Monday, April 2, 2012


When I use the word “exiles,” I mean outsiders—outsiders to the world of church. The kind of outsiders to which I refer are not, generally speaking, ones who have been excluded by others, but are rather those who can’t seem to find where they fit any more.

With those kinds of outsiders there are three groups. The first the group of people that shop for church as religious consumers. Their disconnection from church tends to come from the perceived desire for a particular kind of music, an acceptable morning speaker, programs for the kids, and few demands on an otherwise busy life. Attempting to keep the religious life alive in a demanding, consumer-based culture is a difficult and sometimes noble task, but does not necessarily qualify, in my estimation, as the life of an exile. The second is also based in consumerism, but of a theological kind. The people in this group have very specific ideas about what constitutes an acceptable and orthodox system of Christian belief. They often seek to carefully read statements of faith and, if possible, to interview the church leaders to make sure they have the correct doctrinal positions. While a concern about doctrine is not unimportant, it is a concern that the kind of exiles I have in mind wouldn’t consider to be primary.

There is, as I see it, a third group of outsiders. These are the ones who would say that they have trusted Jesus with their lives, that they have an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and a confidence in God’s generous and expansive love. For any number of reasons, however, this authentic inner life of faith has difficulty in finding expression and nurture in that most common of Christian gatherings that we call the church. These are the ones I call exiles.

Unlike other exiles, these are not outsiders because of deportation, political oppression, or banishment. They find the reasons for their isolation to be within themselves and they don’t know how to find a remedy. Yes, they might have any number of critiques about the way church is done (at least in the ways that are familiar to them), but they know that there is something within them that is real, and it doesn’t seem to fit well in church.

Within this group of exiles there is a sub-group. These are people like me who have served as pastors and leaders in the church. They have given their vocational life to Christian leadership but are no longer serving in that role. For them, attending a church service can become a dislocating experience, a sense of displacement that requires them to become observers to something that they had come to cherish. It’s a handicap of sorts, but a real one nonetheless.

Musicians experience this same sensation with frequency. It is difficult for a musician to sit in the audience during a concert without watching the way the performers play their instruments and listening to every note with a critical ear. They can’t help themselves from doing it; after all, they’ve been up on that stage, and perhaps could even play the music more proficiently than those who are currently capturing everyone’s attention. The rest of the audience is simply enjoying the concert, but the musician suffers.

What do you think? Do you know such a person? Are you one? Do you feel like you are, in a sense, a person without a country? I'd love to hear from you to see how you are dealing with this life of exile and where you think it will go.

1 comment:

Bob Harper said...

Hi Mike, I know many exiles and I think the existence of such impoverishes the church. It seems to me that our faith grows, through a delicate balance (dance?) of doubt and encounter. God allows us to build walls of certainty with our faith and then he knocks them down. That, to me, is the healthy process of doubt. Fortunately he also invades our lives in ways that feel better and which call us to stretch to him. This what I mean by encounter, those moments of power, provision, etc. that God brings to us from time to time. Church tends to be about certainty instead of doubt. In the earlier stages of our faith that is very appealing because we want “the answer.” In the later stages it is anything but that is true. After your walls are knocked down a few times you realize the pointlessness in rebuilding them. I find “CERTAINTY” (notice the capitol letters) very unhelpful for trying to be faithful. I assume that exiles feel the same way. My question is, how is it possible to do church in a way that provides structure for those who need certainty and allows room for those who no longer need it. The church is impoverished because we need the mentoring, leadership, wisdom, and experience of the exiles but the ones I know don’t feel like they fit in.