You Lost Me, the Conversation: Nomads, Prodigals, and Exiles

You Lost Me

In previous posts, Ben and I have discussed some of the generational distinctives Kinnaman notes between “Mosaics” and earlier generations. Kinnaman goes on to describe three kinds of people “lost” to the church. The first are nomads, who have left the church but not the faith, The second are prodigals, who have left the faith and its practices more or less altogether. I’m not going to say much here about these first two–maybe more as we get into the disconnectedness these people feel and reasons for it that Kinnaman explores in the second part of the book.

The third group are the exiles, who find themselves in tension with certain beliefs and practices of the church as well as the surrounding culture, feeling themselves “between a rock and a hard place.” This last I found the most interesting because they have neither abandoned the church nor the faith, but do have a feeling of estrangement. Perhaps the reason I most connected with this is that through a good part of adult life, I’ve probably felt something of this and lived with this tension. I also find that many of the believing people I work with in the university context experience something of this as well.

First some personal experience. I’ve often wrestled with the fact that Christian communities seem to be so preoccupied with everything but being the church in the world. Rather than seeking to be scripture-shaped communities we often prefer inspirational thoughts and five “how-to’s” to make my life run more smoothly. Or we go to the other extreme and fight about minutiae of doctrine and ignore the hungry and needy among us. Often it has seemed we are caught up in power games, both within the church and through trying to obtain power in the culture by pursuing a particular political agenda and thinking we might have influence over the politicians (I once had to threaten to resign a church board position because a church leader wanted to place voting guides in the church and didn’t see how this would convey that you had to believe in “Jesus and…” to be part of our church instead of Jesus alone). Often, it seems, all we want to do is talk about “the unbelievers” and how disagreeable their beliefs and lifestyles are to us, rather than take time to really engage with them.

I say “we” here for two reasons. One is simply a sense of identification. I am part of the body of Christ. Whether or not I personally am guilty of all of these things, I’m part of a community which is. The other is that it is the case that while I find myself in tension with these things, I’ve gone along with many of them at many points. What is hard about being an exile is that you don’t always want to be disagreeing with those around you, even if you do internally.

Then why have I stayed? It’s actually a good deal like family–you don’t get to choose. To be baptized into Christ is to be a part of his people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together helped me in this regard. He talks about how we meet each other “in Christ”, never directly. He observes that the problem comes when we don’t accept that we are already one with those we might feel tension with but try to resolve that by trying to make them into our ideal of the Christian, or Christian community. Truth is, what I would make the church into if I could would be equally disastrous. And so the tension of living in exile seems to me, as it was for some of those Kinnaman wrote about, a space that can become creative. In this season, I find myself living toward a vision that seeks to bring the love of goodness, truth, and beauty together in both my work in collegiate ministry and in my personal life. At the same time, my community reminds me of the things I miss, the people I might overlook, and the truths I might forget. (And I must say how grateful I am for a pastor who seeks to be both faithful to scripture and to help us hear it in fresh ways.)

Most of those I work with also feel themselves exiles within the church but also with the surrounding culture of the university. They cannot accept either the pervasive naturalism and materialism of the academy nor the simplistic apologetics, or even a lack of a reasoned response they often encounter in the church. They long to bring love of God and learning together rather than make them enemies and find opposition to this project from both academy and the church. Once again, for some of these friends at least, this has become a place of creative tension, though not without pain as they draw deep connections between their faith and their intellectual work that may only be understood by fellow exiles.

Perhaps this is as it should be in some ways. I think about how the apostle Peter opens his first letter: “To the elect, exiles…” In some crucial way, the identity of being an exile seems to be part of our identity in this life. It makes me long all the more for the new creation where we will truly be at home. But I also wonder if we could do a better job in our Christian communities particularly in valuing those who seem “different”, who “don’t fit in” and to recognize that we desperately need their gifts and perspective?

Ben, what do you think?