The Christian life is a life in exile. When we are born again in Christ, we become citizens of a new Kingdom – and that means we are “sojourners and exiles” in this world until Christ’s return. At the height of Christendom in the west, Christians may have felt at home in this world; but even before the cultural Christianity of the west began eroding 75 years ago, Christians have always been exiles. The tension and upheaval of the last few years has made this reality even more obvious to Christians, but it has always been true.
In Paul Williams’ excellent book “Exiles on Mission,” he analyzes these cultural trends and points out that many Christians are now experiencing a conflict, a dissonance between our Christian identity and the reality of life in the world around us. The gap between Sunday and Monday seems to be widening. Our faith can feel insignificant, even irrelevant to life in a post-Christian world. The perceived tension between our faith and the world around us can create the temptation to overreact and swing to one extreme or the other.
In my own experience and observing Christians around me, I have seen three mistaken approaches to navigating our life in exile:
Integrated Citizen: This person just wants to belong, so their approach to the world is to assimilate and conform. They do this by making compromises to adapt to the lifestyle of their neighbors and coworkers. The person living as an Integrated Citizen will tend to separate their private and public life. Driven by a desire for acceptance they may hide their faith in public and consider only their personal life as sacred. For them the church just becomes a personal retreat – a spiritual day spa – without much relevance to the world. In fact the main message to the world becomes “to each his own.” Someone living with this approach may start out holding onto their Christian identity, but this is a dangerous place to live, an untenable position in the long run. Eventually, someone drawn to assimilate will likely give in to cowardice, compromise their convictions, and may end up losing their faith entirely.
Displaced Defender: These Christians recognize that they are out of place in the world, but they feel we have been unjustly displaced. They don’t fully embrace the reality that this world can never be our home. And so, their strategy is to armor up and engage in a cultural battle to “take back what’s ours.” In this mindset, the church becomes a battle station, a place to dig a trench and prepare for the next attack. The message to nonbelievers is one of judgment. Someone living as a Displaced Defender can easily be driven by anger against sin, resentment against godless leaders, and a sense of entitlement to the power positions of this world. Often there is one hot button issue – like racial injustice, abortion, politics, or the LGBT movement – that takes the brunt of their attack. They tend to overemphasize the public sphere as the only platform to advance the Kingdom, and as a result they may compromise their personal witness. But, while Christians can and should have a role in the public sphere, and we should fight for biblical truth and justice, it has to be done in the right way. We can’t change society by forcing external obedience. And we can’t risk losing our personal witness in an attempt to defend the faith.
Visiting Outsider: This approach to life in exile withdraws from the world. As a Christian, they recognize they are not a citizen of any earthly kingdom; in fact, they don’t even want to be a resident! They view the world as a wicked, dangerous place, and so – driven by fear and a desire to preserve their own purity – they virtually abandon society. Unlike the Displaced Defender who overemphasizes the public sphere, the Visiting Outsider overemphasizes the private sphere, prioritizing only their own self-preservation. They lose compassion for the lost in the world, and become emotionally and relationally detached – essentially telling the world to “stay away.” Slipping into this mindset means the local church becomes like a bunker, a shelter to hide from the dangers and evils of society and just wait for Jesus to return. While there is something instinctive about the need to protect ourselves from a sinful world – particularly for our children – we can’t deny our calling to be a light to the world.
As we look at these three approaches to life in exile (admittedly exaggerated to make a point), we may be tempted to point our fingers and judge other Christians for the approach they have taken. We may look at a specific Christian we know, or a church in our community, or even an entire movement and think that some have “sold out” to the world or that others have withdrawn into a “holy huddle.” It is all too easy to put other Christians in a category and write them off. But in reality, our hearts and minds are each susceptible to drifting into one fallacy or another. At least for me – depending on my mood, my personal struggles, or what’s in the news – I sometimes oscillate between aspects of all three approaches!
Jesus knew that we would face these challenges and prayed to the Father for us, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:15-18).
So then, what is the biblically-faithful, Christ-centered approach to our life in exile?
As Jesus prayed, we are called to live “in the world, not of the world.” We are sent into the world, to embed in our communities, but never taking on the values and beliefs of the world around us. This means that we remain grounded in our Christian identity and our true citizenship in heaven. We recognize this world as a foreign country, but it is a foreign country where we live. We don’t just live here, we have been sent here on a mission as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).
By the Spirit’s power, Faithful Ambassadors are driven by conviction, courage, and compassion. We are committed to both our public calling and our personal faith. Living as an ambassador means that we get to know the people, language, customs, and power structures so that we can represent God’s Kingdom to the country we’ve been sent. Ambassadors are willing and able to adapt to the foreign culture in any ways that don’t compromise the essentials of our faith – so there may be adjustments in our style, language, and customs. Yet in doing so, we always protect our personal faith, set necessary boundaries, and maintain purity. We stay engaged in public life and are able to effectively address larger social issues, because – by God’s grace – we have built a reputation and earned a voice.
Embracing this perspective means we view the local church as an embassy – a place where ambassadors can connect with their homeland, train together, and work together. The church is a missional outpost – a little piece of God’s Kingdom right here on earth – where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is lived and spoken to transform the people and communities around us. We invest in society, we engage with the world, and we love the people around us. We embrace our calling to be light and truth to a dark and dying world.
Life in exile is our calling. It is not easy, but the Father has called us, Jesus prays for us, and the Spirit fills us. With that hope, we can pray, live, and speak so that God’s Kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
A form of this blog was originally published by Acts 29 as Leading our Churches Through a Life in Exile.