I’ve been thinking…

By Shannon Youell

I’ve been thinking about exile.  

Not specifically being displaced and exiled from our homeland, but exile in the sense of the disruption and dissolving of the structures and systems in which we currently have placed our trust, our hope, our sense of safety and identity. These include our religious institutions to be sure, but also our political and socio-economic structures. All of these contribute weightily to what it means to be a particular people in a particular place. When the structures which support our identity markers seem to be crumbling right out from under us, we can find ourselves asking questions of who we are without those familiar structures. Where is God found in the midst of it all? 


These are great questions. In thinking of exile narratives in the Biblical text, I am immediately drawn to the Babylonian exile, particularly as recorded by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In Jeremiah 29, the prophet sends a letter to those exiled in Babylon and encourages themrather than stay in the puddle of their despair, mourning and yearning to get back to the way things were beforeto settle and lean-in to the new normal, to begin to build anew, to flourish, and to seek the peace and prosperity within the place of exile.   

Imagine how difficult this would have been! Nothing was the way it once was; not the least, they couldn’t worship Yahweh in the familiar practice and tradition, in the temple where His presence was known to dwell.   

I can imagine those voices from the past and their protests after hearing the prophets letter read to them. I imagine some of those same protestations are ones we ourselves have heard or are voicing ourselves during this time of restrictions on public gatherings. People are yearning to go to the place where the gathered people of God worship, connect, commune and find God. There is anxiety and fear that the church structure may not survive, that people will wander away and not come back, that we can’t pay staff and building costsall very real and present concerns. Many in our congregations are wondering where they will find God and their own peace and encouragement in the faith without a service of gathering in their familiar spaces with familiar patterns and liturgies.  

In Babylon meanwhile, God, speaking through the prophet, assures exiled people that when they call on Him and pray to Him, He is listening, not only in the temple, but in exiled places tooSeek me, he says, and you will find me, even in the place of unfamiliarity where it was assumed God couldn’t possibly be. The encouragement is to seek the shalom and prosperity of the place of exile for in its prospering, the exiles, too, will prosper. In their relocation, they are called to dwell there, sow there, settle there, become a part of the community in which they are exiled, and watch for God, who is right there with the exiled people, in unexpected ways. 

Biblical scholar Janina M. Hiebel writes: “The Babylonian Exile (597/587–539 BCE) in particular is commonly recognised as perhaps the most profound, yet also the most fruitful crisis of Old Testament times...it led to significant theological progress, laying the foundations for both Judaism and Christianity. 

Hiebel’s assertion that, “Hope in (the book of) Ezekiel is, therefore, not a matter of restoration in the literal sense of returning to the past state of affairs,” andthe hope found in Ezekiel,points towards the creation of a new reality that does not exist and has never existed in the author’s experience but that can be brought about by divine intervention, should make us stop and think.  Ezekiel’s hope lies within the place of exile, not in a future escape from it, just as Jeremiah writes. 

In our current state of various expressions of the “exiled” church, might God, by His divine intervention, be grabbing our attention in such a way that we must stop and notice to where He is pointing?   

Let’s consider again those good pruning questions we’ve been asking ourselves about reassessing our values or incorporating new discovered value practices we’d neglected in the routine luxury of meeting corporately in buildings. But this time, in considering those questions, in pondering them, in setting them into prayers and laments, let’s ask ourselves, what if God is relocating the church for a time? What if, in this time of COVID-19 exile, God is pointing us to a new awareness of meeting and being church (the people) in ways that has not existed in our own current traditional experience of a worshiping, missional community?   What if, out of this exile, an abundance of fruit emerges for the flourishing of God’s people and the community to whom we are witnesses of faithful presence toAre we actually looking for fruit in the brambles or merely looking back to get ourselves out of the prickly uncomfortableness we find ourselves in.  

In my Bible, on a sticky note stuck to the page of Jeremiah 29, I have four summary statements from a sermon my friend Steve Littler once preached: learn to live your life now; learn to bless where you are; learn to discover God’s plan; learn to find God despite the circumstances (or in our case the crisis). Let it be so, Lord, with us. 

Organic Structure

by Cailey Morgan

God is amazing. He’s so creative. I don’t know why I haven’t introduced more people to Him—I’m pretty sure they’d think He was epic if they got to know Him.

Miracle Beans

I planted some green bush beans in a pot on my front deck a couple weeks ago. It began rather anticlimactically: I took dried up little beans out of a paper bag, I put them into some dirt, and I walked away. But in a matter of days, tiny, beautiful, broad-leafed plants began popping up all over! Now when I go out to my deck for my morning coffee, I get so distracted by this miracle, this sustaining power of God being shown right in front of me. Incredible.


My beans.

This morning as I was watching my beans mysteriously soak up water from their soil, I got to thinking about a quote from a Mandy Smith article I read awhile back on the molecular or yeast-like nature of God’s Kingdom:

“Organic” has become a catchword in recent years, to describe new (old?) ways of doing church. In some settings it’s code for “unprofessional” or “disorganized.” But organic things certainly have structure and bear fruit—it just seems mysterious to us because we can’t always predict or control it.i

I’d have to agree with Mandy that the level of structure in our churches is an important point of discussion. We need to always be examining our traditions to ensure that they are producing—not hindering—spiritual growth, and constantly exploring a broad range of ways to be the Church for the sake of reaching every subset of our diverse neighbourhoods. But I’m concerned that sometimes we’ve gone too far and brushed aside structure, misunderstanding the very definition of “organic” and cutting off the Body of Christ at the knees.

I can’t make my beans grow, or predict which ones will pop up at which time. But what I can do is create the best possible environment for them to flourish as God intended. He’s the one sustaining them by constantly holding this universe together in the structure He knows will work best: keeping the earth on its axis and its rotation around the sun, allowing water and nutrients and amazing biological processes to all mix together and somehow produce delicious veggies for me to stir-fry. And the way I contribute to that environment is through structure: planting the seeds at the correct time of year in a firm pot that contains a specific amount of the right soil at the proper density and following up with regular, scheduled times of watering and care. In that context of macro and micro structures, these little organic shoots can flourish.

Suffocation and Skeletons

I’ve been guilty of commiserating with my millennial compatriots about the seemingly hyper-structured nature of the Western Church:

“Why all the denominational rigamarole? I can’t stand this bureaucracy!”

“It feels so constricting when I’m expected to be at the same place at the same time every Sunday morning, or am told what to study or given guidelines for shared prayer.”

“Can’t the powers-that-be stop suffocating me and just trust me to be mature enough to sort out my Christian growth on my own?”

Well, no. Because that actually is impossible.

Christian growth is growth together (cf. Acts 2. In fact, cf. the whole Bible. You won’t find anything in there about “letting Jesus into your heart” or “a personal walk with the Lord”). Christian maturity means things like love, selflessness, encouragement, patience, kindness, leadership, forgiveness, hospitality, speaking the truth—none of which I can practice on my own. I do talk to myself about how awesome I am sometimes, but there’s nothing spiritually mature about that!

Fact is, as we grow into Christ’s Body—together—we need Him as the Head to guide us, but we also need a skeleton to keep us strong, give us the ability to move as one, and actually exist as something more than a soggy pile of organs and muscles on the floor.

The Body is not in existence for the sake of the skeleton, but the skeleton is an integral tool for the Body’s existence and thriving. God designed it that way, in the same way that He designed my beans with the structure to be able to get water to all their extremities through capillary action. Health requires structure.

Take for example our Canada Day BBQ last Saturday. I anticipated it to be a time of organic relationship-building and fun. But what if my friends and neighbours had responded to my invitation with, “Dude, don’t force me to come on Saturday. You’re cramping my organic style. I’d rather show up when I feel like it.” Um. I guess you’re missing the party then?

Or what about the signs I put up to show people where the bathroom is and what to do with their dirty forks, or the sticky name tags I asked people to wear. The well-defined structure and preparation of the event is what allowed for new relationships to flourish organically, not to mention allow for me to not spend the whole day telling people how to get to the loo.

The way the day played out may not be everyone’s favourite—some people were more partial to a different flavour of chicken than what Kyson offered them on Saturday or think the trivia questions should have been more relevant to their subculture—but the point of the whole event was relationship, not personal taste, and I’m pretty sure all of our guests understood that intention.

We Need Us—Including You

The reality is that the structures that shape our shared life as God’s people won’t always feel comfortable. I get that and feel that and wrestle with that; I’m speaking to myself here as much as anyone. We all have different personalities, ways of learning, ideas of how to make mission more effective. But I’m begging us—especially the entrepreneurial, inspired young generation around me—to not give up on the community because it cramps our style.

Come to the table and bring your offering! I know sometimes existing leaders have a hard time making space for us, but they have wisdom and experience and a depth of relationship with God that we need to learn from, as well as roadblocks they need us to help eliminate. Choose to humbly engage and eventually you’ll be asked to pull up a chair. Learn, listen, and the time will come to lead.

Please, please see the inefficiencies and deficiencies in the structure of your church not as reasons to leave or start your own thing, but as opportunities to grow in maturity and Christlikeness. Embrace the frustration and roll-your-eyes moments that come with being a family, and offer your needed input in the midst of love and participation.

The Christian movement has survived because of where it exists—in human hearts—in the relationship between God and human, between one human and another…You are one small piece of something beautiful and active and powerful.ii


i. Mandy Smith, “The Church’s Transformative Power is Molecular” (March 8, 2017): http://www.missioalliance.org/churchs-transformative-power-molecular/

ii. Ibid.