true nature and who we are called to be. It helps us get clear about what really matters. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all got clear about their priorities. They would not pray to the emperor. They would not bow down to the golden statue. It was in exile that their true identity as Yahweh’s people was realized in them—perhaps more than it ever could have been in Israel.
That’s not to say that exile isn’t dangerous. The risk of losing our identity is real. The risk of forgetting who we are and whose we are is real. The risk of endlessly wallowing in our pain is real. Brueggeman says, “The danger of exile is to become so preoccupied with self that one cannot get outside one’s self to rethink, reimagine, and redescribe larger reality.” In other words, the danger of exile is that we might fail to adapt to the world around us because we’ve become so consumed with our own pain.
The good news is that exile doesn’t last forever. Israel’s Babylonian exile lasted seventy years, and our exile won’t last forever. It may last longer than we’d like. But the truth is, exile is an in-between time—a liminal time—that prepares us for the next stage in our journey.
I think our invitation in this season of exile is to accept it. To acknowledge it’s reality and, in a way, to settle into it, knowing that this is not the end of our story.
And in the midst of our exile, may we grow into the people of God we were created and called to be—a people who creatively live out the love of God and who are being constantly re-formed to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a world that doesn’t even know it needs the church.
Resources for a Church in Exile
Let me offer a couple of resources. Both of these online courses will help you lead your church, even in a context of exile.
When a church experiences exile, it wants to hold on to what it knows. But exile requires adaptation. This course will teach you a change-navigation process called action-reflection. It will help you understand why people resist change and how to respond to that resistance. This 45-minute course is absolutely free. Click HERE to get Leading Your Church Through Change.
Engaging God’s Mission – $97
Engaging God’s Mission is a full 7-module course that will teach you how to lead a Neighborhood Connection Group in your church. A Neighborhood Connection Group is a framework for helping your people engage in their community, listen to their neighbors and to God, experiment with creative forms of ministry, and ultimately participate with God in the mission of God.