Exile and the faithful reimagination of the church

When we are confronted with experiences of complexity we invariably tell stories. When the people of Israel found themselves in exile they did the same. 

The experience of exile, the disorientating loss of all the key symbols of what it meant to be God’s covenant people (land, king, temple), maps onto our own experience in a context of the church at the margins in society. 

“The church is one of those former power brokers who once enjoyed a place of influence at the cultural table but has been chased away…and is now seeking where to belong’ Lee Beach

The Valley of Dry Bones (Eze 37: 1 – 14)

This famous passage in Ezekiel, when read in this way, offers a great deal of insight for pioneering and missional leaders wrestling with the church’s own experience of exile. Here are three tasks for the leaders of the people of God in exile based on this passage:

1.    Give space for lament (vs 1-2)

Ezekiel is taken on an extensive tour of the valley of the dry bones. The symbolic power of this image of destruction is clearly not enough, Ezekiel must be led ‘back and forth among them’ and shown not just their number but their condition (‘very dry’). This intense study of the tragedy and hopelessness of exile is not mere detail. It suggests that lamenting the pain and loss of exile is an important task, one which we much not cut short. As Beach says ‘without the act of truth telling, a legitimate hope can never emerge.’

2.    Be willing to surrender (vs 3)

Ezekiel is then asked a question: “Son of man, can these bones live?’. The answer may seem obvious, but Ezekiel’s reply is more revealing: “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know?’  Gone is any pretence that some strategic alliance, or military miracle can bring back Israel. Instead what is offered is not despair but a surrendered willingness to participate in whatever God’s will might offer by way of renewal. 

In our changing context, trying harder at some of the strategies and forms that have served us well in the past will bring diminishing returns. Leaders must be the first to let down their arms and recognise that renewal begins when we don’t have an easy answer any more – what we must have first of all is rapt attention to God and his will. 

3.    Lead people toward a reimagined home (vs 4 – 14)

The instructions that follow result in a vast resurrected army (vs 10). This may look like a restoration but it is not – it is a resurrection brought about the Spirit and will take Israel to a new place, not a return to the old. Twice the picture is interpreted as a return home (vs 12, 14). However, everything we know about the results of the exile suggest that this is not a nostalgic return to the Israel of old, but instead a radical reimagination of how being the covenant people of God could be faithfully expressed. 

This reimagination was expressed in three main areas with three radical insights: 

  • God’s presence – God presence is not restricted to the temple, He is present where he chooses to reveal himself, often in the most unlikely places. 
  • Holiness – holiness is not simply about observing ritual, it is a thing of the heart expressed throughout the whole life
  • Mission – mission is more than a welcoming of the widow or stranger into our domain, it is an incarnational presence amidst other cultures and faiths.

It is not hard to relate these insights to all that is being explored through Fresh Expressions as its leaders learn to recognise God’s presence beyond the safety of the church and nurture new communities of disciples in faithfully living out the gospel in the midst of a dominant and alien culture. 

The story of exile is a story of God’s people rediscovering itself, finding a way home by the leading of God’s Spirit, reimagining the principles of the covenant in new and radically faithful ways. It is their story and ours as the Spirit leads us in a new movement of reimagination in post-Christendom Britain.  

Paul Bradbury is Pioneer Minister at Poole Missional Communities and has just started a role as Pioneer Hub Co-Ordinator for South at the Church Mission Society.  Paul is the author of Stepping Into Grace exploring the prophet Jonah’s journey into mission.