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Desert and Exile: Embracing the Slow-fix Church

Monday, 6 October 2014  | Stephen McAlpine

How would you respond if you were to hear that this generation of Western Christians is the generation called to take the collective medicine of the sins of the past sixty years? The chastened generation called to tone down its voice, and tip-toe around sotte voce before handing on the baton to the next generation? Could you do that? Wander around in the desert outside the Promised Land, rather than rushing up against Jericho having been told “No!”?

When we read Israel’s desert experience, we “tut-tut”. How could they both be so stupid and so resilient? How did they manage to keep going in the knowledge that anyone over 20 at the time of the Exodus was destined to die in the desert; and that their progeny would experience and see what they never would?

In our context, in thrall as we are to the immediate, it seems not only impossible but also unlikely to us that God may require a similar ‘slow fix’ of us. But listen to Israel’s knee-jerk reaction when God declares that their initial refusal to go into the Promised Land is going to keep them out of it for a generation:

“Here we are. We will go up to the place that the LORD has promised, for we have sinned” (Numbers 14:40).

‘Quick fix’ repentance. “We’re sorted; now let’s get on with it.” They go up against Jericho despite Moses’ warning and the locals cut them to pieces.

Perhaps that’s pushing the exegesis. However, in Deuteronomy 1, Moses reminds the next generation that the refusal of their parents to take their medicine was fuelled by presumptuousness (Deut. 1:43):

“Of course God will go with us now. Of course we’ve sorted out the problems. We’re looking to the future.”

The Church in the declining West is on the nose. There is a widespread ‘ABC’ culture - Anything But Christianity. On one level, we are unsurprised: we do, after all, follow a crucified Lord. However, let’s not fall into presumption. Let’s not rush the quick fix. Our problems have built up a head of steam. The church has serious questions to answer in relation to sexual abuse; questions to answer in relation to spiritual abuse; questions to ask about narcissism, insecure leadership; and why ‘heavy shepherding’ is so prevalent. It’s got questions to answer in relation to power and celebrity and wealth and a whole host of other matters. Perhaps the culture is ABC, but let’s not get sniffy about it. Too much of the church culture has been ABC too - Anything But Christ.

The tendency is towards quick-fix solutions. Get the Royal Commission into sexual abuse out of the way and get on with it. Get my six weeks mea culpa out of the way and get on with leading my mega-church. Start a church planting movement and simply carry across the power-hungry, narcissistic leaders into the new model and get on with it. I mean, why wait forty years? Surely God is the God of new beginnings…

He sure is. But it’s usually after a period of judgement and self-reflection among his people. That’s what Israel had to do in the desert—go through the slow fix. Kill off the sin. Kill off the pride. Kill off the generation that hankered for Egypt.  

And guess what? They had to do it all over again when exiled in Babylon. What were false prophets promising? “A couple of years,” said Hananiah (Jeremiah 28:1-4), “A couple of years and it will all be sorted out.” Jeremiah says “No”. Sure enough, it took seventy.

What if it takes us forty, sixty, seventy years? Do we have the intestinal fortitude to cope with being the slow-fix generation? The generation God keeps in the desert for the sake of the Promised Land? The generation to stay in Babylon for the sake of Jerusalem?

What will the slow fix require? Perhaps the following is a start.


Lowered Expectations
Or moderated ones at least. Let’s face it, we’ve run the superlatives ragged in recent years. The “biggest” this; the most “awesome” that. And then at the other end of the missional spectrum: the most “radical” this, the “deepest” that. To say nothing of “influential”, “highest selling”, “powerful voice into culture”, etc., etc. Sit in a mega-church long enough and you begin to imagine that you’re ‘making some impact’. Begin to think you’ve got a voice. I sat as a visiting speaker quipped to a large church packed with Christian leaders, “I’ve had heart problems recently. What would it say in your newspaper tomorrow if I dropped dead on stage?” Person you’ve never heard of dies in place you’ve never been to. Page 7, probably. 

The cognitive dissonance that arises due to the gap between triumphalist language and grinding reality is unhelpful for those whose everyday life exists outside the church. They sense how insignificant their Christian lives are in relation to the workaday world; how the ‘immanent frame’ that Charles Taylor speaks of has enervated many opportunities for gospel conversations; and how late modernity has eviscerated theological and moral reflection on work practices.

The Bible for Losers
Much has been written on the rediscovery of the Bible’s exilic language in recent years. In light of that, a re-appreciation of apocalyptic text is also instructive. The exiled Daniel’s apocalyptic experiences are informative. Both Daniel and those martyred in Revelation have the same question in relation to the troublesome times: “How long?” Both are told to wait. The tension of waiting is integral to Christian maturity, both individually and corporately. But to be on the losing side of history is only bearable when waiting is not viewed as cooling our heels in chronos, but biding our time in kairos. When Christians enter politics to try and shift the culture back to “when we were Christian” is an implicit rejection of the chronological tension to which we are called.


Discipleship First
My experience of nearly every church plant that I have known is that the core group planted in order to do evangelism and in the process discovered discipleship. Many of us were ready to rush off to be missional “out there” only to discover that our own discipleship “in here” was sorely lacking. The coal face of mission exposed the unspoken expectations many of us held about what the good life in the Western world owed us. But it was only when the blowtorch of church planting was applied to the underbelly that this was revealed. Most current models of church are not so revealing, often simply providing a sanctified consumer experience that masks our need of personal and corporate transformation. It could be that a couple of decades of slow-fix, hard work is needed to undo the calcification process before we are ready to tackle the evangelistic task in any significant manner, during which time we train the next generation to avoid the same pitfalls. The bonus of such discipleship is that people who live more like Jesus and who are enamoured enough with him to change their lives for him and share him with others will see evangelistic fruit.


Substance over Style
We’re living in a context in which a meme is about as deep as many people will get when it comes to dealing with difficult social and cultural issues. The current meme war on Facebook between Islam and the West makes me long for the good old days of the Atheist/Christian meme! The Christian message is ironic at the deep level, as the reality of a crucified Messiah attests. But we can’t seem to help ourselves, constantly falling into the shallow tit-for-tat irony of one-liners. We need to delete the constant need to retaliate with quick-wittedness or foolhardiness, pause for breath, and learn to soberly assess the times. A reflective, less reactive, Christian community in the present may well build a strong foundation for the next generation.


Sort Out Sex
Uber-blogger Tim Challies points out that the porn problem among young people in church is enervating their spirituality and raising the possibility of a generation of Christian leaders hollowed out by their sexual experiences. If the consumer culture has deeply affected the current generation, ignoring the lure of the new morality of the sexual consumer culture could devastate what is left. In short, we would be better served sorting out sex inside the church and be less worried with what goes on outside. Let’s face it, the ‘yuck factor’ no longer holds sway among Christians, let alone the rest of the community, when it comes to a whole host of sexual expressions. Getting our own lives in order in this regard, and providing a clear alternative to a culture that demands sexual expression as a display of true freedom and authenticity, is a first step.


It’s time for Christians in the West to admit that the culture wars are over, and where the results are in, we have lost. Where the results are not yet finalised, it’s almost time to concede. But the culture wars did not spring up quickly. They were a slow-burn that expressed themselves more deeply as the 20th century progressed. But they didn’t start there: they started two hundred years ago, before sneaking up on us, then finally rushing at us headlong these past forty years. Currently, we are a bit panicked and a bit angst-ridden, but the sooner we realise that the war is over, the sooner we can get on with being the chastened, humbled, less presumptuous generation. We can become the generation charged with keeping its head down, involving ourselves in the slow-fix solution of rebuilding and helping the next generation to take its place in a world many of us can barely keep pace with. Always remember that the next time the people marched on Jericho—some forty years after their first encounter with it and in a different spirit—its walls fell flat.



Gordon Preece
October 7, 2014, 8:47AM
Great piece, Steve, knocking out several sacred cows of fast food Christianity in one blow. In John Dickson's terms, we need to move from admonition to mission in relation to the world. We've ignored 1 Cor 5 where the church allowed high status people (cf clergy sex abuse) to have worse sexual standards than the world. Paul tells them we're not to judge the world but 'judge' or discipline ourselves. We look so hypocritical, then we oppose gay marriage for the world instead of sorting out our gay and straight sexual problems in the church. As Bonhoeffer said, we need to rediscover the arcane, secret, prayerful, 'monastic' discipline of the Early Church, and shut up for a while so that we can be renewed in integrity and so once again speak a word of power backed by lives of disciplined, corporately accountable, prayerful discipleship. Thanks again, Steve.
Warren Hodge
October 7, 2014, 5:35PM
I appreciate a lot of what is said here, but I an unsure about heading for some sort of cocoon and waiting this period of church/community animosity out. I think that it is a new humility that we in the church, especially its leaders, need to express, as we face engaging with the community in graceful and creative ways. We enter community space acknowledging that we now come from the fringes, and reside there for very understandable reasons. But the gospel still gives us a unique enough contribution to make, that, although community links may be fragile at best, we can still reestablish some good working and redemptive relationships.
Ian Packer
October 7, 2014, 5:56PM
I don't see any recommendation for a "cocoon" strategy here, Warren. Even in 'exile', we have plenty to do that is missional and witnesses to what God has done, is doing, and will do.

The emphasis, I think, is on the slow, patient work we have to do rather than the quick-fix 'solutions' touted by too many.

'Success' or 'cultural recognition' or whatever other thing we crave may not be ours.
Warren Hodge
October 8, 2014, 9:05AM
Thanks Ian for helpful clarification. I think that sometimes people, just like the ancient Israelites, do not deal well with the concept and reality of exile, because they prefer control and predictability, and thus throw the baby out with the bath water, i.e. if it can't go our way then we'll disengage (or just be negative). Fortunately we do have Jeremiah, Daniel and Jesus to set us straight.

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