The book provides a searching and honest analysis of the deep challenges faced by the church today, and a clear and hopeful vision for where we go next.
I would encourage every Christian leader and every thoughtful Christian to read Exiles on Mission: How Christians can thrive in a post-Christian world by Paul Williams (Chief Executive of the British and Foreign Bible Society).
It provides a searching and honest analysis of the deep challenges faced by the church today, together with a clear and hopeful vision for where we go next. The recommendations are profound and radical.
Above all, the book faces up to the reality that the world has changed; the church in the UK no longer lives in Christendom, it is now living in a sceptical post-modern culture, ‘in Exile’ like Daniel and his friends in Babylon.
The implication is that we must fundamentally adjust our mindset and our approach to how we ‘do church’ if we are not to slide into permanent irrelevance. The author talks about “a strategic crisis”.
One of the refreshing aspects of the book is its directness. The church faces such a challenge that diplomatic language is discarded:
“With all the resources available to the church in the West, and the incredible history of foreign missions throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, how did we end up in a situation where in the church in the West is so out of touch with its own missional and cultural context that even committed believers find most Sunday services difficult or irrelevant?” (p3)
Using the language of ‘exile’ and the idea of being ‘ambassadors’, the author provides a helpful perspective on how we can see the church’s role and mission today. He is no pessimist.
The book is motivated by hope and a clear desire to see Christians and churches rediscover their confidence and sense of purpose. Avoiding the temptation to retreat into our ghetto or to dilute our identity to fit in with the surrounding culture, our approach should be one of purposeful engagement.
At the centre of the book’s argument is the case for Christians taking discipleship a whole lot more seriously, particularly in relation to how we apply our faith at work.
This is now where the bulk of the church’s mission is to be found, for most Christians, most of the time. This means reimagining what ‘ministry’ and ‘mission’ mean and grasping that vocation is not just something for full-time Christian workers, but for everyone:
“There is no hierarchy of vocations or occupations that makes a pastor or missionary more important to God than a plumber or a marketing executive…God’s purpose is to reconcile all things to himself in Christ. We should expect the Holy Spirit to anoint and commission ambassadors for service in every sphere of society.” (p95)
The church is pretty bad at making disciples, if we are honest, and so there is much work to be done. One of the starting points is to understand which ‘stories’ of the surrounding culture we have – often unwittingly – found ourselves believing and living, and then to begin to replace these with ‘stories’ filled with life and hope from the Bible instead.
One of the book’s more arresting insights is the idea that “all cultures are ‘disciple-making’ cultures, whether they intend to be or not.” (p109)
In other words, we are all disciples – of ‘late modern Capitalism’ as it happens – whether we realise it or not. The challenge for Christians is to renew our mindsets and the values and stories we operate by and strive to become disciples of Christ instead.
So, on the question of discipleship, our generation needs a greater level of intentionality and ambition if we are to renew the church and restore its relevance to the world:
“If we want to avoid our young people being discipled into the culture of Western individualism, we need to raise our expectations of discipleship.” (p110)
This discipleship means that Christians must work out, together, how to intentionally apply our faith in every area of life, including the marketplace, a particular concern of the Jubilee Centre.
The book discusses the dominant cultural ‘stories’ in six different areas of public life and also proposes an alternative Christian ‘story’ in each one. In the case of enterprise and the marketplace, there is a ringing endorsement of the impact that thoughtful and intentional Christians can have through purposeful engagement:
“Christians can affirm the value of work, enterprise, and wealth creation without affirming individualism and materialism. This might involve starting social enterprises or seeking to influence businesses to pursue the common good and treat profit as a necessary condition for existence but not as their primary goal.” (p167)
The book provides a sobering assessment of the church’s failings and a bold agenda for the future. There are no quick fixes. But the vision of the kind of church that we could become is a hopeful and attractive one. It is worth working for.
The author even finds hope in the church’s new and more precarious position on the edge of society rather than at its centre. He reflects that this:
“May be good for the church’s humility, purity and identification with the weak and marginalized….The witness of Israel’s prophets is that being on the margins does not in any way preclude speaking to the centre.” (p225)
I believe that it is the task of our generation to take up this challenge and to take discipleship seriously.
The Jubilee Centre will serve the church as it seeks to live and work faithfully and constructively in the midst of a marketplace culture often moving in a different direction.
We continue to look forward to, and will work for, the renewal of the church and the renewal of our nation.
This was written by Tim Thorlby, Director of the Jubilee Centre.
This article was first published on the website of the Jubilee Centre and re-published with permission.