The crisis facing the modern American church is that we think we are living in the Promised Land when we are really living in Exile. That's the assertion of Mark Labberton in a new and important book entitled, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. The Promised Land is one of the great themes of the Bible. God's People, Israel, was delivered from bondage in Egypt and given a new homeland of milk and honey. It was a gift. One that was misused by the Israelites and so instead of living there happily ever after they found themselves defeated and carted off to exile in Babylon. There, they were strangers in a strange land. Yet, their prophets like Jeremiah called them to seek the welfare of their land of exile. Their call to live as God's People had not changed but almost everything else had.
Labberton says our context is key to how we understand our call to be God's People. If we are living in the Promised Land where we expect an abundance of milk and honey then our story lines are mostly about promise and fulfillment. God has blessed us with all kinds of good things and the sky is the limit. Our faith is easily co-opted by the expectations of our consumerist culture and our faith becomes a means to realize our own slice of the American Dream. Church shopping is much more than a metaphor but defines our sense of entitlement to life, liberty and happiness. The fruit of the Spirit become comestibles, Labberton says. When the Promised Land becomes the Plundered Land, when God's blessings become an end in themselves and their purpose is forgotten, all we have left is a shell unable to sustain the life it was meant to foster, he writes.
I drive by scores of large and impressive church buildings on my way to our small rented church space in the city. The parking lots are usually full on Sunday mornings and evenings. Their enormous signs remind me of the new jumbotrons at EverBank field, home of the Jaguars. They beckon passersby to come in and experience state of the art technology as worship. Their facilities and staff await to fulfill any and all of our needs. Just come, sit, watch, give and enjoy. But, where are the people. They are invisible outside the church setting fitting in comfortably with their secular, or other church going neighbors. Where is the impact. Or are we merely enjoying the advantages of being a Christian in America and shaking our heads in judgment at those who don't follow our way.
The crisis we face, Labberton says, is that we are slow to realize we are a church in exile and that the Promised Land church (there is even a children's program called The Promised Land) is a mirage. Living as a church in exile means having different expectations. We don't whine about the world being the world. We love it, serve it and pray for it's welfare. We don't live in a hothouse of protected faith, he says, but in a place of winds, rain and floods (Matt 7:27). That image Jesus used reminds us that a church in exile is no stranger to suffering. God loved and entered a world full of suffering and he suffered for it. How can we live in this world God loves and act like God has given a pass to us in the western church. American Christians can easily forget we are such a small percentage of the world. The norm for most people in our world is a daily struggle for the basics of life. There are few of the freedoms we take for granted. Labberton bluntly puts it this way: "seeking a call that evades suffering is a decision neither to follow Jesus nor to live in the real world."
Our lives can seem so far from the suffering images on the nightly news: Ebola orphans, racial protests, child trafficking, refugees fleeing violence and instability. Our prayers can seem so inconsequential and even lame, what words do we have. We have been too long in the church of the Promised Land. As a church in exile we will be taught a language of lament by the Psalms and the Prophets. We will build bridges to those who suffer, move closer to sharing their lives, giving and receiving. We will choose to include the suffering of others in our lives. To live out our calling of loving like Jesus.