by Matt Erickson
(Editor’s note: This is the 6th in a 10-part series on how our evangelistic witness looks different than it did a generation ago.)
The Apostle Peter begins his first letter with a reality check. It’s a reality check we need to hear today in our changing culture: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…” (1 Peter 1:2)
Most likely writing in the mid-60s, about 30 years after the time of Jesus, Peter speaks to a group of believers in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. While the exact situation of these believers is unclear, it is clear that they are under pressure for their faith. It’s possible, as Dr. Karen Jobes suggests, that some of these believers were Jewish converts expelled from Rome during Emperor Claudius’ reign. They may have lost everything as they traversed their way to a new home while sharing the gospel with all those around them until fledgling churches of believing Jews and Gentiles formed throughout the region. Pressure was upon them socially, financially, and religiously, and so Peter brings a powerful word on what it means to be exiles for Christ.
Now, there are some reading this who have actually lost their homes; some, even, who have lost our homes because of our faith. But for most of us, that is not the case. Still, we all need a reality check.
The 2015 Religious Landscape Study by the Pew Research Center makes it clear that Christianity is on the decline in the United States. From 2007 to 2014 those with no religious affiliation — agnostics, atheists, and apathetics — in our nation leapt from 16% to 23%.
This transformation is even stronger with the younger generations, millennials and below. 35% of all millennials have no religious affiliation. Our nation is shifting and, increasingly, Christians are exiles.
In fact, many feel today that the Church and Christianity are irrelevant. Even more, many point to the current forms of American Christianity and church-ianity as the problem. In many ways, we need this corrective to a consumeristic Christianity aimed merely at meeting peoples’ needs. Others, seeing the changing culture, have entrenched themselves to fight a culture war. Unfortunately, the culture war has passed us by and consumerism has eaten us up.
What we need is a new way for a new day. Peter’s letter to believers in a very different situation offers us a picture — a metaphor — to shape the way we view ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. That metaphor is “exile.” I am not the first to suggest that we must recover this metaphor if we are going to thrive as God’s people in this new day.
Exile means this:
- Change: We know we are in a changing situation as followers of Jesus, and even merely as believers in God.
- Loss: Because of the change, we feel a loss of power or influence; like the Jewish people cast out from their homes.
- Suffering: In one way or another, we experience suffering, whether it is material loss, social pressure, or the internal fear that God is absent.
- Tension: We feel the tension of being out of place — even homeless — yet, we know we have a future home; we are like lights in the darkness.
But the responses to the exile situation are diverse. Walter Brueggemann suggests there are three responses to the situation of exile:
- Assimilation: For some of the Jews exiled to Babylon, it became too difficult to stay Jewish, so they simply took on the Babylonian identity and values. So, too, some Christians today have simply taken on cultural identity and values because it is too hard to truly live for Christ in exile. This is assimilation.
- Despair: Others of the Jewish people in exile were tempted to despair because the power of Babylon seemed too great, perhaps even greater than God. In our day, some Christians are over-awed with the powers of the world — whether ISIS, Al-Shabaab, Russia, or the United States — and begin to lose hope in God. This is the temptation to despair.
- Reimagination: But rather than assimilation or despair, In fact, some of the strongest literature in the Bible arose during the time of exile, reflecting on what it means to be people of faith in changing times.
Peter calls the believers into a reality check about their circumstances and the spiritual truth in Jesus Messiah. It is a call not to assimilation or despair, but a call to reimagining our lives through the powerful picture of exile.
We, too, must remember who we are and who we are not. Even today, we are exiles.
 “A closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones’,” Michael Lipka, Pew Research Center, May 13, 2015.
 See Mike Metzger of the Clapham Institute, http://www.doggieheadtilt.com/gravity/; Gabe Lyons of Q Commons, http://qideas.org/articles/the-rise-of-exiles/; Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture.
 Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 116.