We are now in week 2 of the Advent season. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas. Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.
During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks. This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today. It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did. We now find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed. In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in and carry on as the people of God.
Last week we laid out that exile is God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry. We saw Israel’s history as a cycle of obedience, blessing, disobedience, judgment, and eventual redemption/restoration. We looked at some lengthy passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy which spell this out in graphic detail. We noted that this was not an if/then, either/or proposition (if obedience then blessings/if disobedience then judgment), but a both/and. Israel experienced both blessings for obedience during the time of David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, and judgment for disobedience as it all unraveled in the centuries which followed, culminating in the exile to Babylon.
So why is all this important? Because it is OUR story as the Church. We currently face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, as a consequence of our own idolatry. We serve the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity. We have no hope of accommodating the ideas and presuppositions of modernity–anymore than Israel had any hope of defeating Assyria or Babylon. These idols of Enlightenment-based modernity do nothing for us, yet they demand much bloody sacrifice on our part.
The entire system is set up this way. Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity. This is pervasive throughout all of Western Christianity, whether in the liberal mainlines which are all about science and progress and the next big intellectual fad, or in conservative evangelicalism which is completely enamoured of a church growth ideology which says that corporate America has told us who we are and whose we are. We believe that the very same qualities which make one a good citizen of a modern nation-state also make one a good Christian disciple, and we have set up our churches and denominations along those lines. We believe that Christian discipleship and community are things which can be industrialized, commoditized, and mass-produced, and we have built organizations which are adept at doing exactly that.
At this point an illustration is in order: Every week as I come to church, I see lots of families with young children making their way in. As I mentally contrast this with my own family which consists of me, my imaginary wife, and 2.6 imaginary kids, I cannot help seeing this as a reminder of everything that I ought to be but am not. A reminder that, on a very fundamental level, I do not belong because I do not want the same things that so many around me want, in the way they ought to be wanted, nor can I bring myself to want those things.
I am not sure how much of this is due to factors inside of me which I do not fully understand, which make it difficult for me to experience belonging and connection, and which make me a difficult person to be connected to, and how much of this I can conveniently blame on how the Western church is set up. But what I do know is that if enough people out there complain of having an experience similar to mine, the typical response in the vast majority of churches will be to establish a program for single people, or to look at the programs they currently have. Well, you would be very hard-pressed to find a singles program anywhere in the country that is better than what my church has, so programming is clearly not the issue. Yet whenever a certain class of people experiences difficulty connecting with the church, the knee-jerk reaction of the vast majority of churches out there is to look to programming: What sort of programs would help these people connect? What sort of programs do we have in place? How can we improve our programs so that we get better results?
That these are the go-to questions to ask whenever somebody (or multiple somebodies) experiences difficulty connecting with the Church–shows how deeply the lies of Enlightenment-based modernity have penetrated the Church. It is not about people; instead it is all about programs, institutions, processes, standards, structures, accountability, quantifiable results, and rigid controls. Now contrast this with the so-called Islamic State, which is having tremendous success connecting with young people, especially here in the West, because they reach them organically, building supportive, empathetic relationships in which young people are able to see their story, their struggles, their lives, all in the context of a much bigger story. Here is a money quote from a piece by Charles Featherstone which I linked a couple of weeks back:
Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.
At this point, let me return to an earlier point regarding Israel’s cycle of obedience/blessing/disobedience/judgment. This was not an either/or, if/then proposition (if obedience then blessing; if disobedience then judgment). This was a both/and proposition: You will experience obedience and blessing; you will ALSO experience disobedience and judgment. And we know from Israel’s history that that is exactly how it played out.
This is freeing for us. Why? Because it shows us that we don’t have to “save” the Church by our own efforts. It’s not going to happen. The future of the Church is not dependent on our efforts to restore the American Christendom of the 1940s and 1950s or reverse the cultural shifts which have led to its demise. Nor is it dependent on our efforts to purify the Church doctrinally by purging out all the “false Gospels” which have no power to save and all who hold to them and teach them. What is coming next for the Church is coming, and there is nothing you or I or anyone else can do to alter that.
There is no “saving” the Church. Not now. It has come too far, and now the Babylonians are at the gates, as it were. At this point, the wise thing to do is to flee the city or to surrender to the invading Babylonians.
What does all this mean? And what does it all look like for us as the Church? We will look closely at that in the weeks to come.