More thoughts on Exiles

A few more reflections on M. Frost’s book, Exiles: living missionally in a post-Christian culture

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Exiles need each other as they live fully in the empire without giving over their allegiance to it. After reading this book, I think I am beginning to see where we (American Christians) have gone wrong in nurturing our exile-groups. We focus so much time and energy and resources on relationships within our churches—building unity among believers, nurturing relationships within our ‘church family’—that we have forgotten what truly creates community. Frost briefly describes something called “communitas” (see pp. 108ff). Communitas happens when groups of people bond over a significant experience. It often happens when battles are fought together, when people experience major life transitions together or when they go through tragedy together, or when people find a common cause that they feel passionately about and pursue that cause together.

Frost notes the example of the young men from the Ndembu tribe, who leave the tribe for a time and participate in the rites that make them men in the eyes of the people: “The young tribesmen, while in this liminal, or ‘limbo’ stage, discovered a depth of community so great that it transcended what we normally mean by that term… a portent and distinctive form of social community that led to a spontaneous experience of intense intimacy and equality. It was undifferentiated, egalitarian, nonrational community” (p. 109). I find these descriptive terms surprising and compelling. They turn my traditional notions of community upside down. In traditional church, we differentiate all over the place—clergy and lay-people, men and women, old members and new members, regular attenders and visitors, children and youth and adults. We are not egalitarian, though some congregations may strive to be. Rather, we stratify and concentrate power according to position or gender or other categories. And we are rational. We use logic and reason to define ministries and goals, vision and purpose. While there may be many reasons for all of these things, some very good reasons I am sure; we have missed a key to community.

Some would say that we need the differentiation of roles and position to have order and in order to get anything accomplished. Some might argue that without clear organization in our churches there would be chaos, loss of direction and even immorality. That is true, I suppose, but I fear that the cost of all our structure and organization is actually the death of real community. We bring groups together and set up times for study and discussion and demand that they be a community (this was exactly my task as a youth director: build the youth community!). How often does it actually happen in the normal ministry routine? Hardly ever. Rather, community happens when, once a year, we go on a mission trip together. That is when “community” is born, by shared trial and error and success while we work toward a specific goal. Frost puts it this way: “I wonder whether Christians don’t do well to build community as an end in itself. We build community incidentally, when our imaginations and energies are captured by a higher, even nobler cause… Christian community results from the greater cause of Christian mission” (p. 108). I wonder what it would look like for daily, weekly mission to bond a group of Christian exiles together. I have a dream of our church basement becoming a food pantry and used-clothing shop for our community in these difficult economic times. What if we could find a way to offer people jobs, too? My imagination is burning…

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