If you attend a mostly white, evangelical church in the 2020s, you have probably been told by your pastor that you are an “exile.” This is not by accident. He or she has been taught to imagine himself, his flock, and the church in our country as exiles from our worldly culture.
At its heart, this modernized exilic framework grieves secular shifts in Western culture and laments the loss of place the Christian church once had in our society. It equates our situation with what the people of Judah experienced and suffered after being exiled from Israel—while living in Babylonian captivity after the destruction of Jerusalem and their temple in 586 B.C.
This comparison largely began in the ’90s, drawing from the work of German-American theologian Walter Brueggemann and those building upon him. In The Church in Exile: Living in Hope After Christendom, Canadian Christian and Missionary Alliance theologian Lee Beach summarizes this exilic mindset as “the experience of knowing that one is an alien, and perhaps even in a hostile environment where the dominant values run counter to one’s own.” Beach contends that Christians should think of themselves as exiles in all times and places.
As evidence of evangelicals’ exilic status today, Beach points out the difference between Canada’s centennial celebration in 1967, which featured a Christian worship service, and Canada’s memorial service after 9/11, which did not. He notes, “If such national gatherings provide insight into the ethos of the nation, then in thirty-four years Canada had moved from a nation in which the church played a major role to one in which it was no longer included at all.”
The problem today with labeling North American evangelicals as exiles is that it becomes a form of cultural appropriation that minimizes the suffering of real exiles—and misrepresents the original Jewish exile. Moreover, it does not reflect the past or present status of the Western church and is therefore not a fitting, factual, or biblical metaphor for modern-day ministry.
In the 2000s, the rate at which mostly white, male, classically trained, evangelical theologians and pastors in the West embraced and preached the exile motif in their churches was outpaced by the rate at which millions of refugees and asylum-seekers faced real exile around the world.
Yet living in what Beach describes as “perhaps even a hostile environment” (emphasis added)—or moving from a “major role” in a nation to no role “at all”—is not what real exiles experience. Refugees drowning in the Mediterranean because their dinghy capsized did not move from a “major role” in society to no role “at all,” but rather from clinging to life to no life at all.
Think of the Uyghur, Syrian, Afghan and soon-to-arrive Ukrainian refugees in our churches and neighborhoods. Are we using rubber rafts to escape our country or throwing our children over barbed wire fences to avoid industrial-scale “re-education”? Are we sending our women and children to the border while the men stay behind to fight off invaders?
I regularly preach to the English ministry of a Toronto-based Mandarin church. Some of its elders were hidden by parents in caves as children to be saved from Communist purges before fleeing to safety here in North America. How does our use of “exile” language strike those living among us who have experienced real exile?
Evangelical advocates of “exile” are at best tone-deaf when they claim the status of exile on account of Christianity “slowly moving from the center of culture to a more peripheral role.” Using exile as a metaphor for ministry today misrepresents what the church in the West is currently experiencing—compared to, for example, the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who are still trapped at the southern border of the United States.