Many, if not all of us, have felt our worship displaced in some way. The COVID-19 crisis worldwide has caused a recalibration in our patterns of faith life that is hard to compare to any other season for the people of God.
One has to go back to the Protestant Reformation and the invention of the printing press to find moments as significant as the changes the Church has gone through in recent months. While those changes reverberate to today, even those changes were not so worldwide, nor affecting so many billions of believers as today. The word is often overused, but you would be accurate to call these times “historic.”
Some might view these changes as temporary and seek to go back to “normal” as soon as possible, assuming that, yes, the change is dramatic but short term. However, many in the Church are asking bigger questions, searching their souls for what these times mean. Scripture provides what could be historical hinge points to learn from, prompting us to ask three questions in light of this era: are we in exodus, exile or diaspora?
These three metanarratives are stories of the people of Israel, a culture Gentile Christians live inside as guests in the house of God, as disciples grafted into that vine (Romans 11). We can learn from these stories about how to view our own times.
Are we in exodus?
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2).
God may be freeing us. We might not fully understand this freedom, but it may be leading us collectively into a new promised land together.
The Israelites were freed from their bondage, which for a season in the wilderness, they didn’t realize or honor. They wanted to go back to slavery, as they felt it was better than the wilderness. But God knows that the transition may be brutal, but the promised land is worth it.
Are we in exile?
While I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God (Ezekiel 1:1).
God may be correcting us. He could be redirecting our lack of focus and even correcting some idolatries and leading us into a season of rediscovering the roots of our faith.
The Israelites were corrected from years of abusing the promised land, not following God’s laws and even falling into the worst season of idolatry in their history. They chased after worldly forms of rulership (idolizing their kings instead of obeying God). The Lord knew the Israelites needed to lose that which he had given to them by promise, their land, in order to re-center themselves on worshipping God, not worshipping their identity as children of God nor the land given them.
Are we in diaspora?
The Jews said to one another, “Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks?” (John 7:35).
God may be scattering us. It is possible that in resistance to being sent out to make disciples, to start new churches, to be an influence in our neighborhoods and workplaces, to even move cross-culturally around the globe, God has made another way for us to be sent to those places. Sometimes God scatters his people as an alternative means of sending.
Many Israelites lived in diaspora from the time of the Exile. The Jews speaking in John chapter 7 were fully aware of the scatteredness of their identity. What’s more, the early Church’s persecution scattered the very early followers of Christ about the Roman world, closing the Gospel Gap of their age with them by the providence of God’s scattering. This accelerated immensely after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70 as the people of God (this included ethnic Jews, as well as Gentile and Jewish followers of Jesus) no longer had Jerusalem as the center of their faith. In this, God knew that not only the Jews but also Christians might rediscover their identity as being sent on a mission more permanently. The end goal of the people of Israel, and by fulfillment in the way of Jesus, was never to be just Jerusalem, it was to become a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3), offering redemption to all through God’s providential plan.
Three paths of renewal
Of course the answer for us is likely not just one of the three narratives but a mixture. As we use this historical prism to view the people of God, we cast three different colored lights on our situation.
We who prefer to see our situation as an exodus might miss ways God wants to correct our patterns with an exile in the wilderness and might misunderstand the importance of the promised land and fall back into idolatry. The Israelites may have been more fully whole in God in the wilderness than in the promised land.
We who prefer to see our situation as an exile might miss ways God wants us to move forward into a diaspora, a redefinition of worship that is not tied to one place and might sow division where there becomes two classes of worshippers. This is especially highlighted since the diaspora didn’t start in A.D. 70; it started with the exile.
We who prefer to see our situation as a diaspora might miss ways God wants to pull us back together into a place promised to us, and they might dismiss efforts to regather worshippers as meaningless, when clearly God has moved through such gatherings as well. There is no such thing as a “perfectly pure” way to worship God this side of eternity, and we should embrace movement over any one model.
Alternative experiences of exodus, exile, and diaspora
Some of us have experienced an exodus from those whom we used to worship that has nothing to do with COVID-19. We feel a freedom from the church of our youth — sometimes one that felt oppressive. In this wilderness season, we might ask ourselves if God has a Sinai moment for us, where instead of merely deconstructing the pain of our Egypt, he has a word for us that would be constructive, not only for us but others like us. How will we build community in new wineskins, not merely seek to burst old ones?
Some of us have experienced exile from those whom we used to worship with that has nothing to do with COVID-19. We were cast out or rejected. We find ourselves in new territory that requires a rethinking of our faith identity. Perhaps, like the people Israel in captivity, we will find that we can become children of God with more vibrancy than ever before. Instead of contrasting ourselves to the idolatries of the promised land, we can now, among those who are not the people of God, more adequately define ourselves in contrast to the world.
Some of us have experienced a literal diaspora from those with whom we used to worship that has nothing to do with COVID-19. By fleeing violence, persecution and/or poverty or even just seeking new economic opportunity, we now live among a new people in a new land. We can be encouraged that while living in diaspora is a disorienting struggle, in the world today, immigrants often improve their circumstances economically, and what’s more, in spiritual terms, the diaspora are carriers of the gospel and a thriving identity in God. The Lord is still using diaspora to turn the least of these into missionaries.
Others don’t fit into these categories, and we might still feel displaced in worship, with a kind of exodus from religion, or living as some kind of spiritual exile with a diaspora faith. This can be very difficult, especially when we cannot put our finger on why we carry what feels like a homeless soul.
I hope this has helped us think through how this season in our lives can be one of renewal, not merely deconstruction. It can help us find a true religion, a resilient spiritual life, a vibrancy in faith like never before. We must not pine for Egypt, or try to go back to the promised land or think that things will “go back to normal” soon. Instead, we march forward into the brave new future, where God has already gone before us to prepare the way, sending us on a mission.
Here are some discussion questions to help you think about your outlook, whether in exodus, exile or diaspora.
- What patterns of dependency might this be an opportunity for us to be freed from?
- What new revelation of identity might God provide to us?
- Where is our Sinai, the place where God might meet us “on the way” to the promised land?
- How are we longing to “go back” when God might be calling us to “go forward?”
- What did we worship before that indeed was not God?
- How can we find an authentic and lasting way to worship that is not dependent on place?
- In what ways can our faith become more portable and vibrant?
- How is God calling us to step up to prophetically speak about truth and justice?
- Where is God sending us in the world today?
- What energy did we used to spend on Sundays that we can now spend in neighborhoods and workplaces?
- Is God calling us to start a new kind of church out of our church?
- Is God calling us to move cross-culturally to a people without access to the gospel (currently four in 10 human beings)?
David Drury is a multi-vocational organization founder, church planter and chief of staff of The Wesleyan Church. Find him at DavidDrury.com.