'Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore' - Dorothy Gale, Wizard of Oz
I don't know of a pastor over the age of 40 who doesn't feel like Dorothy, the pig-tailed midwestern protagonist from Frank Baum's novel-turned-movie. The comfortable life we knew 'back on the farm' where the Church held a respected and influential seat at the table of cultural formation has been uprooted by a proverbial cyclone that has sent us crashing into a strange new world where the Church sits hidden, forgotten, and unwanted.
The places and people we serve no longer show up hard-wired by the biblical narrative and basic Judeo-Christian ethics. Individual and collective identity is shaped by the selfie rather than a sense of the imago Dei. A life of love is defined by self-actualization with seemingly no awareness that we live under the gaze and in the hands of One whose name is Love.
How Do You Lead When You're Living In Oz?
We can rehearse the ways in which the Church (at least the evangelical wing of the Church in the American South that I am most familiar with) has attempted to fit into this new world. We have gone to great lengths to remain relevant and insisted that we could be just as entertaining as the culture around us. And as the world has stopped listening to us, we used up whatever ammunition we had left to fight family members to our right and left who are responsible for causing this mess in the first place.
But while life in Oz - with all its technicolor splendor - is unsettling and a bit frightening, all is not lost, and we are not without hope. The way forward begins with going back and remembering that the people of God throughout history have lived on the margins. Beginning with Genesis 3 when God demands that Adam and Eve leave Eden, continuing through Babylon's removal of Israel's best and brightest from the Promised Land, picking back up in Jesus' day where life is lived under Rome's cruel and oppressive thumb, and following through to the end of the canon where ambivalence towards the Church has turned into antagonism, exile is the locus operandi for the people of God.
And it is from the place of exile - marginalization and alienation in the broader culture - that you have the opportunity to inspire hope in the midst of the challenges that you and your people are facing. Let's take preaching, for example. When you look at the Scriptures - particularly the stories of Esther, Daniel and Jonah - four themes emerge that generate the kind of hope that sustains faith, inspires new initiatives and allows faith to be expressed in ways that God's mission of making himself impossible to ignore is facilitated from the margins of society.
1. God Is Here...But You Need New Eyes To See Him
The stories of Esther, Daniel and Jonah were written to encourage God's scattered people living in exile. They remind us who we are and that God is present and active in our world. But God is not bound by conventional wisdom or the ways he has worked in the past. In Esther, God is not named. In Daniel, God shows up where we least expect him - a stone, a crematory oven, a whitewashed wall or in a pit of ferocious lions. In Jonah, God is compassionate towards the oppressors of his people.
Preaching in exile affords us countless of opportunities to show how the God who inhabits and inspires the biblical text is alive and well in our situation and circumstances. Declare both the transcendence and immanence of God. Take theological constructs such as sovereignty and providence and help them come to life.
Preach a contextualized theology that embraces accommodation without compromise. Help the church you lead discover how to practice its beliefs in a way that allows it to integrate, as much as possible, into the life of the dominant culture. Preach a textual theology that understands that the Spirit of God is active in our 'secular' culture. Help people see and rejoice in, the reality that human culture bears the imprint of God himself. Preach a broken world that still retains the beauty of the imago Dei.
2. Be Holy...But Recalibrate Holiness
One of the most traumatic parts of life for someone who loses their job is the sense that they have lost their identity. And as the church has lost its place in the broader culture, identity formation has become foundational for our survival.
Preach the Gospel, friends. Tell the good news that we belong to Jesus. Encourage your people to represent Jesus in every aspect of ordinary, everyday life. Remind them that the Church is the logic of the gospel, created to make this message plausible to those outside it.
Insist that the church is called to be a holy people. We have been privileged with positional holiness - we have been set apart - in part to animate an ethic that engages the world in constructive ways that cultivate human flourishing and the common good.
Through the text, preach a holiness that cannot be reduced to simple formulas but embraces specific practices that cultivate relationships of love and obedience. Illustrate and apply an alternative story to the world, a holiness that consistently expresses the biblical narrative embodied in the ordinary, everyday life of God's people.
Preach the incarnation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Help people live in a reality where true holiness lives in the tension between living separately from the world and living fully engaged in the world. Work through texts like the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Peter, for the sake of community formation that both critiques the establishment and offers another way of living through the life of the Church.
3. God Has A Radical Mission For Us...So Radical It Shows Up At The Office
Exile has always brought with it a renewing, reforming reminder that even from the margins, the people of God are still commissioned to be a "light for the Gentiles" (Is 42:6). As the Church in our day finds itself once again in exile, God has awakened a new missional focus that is both a response to the new relationship between church and culture and a rediscovery of the church's true nature.
You and I can bring that focus to light in our churches by demonstrating from texts like 1 Peter that the missionary identity of the church is played out primarily in the context of social relationships. We make Jesus impossible to ignore where we live, work and play.
Missional preaching will call for intentionality in ordinary, everyday life. Missional preaching encourages us to live humbly in mutual submission to the broader culture; sometimes serving as the teacher; at other times taking the posture of a student; at all times providing a testimony to Christ through our humility. MIsisonal preaching teaches practical habits of life - prayer, listening, shared meals, serving, sharing God's story through our words and our work.
4. The Gospel Is A Story...Don't Forget How It Ends and Begins
Preach eschatology. Don't let the goofiness of bad hermeneutics and the challenges of rigorous exegesis keep you from telling people how their story, the story of your city and the story of the life of the world turns out. The hope of restoration - of being home with God forever - is at the heart of living in exile.
Preach the whole gospel. Don't start with the problem of sin and the solution of salvation. Preach the beginning of the story about a powerful, creative God, who built out something flawless for the sake of love. Preach the end of the story where God refuses to destroy everything and start over ex nihilo in a cloud city called heaven. Preach a new earth that provides a place for exiles come home to a world that is better than brand new.
Preach an applied gospel where the hope of 'better than brand new' inspires and motivates the everyday work of the housewife, the student, the accountant, and the non-profit CEO. Create a culture in your church that embraces and expects doubt and responds with safety and time for people to respond to the good news of a very big God doing a very big work in the small corners of our schedules and souls.
Do The Next Right Thing
Consider books like Esther, Daniel, Jonah and 1 Peter for future teaching series.
As you prepare your next sermon, look for ways to highlight one or more of these themes. Textual faithfulness takes priority, but a providential and sovereign God who calls his people to holiness as they join him in his work of redeeming creation is pervasive throughout the Scriptures.
For more, grab a copy of Lee Beach's helpful book, 'The Church In Exile: Living In Hope After Christendom'.
Pray through this word of blessing from God to you as a reminder of the work that Jesus has done for you from Isaiah 42:6-7:
I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
Was this helpful? Use the menu below to share it with others!