The American Church’s Exile and How to Move Forward

Well, 2021 is off to a fabulous start. I say that with sarcasm, of course.

There is little doubt that we are in a predicament, one that’s been building not just in 2020, nor over the past four years. It’s been unfolding for decades, if not centuries. I’m not sure it’s going to stop. As the old adage goes, “Things may get worse before they get better.”

There are a few things I believe the American (even global) church must engage in to change the trajectory that it’s on. Take them or leave them. But I am convinced they are worth taking up.

1) Lament our unfaithfulness.

When we are exposed for wrong, most of us double down. That may be expressed through making excuses or through furthering our wrong with more wrong. Christians, including its leaders, are not excluded from this. That is an unfortunate and sad reality.

A counter-cultural, fresh breath of air would be the practice of lament.

Now, it won’t feel fresh for the lamenters. Lamenting truly gets us in touch with what stings—our pain, our sin, our disgust, and more. But it will be fresh in that it will be so very different, mainly because we rarely practice this, if ever. Lament is speech to God first, as well as to one another as Christ-followers. But it consists of silence toward the other, the ones we’ve wronged.

Our rage has been rampantly growing for so long now we simply do not know how to turn it off. But lament coupled with silence is the way for a church in exile. Yes, the American church is in exile. We’ve lost what we had, primarily because we were unfaithful with the opportunities granted us by God. We have collectively sinned and we are collectively paying the price.

We are in exile, whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not.

And, so, these words of the poet in Lamentations ring prophetically to a people in exile:

Let him sit alone in silence,
    for the Lord has laid it on him.
Let him bury his face in the dust—
    there may yet be hope.
Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
    and let him be filled with disgrace. (Lam 3:28-30)

Now, I honestly don’t believe we will embrace this practice of lament. We have too much training in the opposite of doubling down. We are intimately acquainted with excuses and piling on our selfish ways. But the gift of lament can change the path we are walking.

Will we be silent, listen, and lament?

2) Care for the poor and oppressed.

We live in a nation that spent $14 billion on political campaigns for 2020 elections. Our country spent $9 billion on Black Friday and $10.8 billion on Cyber Monday, and that during a pandemic recession. Oh, these were also record breakers, again, in a year of recession and high job loss. I imagine this means we all went further into debt.

Globally, we spend $153 billion on toys and games each year. But here is the crazy kicker for me: We spend $5.5 billion per day on military. That’s $1.74 trillion per year. Yikes! Imagine what we could do with just one day’s or one week’s worth of military spending. When we turn to sports, we have athletes making $100,000 or more per day. Eesh!

Yet, nearly 5 billion people (70% of the world) live off $10 per day. Of that group, 2.2 billion of them live off $2 per day. Furthermore, 1.2 billion live off $1.25. Again, others rake in six digits in a day.

If we do not take care of the poor, the hurting, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, we will face the consequences. I believe we need that 70% of the human race to flourish.

Will we turn our eyes and ears to their cry?

3) Care for God’s good creation, the earth.

We in the west are consumers. We have taken so much – and much of it wasn’t ours to take. Something like 20% of the population in developed nations consume 86% of the earth’s goods. That is greed, if ever. As Daniel Groody notes in his book Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice: “If all the people consumed natural resources at the same rate as the average US and UK citizen we would require at least two extra planets like Earth…by 2050” (257). Thankfully the rest of the world isn’t as greedy as us.

We take down one football field worth of forest every second. Each year we remove something the size of South Carolina when it comes to our rain forests. Our water sources and air are being ravaged. We have not been good stewards of the gift of God’s good creation. This documentary on Netflix may help us understand more.

If we are not careful, our grandchildren will have major problems with the earth. We already have birth pangs of such. But if we do not change our practices, it is not looking good.

Can we hear that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” as Paul puts it in Romans 8?

4) Untangle ourselves from deep political alignment.

The kingdom of God is political. I want to make that clear. But being political means nothing like the partisan politics of what we experience in America.

God’s kingdom is political firstly because there is the declaration that Jesus is king. He alone is in charge. That (“Jesus is king”) is the most political statement a Christian can utter. Furthermore, the kingdom of God is political because it is concerned with people – politics coming from the Greek word politēs, meaning citizen. God genuinely cares about people. But partisan politics doesn’t. If you haven’t realized, it is about a system, a platform, an ideology. People are just a means to an end.

Yet, the American church has gotten in bed with politics and politicians since its beginning. And don’t forget, this happens on both sides. I believe this disgusts king Jesus. But we have come to believe the lie that the kingdom of God comes primarily through political platforms. That’s why we battle so much for it, even to the death.

Such a perspective has raped our soul (excuse the crass language) and we are losing our life because of it.

We need to take the time to untangle this deep mess we are in. But are we too entangled to find our way out?

These are four things I believe that, if we take up, we will change the track that we are on.

What’s that track?

Again: exile.

I truly believe the church of America is in exile. Just like Israel and Judah of old; just like Western Europe in recent times. We’ve lost all that could have been available if we had genuinely followed Jesus and lived these things out. Not perfectly, but faithfully. Instead, we are white-knuckling and fighting to hold on to some religious vision from decades ago, or some future vision that doesn’t align with the ways of Christ.

And, so, I have very little hope we will change the trajectory we have been on for some time now. We are too far gone. But, remember that, even in exile there is always a faithful remnant that remains. That is clear in Scripture. If the exile continues, I think there will still be a group that embodies these four actions above.

And it is those that will have a voice in the future.

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