One Sunday after church, I was walking out of the Australian bakery franchise Bakers Delight with a sourdough loaf tucked under my arm when I saw this sign: ‘Bakers’ Delight Is Open Sunday. Whatever Happened to the Day of Rest?’
And I got to thinking: Yeah, whatever did happen to the day of rest? Here, in increasingly secular Australia, it quietly upped and left us without fuss, along with the other remnants of a Christianised culture. All those things like the Lord’s Prayer in school, and kids going to Sunday School while parents stayed home. These things had outlived their usefulness and were now confined to the social equivalent of the kitchen’s third drawer down.
Something had changed. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but nonetheless knew. The vestiges of Christianity were sourdough off, to be replaced by… well, what exactly?
That experience stayed with me. So did the sign. I walked back into the shop and asked for it. It’s laminated and stored away with all my old sermons.
Misreading the sign
So what sort of sign was it? Back then, I believed the disappearing day of rest was a sign that Christianity was quietly folding its wings and receding from public gaze. Seeking relevance in a disinterested culture would be the new tactic. If only the world could see what we were on about they would be interested once again. Not only did many churches seek to be relevant in presentation, many sought relevance by tweaking the message to be more on-form with the culture.
This tactic did not work. Why not? Because we were misreading the signs. Cool disinterest is not the order of the day now, hostile interest is. The cultural mandarins; the political and legal powers are increasingly hostile towards and suspicious of Christianity. The church has found itself heading towards a cultural exile, in which we are no longer the do-gooders, but the do-badders, responsible for all sorts of bigoted and reactionary attitudes that are holding back a better, more progressive future for all
Melbourne pastor, Mark Sayers, observes in his book Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience:
You can reach levels of blistering hipness, gain position within a key industry, hold an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture, throw yourself into the great justice causes of the day, and still your belief in the second culture values of faith will see you viewed as beyond the pale.
By ‘second culture’ Sayers is referring to Judeo-Christian culture, as opposed to ‘third culture’ which is the increasing post-Christian experience we are in.
Sex and gender are the shibboleths. Sign up? You get a game with ‘Team Future’. Refuse? You are exiled, even if you love the environment and help the poor. Sadly, for many evangelicals, that pressure proved too much and they blinked.
Exile as a biblical motif (and as a way forward)
So what is to be done? How can we equip a generation of Christians to be resilient – and joyfully resilient – rather than merely relevant?
Sydney writer, Tim Adeney, makes this observation:
All action embeds a hypothesis about the future. Whether I’m ordering a coffee, pressing a space bar, shopping for a week, selecting a school for my children, taking out a 30-year mortgage, selecting a bin to put my rubbish in, or invading a country, I do so with a view of the future.
Tim’s hypothesis, and mine also, is that our future will continue to be one of exile from the culture. Now that sounds dispiriting, except for the fact that the Bible outlines what it looks like to live that kind of life, and not only to live it but to thrive with resilience.
The book of Daniel is the obvious place where the exile of God’s people is examined. What we find is not an angry or morose bunch of people, hiding away from engagement with the world, but a joyous and, yes, brave, bunch who though experiencing hostility, trust God and do good to those around them.
Now let me observe that the church today is not being exiled for her sins. That has been a common conversation recently, apportioning a huge amount of anger on the church for what we’ve done wrong. The exile of Israel was God’s punishment for covenant disobedience, but this side of the cross, that cannot be the case, as Jesus has taken the covenant curses on himself.
But the experience feels the same. In chapter one, Daniel and his friends in Babylon are called to submerge their identity into Babylon. Their names are changed, their studies are pagan and their new home is the king’s palace. But they refuse to eat the king’s food. They lay down a marker: You can change as much as you like about us, but our identity is not up for grabs. Even in the face of opposition, they determined, in exile, to see resilience, not relevance.
We see the same thing in the letter of 1 Peter. While the motif of exile is subsumed under the motif of exodus, the Christians are experiencing a hostile culture where they don’t truly belong. In this situation, Peter uses covenant terminologies to describe the identity of God’s people; ‘chosen people’, ‘royal priesthood’, ‘holy nation’ are all used of Israel.
Whether exile or exodus, the Bible shows us that resilience is built upon having our identity shaped by God, rather than looking to other markers such as sexuality, gender, race, or whatever. It is these things that are being used to divide people in the West today. Our exile allows us to re-examine what it means to live as resilient people today, just as God’s people have done throughout salvation history.
Living as exiles
Our actions will need to look like resilience, not relevance. We will need to double down on discipleship especially for younger generations, who are navigating a more hostile space than we did.
We must eschew evangelical-lite programmes that are big on style and low on substance. We must model a full, rich community life that presses into the historical faith, taking seriously the call to live transparent lives.
The encouragement in all of this is that while it has never been more hostile, it has never been more open. This ‘third culture’ looks good on the surface (Sayers calls it a ‘beautiful apocalypse’), but it is a facade. Loneliness, anxiety, broken relationships and a deep sense of meaninglessness pervade our culture that no amounts of rainbow and glitter can hide.
As God’s people, we model something different. At least we should. In exile, banished to the cultural margins, we ourselves are a sign: a sign that this age is passing and that the age to come, with King Jesus on the throne, is where we are headed. Away from exile and exodus and towards home. In small and broken ways, we are a sign of God’s future; a future of love and holiness in which every day will be a day of resting in him, and we will be fed forever by the bread of life.