the shape of leadership

Ministry in Exile

Thriving in a post-Christian culture

Heather Weber on February 1, 2023

In March 2020, our church’s rental space in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, suddenly closed to us. We had nowhere to gather but Zoom, an online platform I had never used before the pandemic.

The disruption was supposed to last only a few weeks. But as it turned out, Zoom became our congregation’s home away from home for more than a year. We felt like a church in exile.

Displacement wasn’t unique to us, of course. Across the globe, people left their offices to work from home. Kids attended school from kitchen tables. College students abandoned campuses and moved back into their childhood bedrooms. Frontline workers donned masks and retreated behind plexiglass barriers.

As perplexing as this new reality seemed, I found comfort in the words of Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:4–7).

Even during seasons of displacement, God’s people have a path forward. Jeremiah’s exhortations to build houses, plant gardens, multiply, and seek the peace of the city reminded the exiles they could prosper even as a displaced people.

Exile is part of our spiritual heritage. In fact, following Christ has always meant living far from “the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

In this world, we are always a bit out of place. Writers of the New Testament attest to this, framing members of the Early Church as citizens of heaven and exiles (Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 1:1).

Like the exiles in Babylon, the Church finds itself at odds with a world that feels strange. Yet we must stay true to our mission of preaching the gospel and making disciples.


Changing Culture

It’s hard to ignore the data. Americans are attending church and identifying with Christianity less than they once did.

While Christians make up 64% of the U.S. population today, Pew Research Center recently projected that by 2070, the share will drop to 35–54%.

Anecdotally, many church leaders are already seeing signs of decline. Yet we need not lose hope.

At times during the past two millennia, Christianity enjoyed great social and cultural influence. The Early Church could not boast of such privilege, however. Despite its status as a minority community, the Church thrived.

America is moving closer to becoming a post-Christian nation — one in which Christianity is no longer the dominant religion. We can gain valuable insights by asking why the Church is shrinking. At the same time, we should remember the Church has always been a people in exile. Regardless of whether we enjoy large-scale social influence, our values, longings, and spiritual DNA are rooted in a Kingdom that is “not of this world” (John 18:36).

The Jewish exiles in Babylon learned to thrive in a culture that was, in many ways, at odds with their way of living.

The American Church must do the same. The question is, how can we flourish in this time and place of decreased social and cultural influence?

Like the exiles in Babylon, the Church finds itself at odds
with a world that feels strange. Yet we must stay true to our mission of preaching the gospel and making disciples.


Unhelpful Postures

Peter encouraged Christians living in a non-Christian culture to steward their witness well: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).

However, the Church has not always succeeded in doing this. Too often, we have assumed one of three postures that work against our witness.

Withdrawal is the first of these unhelpful postures. It is a means of preservation for the exiled community.

As a child, I watched with fascination as horses and buggies traveled alongside cars and trucks on our local highways. In town, I sometimes saw the occupants of those wagons: Amish men with long beards and women in black bonnets and plain, homemade dresses. Their way of life was a great mystery to me, representing an extreme form of withdrawal.

My evangelical upbringing taught more subtle forms of withdrawal. Fear of the world isolated and kept us from interacting with people who needed to know Christ.

Christians should certainly heed the warnings of Scripture, exercise discernment, and pay attention to their consciences. But fear-based postures of non-engagement are misguided means of preserving the exiled community.

While withdrawing might shield Christians from outside influences, it can also keep non-Christians from the light of the gospel. This is exactly what Jesus said not to do (Luke 11:33).

The second unhelpful posture is accommodation. I’ve helped my kids navigate all kinds of adolescent trends, most of which were harmless. But the pressure to cave when I sense a check from the Holy Spirit is tremendous.

Guiding my daughters in faith sometimes means sending them to school knowing they might not fit in because they don’t have the latest app or can’t see the movie their friends are watching.

Unbiblical philosophies also trend in public schools and public squares. For example, today’s secular culture teaches all consensual sexual interactions are fundamentally good and revenge is fine as long as the person deserves it.

Accommodation is the easiest posture to take. It requires no critical thought, interaction with Scripture, or theological foundation.

However, Jude 3 reminds us we are responsible to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” Therefore, we must actively evaluate whether a cultural value aligns with biblical faith.

The third unhelpful posture is culture warring. When I was a teenager, a friend and I published an underground newsletter we circulated in school. The Whole Truth, as we called our publication, meagerly proclaimed the gospel alongside self-righteous articles condemning various politicians and the lifestyles of our classmates.

Rather than physical violence, culture wars involve contentious attitudes, dehumanizing arguments, sanctimonious provocation, and uncompassionate condemnation.

Unsurprisingly, warring on 1990s secular culture did nothing to bring my classmates to faith. Worse, my haughty and judgmental tone alienated many students and deepened their mistrust of Christianity.

Sincere and Spirit-empowered communication of the gospel should be the Church’s first priority. And while we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our values, we should also not expect people who don’t know Christ to live as though they do.

That is why the apostle Paul was more concerned about the moral compass of the believers in Corinth than the rampant immorality outside the Church. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul confronted the congregation about a member’s unchecked sexual sin. At the same time, Paul suggested it was not his business to judge non-Christians (verses 12–13).

Our foremost concern should be those things undermining the beautiful, holy and countercultural community the Lord intends the Church to be.

Softly Different

I suggest a posture that is not cowering, compromising, or combative — one that is softly different. “Soft difference,” a phrase first coined by theologian Miroslav Volf, doesn’t mean we are wishy-washy or feeble. Certainly, the Church must remain committed to sound doctrine.

Soft difference suggests a refusal to affirm, deny, or war against the land of
our exile. From this posture, we walk by faith, asking God to help us live courageously and love graciously.

Rather, soft difference suggests a refusal to affirm, deny, or war against the land of our exile. From this posture, we walk by faith, asking God to help us live courageously and love graciously. We do these things even as we long for “a better country — a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).

We may feel like strangers in a foreign land, but we are also Christ’s ambassadors here (2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20). As such, our posture toward non-Christians should not be one of total withdrawal, blind accommodation, or self-righteous culture warring.

In a complex social world, there will be areas of agreement and disagreement between the Church and the culture. Recognizing the differences requires a biblical worldview and spiritual discernment that keep us “in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). Only then can we live out and demonstrate our faith within the broader culture.

With that in view, I believe there are five things we can do to flourish as exiles.

1. Follow the example of the Early Church. The gospel spread in the first century with little support from cultural power structures. The Church advanced “not by might nor by power” (Zechariah 4:6), but through the work of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Word.

Facing persecution and hostility, the members of the Early Church looked to God, praying, “Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29–30).

We would do well to follow their example, shifting our focus from the culture to Christ. We can then face a changing world with less angst and more faith.

2. Minister through invitation. Jesus’ ministry was one of invitation to repentance, discipleship, and the living water of the Spirit (Matthew 16:24; John 7:37–38).

When Jesus sent His disciples to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God, He commissioned them with a ministry of invitation, too. They were to seek a household that would welcome them, but if they were not welcomed, they were to continue on, shaking the dust off their feet (Luke 9:4–5).

The Church in exile must adopt an invitational mindset and maintain the conviction that, even without widespread cultural influence, our honorable conduct (1 Peter 2:12), our love for one another (John 13:35), and our reliance on the Spirit (Matthew 10:19–20; Acts 4:31) will lead us into opportunities to share the gospel, just as the Early Church did.

We should avoid adopting the immature mindset Jesus called out in Luke 9. When some Samaritans failed to welcome them, James and John suggested calling down fire on their village. Jesus rebuked these disciples, and the group moved on to another village (verses 51–55).

The softly different Church honors the refusals of its invitations. Yet even this provides another opportunity to point to Jesus. When people mock and reject our message, what could be more countercultural than answering with love, kindness, respect and humility? Such a response again invites non-Christians to consider the love and beauty of the gospel.

3. Build houses. God instructed the exiles to “build houses and settle down” (Jeremiah 29:5). They were to erect dwellings, put down roots, raise families, and live in community.

Church leaders today are similarly called to provide places for God’s family to take refuge, that they may grow and flourish in the context of community, discipleship, and mentoring.

As Paul explained in Ephesians 4:11–16, this is the purpose of the Church:

Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

In the Church, our
very lives are to become gardens
that bless those
outside the exiled

In Bible times, homes were also places of hospitality for travelers. Our churches should likewise be places of shelter for those outside the family of believers, so they may “taste and see that the Lord is good” and come to understand that “blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

4. Plant gardens. God further told the exiles to “plant gardens and eat what they produce” (Jeremiah 29:5).

Without food and water, we die. The Church’s food and water are the Word and the Spirit, and our fruitfulness comes from abiding in Christ, the True Vine.

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Love is a fruit of abiding in Christ and living in the fullness of the Holy Spirit (John 15:9–17; Galatians 5:22). We give and receive love within the Church, and we share it with those outside the community of faith. In fact, Christlike love is a sign to everyone that we are true disciples of Christ (John 13:35).

This past summer, I grew heirloom tomatoes, but the harvest was more than my family and I could eat. So, I bagged up the plump fruits and dropped them off on doorsteps as I walked around my neighborhood.

Gardens, like homes, are for hospitality, and Israel had a history that included feeding those on the margins. In the Church, our very lives are to become gardens that bless those outside the exiled community. This can mean providing physical nourishment. It can also involve sharing intangibles, such as encouragement and friendship.

5. Seek the common good. Jeremiah told the exiles to pray for and seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which God had carried them (Jeremiah 29:7).

The divinely inspired logic was this: “If [the city] prospers, you too will prosper.” What was good for the city was good for everyone, including the exiles.

Similarly, Christians should be poised to seek the common good, praying for their neighborhoods, cities and countries. Everyone benefits when neighborhoods are safe, the basic needs of the poor are met, and the land is secure from invasion and wartime losses.

These are not things the Church should seek for selfish reasons. Rather, we pursue them because the Lord cares deeply for our neighbors and the world.

In addition to building houses, planting gardens, and seeking the peace of the city, the exiles were told to marry and multiply (Jeremiah 29:6). When an exiled community is strong, multiplication is a natural byproduct.

Likewise, as we secure our hope in the work of the Spirit, minister with gospel invitation to others, cling to orthodox teaching, depend upon Christ for personal growth and transformation, and seek the peace of our cities, we will see the exiled community flourish and multiply.

Let us not lose heart when the kingdoms of this world oppose the kingdom of heaven. The Lord has uniquely called us to holiness, hospitality, and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection.

May the people of God live into this high calling with courage, humility, and deep trust in the Lord of the harvest.


This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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