Whenever I write about the future shape of the church in the Western context, and the need to create distinct, but open-bounded communities along the lines of the Benedict Option, I am accused of advocating Christian quietism or cultural withdrawal. In other words a new form of fundamentalism.
Surely there is a marked difference between being refused a seat at the cultural table and voluntarily giving up the seat you have? After all, if there is enough traction left to allow us to have our say in the public square, why not go with it? That’s what people say.
Hence my call for a period of relative withdrawal in order to return is often regarded as a negative; a lack; an absence of something rather than a presence of something.
But what does it look like as a positive, fulfilling presence? instead of using the word “exile” to describe our place in the culture, how about we use the word “migrant” – an altogether different beast?
What do I mean?
I believe we are in a time when the younger generation of leaders in the church can begin the process of building and strengthening God’s future people by acting like first generation migrants.
Migrants who, faced with all of the challenges and possibilities of a new world, sacrifice their own place at the cultural table in the short term, for the sake of the ensuing generations in the long term.
Let me explain using the story of another migrant experience we all know so well.
My wife’s and my goddaughter is of Italian Catholic descent. My wife met our goddaughter’s mother on their first day of university back in the late 1980s. They have been firm friends since. Our friend’s parents, and indeed her own husband’s parents, were admirable Italian immigrants; Sicilian, from the old country.
And what did these Italian migrants of the 1950s and 1960s do that made them so admirable? They made the considered decision that they would leave behind the wreckage of the old world, plant themselves as a community in the new world, Australia being one such place, and in the process leave behind any notions of career advancement, social advantage, and a voice in the culture – not forever – but for the sake of their children.
In other words, they deferred all of the visible, earthly trappings of a place at the cultural table by one generation – their generation.
They become concreters, market gardeners and waiters haltingly learning a foreign language in a foreign land. And they did so that their children might become bilingual doctors, lawyers, architects and engineers.
Crucial to this process was their decision to transplant small outcrops of the old country in the new country. They would create lots of little Italies; communities that bottled tomatoes on tomato day, killed a pig and dressed it on sausage day, and crushed and fermented grapes together in a country in which waiters put ice cubes in a glass of red wine to chill it.
Social clubs, football clubs with names from the old country, cafes and restaurants: these all sprang up and flourished. This was a culture that, over time, drew in the White Anglo Saxons who had only ever drunk freeze dried coffee.
Yet, lest we be accused of withdrawal and quietism, they created open communities, not closed compounds. There was movement in and out. Young Roberto and Antonella braved the local, mainly white, government primary schools; salami and olive sour dough lunches in hand, in a land in which peanut butter sandwiches ruled.
It was often tough for these youngsters, but they knew they could come home to Nonna at 3pm, who would nod sagely at their fears and tears, before flouring down the old wooden table to prepare fresh pasta.
That is the model for the church in the coming decades. It will require the current generation to defer gratification, instant saving of face so beloved of ur culture, to build, strengthen and sustain such communities.
It will require a generation to trim its sails, spend less energy in public stouts, and establish realisitic, robust communities that sacrifice width for depth. Leaders of these communities will endeavour to create thick, but crossable boundary lines, demonstrating to each other that we are an exiled people tasked with providing an alternate plausibility to what the culture defines as the good life.
We won’t have six sermons on cajoling our people to reach deeper into their pockets to fund the new building, but one sermon centred on the one who though he was rich, yet for our sakes become poor that out of his poverty we might become rich.
And then we will model that generosity for overseas gospel mission, for the locally poor, for those of our people willing to sacrifice career advancement to seek God’s kingdom first by vocationally serving his people two days in their week
We won’t have six topical talks on how to have a happy marriage the culture’s way, but a biblical theology of costly, selfless marriage from Hosea, highlighting how God forgives and takes back to himself a wayward bride, which itself is a shadow of the greatest love affair ever – the marriage between Jesus and his Church.
And then we will model that love to our watching young people through covenant marriages that both last and flourish. And we will renew and restore church discipline in this area, so that we will back up by our actions what we say we believe about marriage and its preciousness.
When starving sheep come to us, having been abused and kept from the fresh food of the Word we will bind their wounds, feed them on Christ through Word and sacrament on a weekly basis, eschewing the blandishments of consumption models of church that, irony of ironies, end up consuming God’s people with distractions and busyness, fracturing their families into homogenous units to be slotted into neatly packaged programs.
And then, having prepared our children – and our spiritual children – for the complexities of the culture, we will send them out, fed and nourished by a theological umbilical cord that will not leave them anaemic and enfeebled in the face of a rapacious culture which thinks with its emotions, and presents its arguments in triumphalistic memes.
We will teach them to be repellently attractive, spoken highly of, but hardly dared to be joined. For in the end that is what we want. We want communities that are visibly different, scarcely believable, highly suspect, but safe to join for the broken and wounded.
Most of all we will watch them eclipse our own achievements, all in the knowledge that we were the generation that laid the foundations in difficult times for them to build upon, leaving a legacy for the next generation that knows its roots, understands its place in this world, yet convinced that its hope is in the next world where migrants will truly be at home.