p.ost

how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles a missional text?

My friend Dan Steigerwald, who lives in Portland, Oregon, has written an excellent little book called [amazon:978-1494761028:inline]. He takes the view that the church after Christendom is a church in exile and he proposes a missional model based on Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon in which he urges them to build houses, plant gardens, marry, bear sons and daughters, increase in number, and most importantly “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom“ (Jer. 29:4-7).

Dan asks: “Could it be that God is challenging us to make a radical shift in our self-perception not unlike the one demanded of Israel so long ago?” (28). This would mean, on the one hand, getting used to the idea of doing mission from a place of weakness, on the margins of society; and on the other, redefining that mission as the practical sowing of shalom in our different worlds. We are called, as God’s people in exile, not to be victims but to be a “pervasive force for good” (25).

Evangelism comes into this as “that set of discerned, loving activities Christians engage in to provoke commitment to Jesus Christ in response to God’s lavish offer of forgiveness and participation in the remaking of his world” (47). He quotes Newbigin: the local community must show that it “cares for the well-being of the whole community and not just for itself”, but not in such a way that the “distinctive note of the gospel” is muffled (47). 

That’s the theory. In the application part of the book Dan outlines a “pattern for missionary engagement” that cycles through three “couplets of action”, all the while communing with the triune God (43):

  • Immerse and Listen = absorbing
  • Connect and Befriend = relating
  • Participate and Enrich = serving

The general nature of the missional methodology will be familiar to many, but what distinguishes this book is the uncluttered style and the straightforward practical guidance, grounded in personal experience, that Dan offers the urban missionary who wants to participate in what God is doing to transform places like Portland. (I should point out that despite—or perhaps because of—Dan’s 20 years of missionary and pastoral experience in Europe, the book is heavily oriented towards the US context.)

Context, in fact, is very important when it comes to assessing the value of the methodology. The strength of the model lies in the fact that it will help many people in the peculiar context of North America to realign themselves as God’s people in the world at a time of crisis not unlike the crisis of the Babylonian exile. I think the general analysis is fair, and while I’m not sure Dan has done enough in this short book to explain the relationship between gospel, kingdom and shalom, I think that the sort of praxis he recommends will contribute significantly to the reshaping of identity and mission.

The question I want to ask here, though, is whether this constitutes the best reading of Jeremiah 29. Dan is not the first to suggest that this passage may be used to support a model of mission as constructive social engagement—he quotes Chris Wright and Walter Brueggemann. But I can’t help thinking that this is another example of a text being coerced into saying something that it doesn’t really want to say.

There has been a quarrel between the prophets Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah has told the people that the Lord will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar within two years and will bring the exiles back to Jerusalem. Jeremiah disagrees. The God of the nations has given Judah into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, and they will have to get used to the yoke of servitude. There will be no quick liberation.

So Jeremiah writes with some very practical instructions because the exiles are in this for the long haul:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom. (Jer. 29:4-7)

They will have to survive in this foreign and inhospitable place as an ethnic minority community for seventy years—much longer than Hananiah’s optimistic two years—before the Lord will fulfil his promise and restore them to Jerusalem (Jer. 29:10-14). Therefore, they should do the things that will ensure survival, including seeking the general socio-political well-being and “peace” of Babylon—because if Babylon were to suffer economic collapse or military invasion, the Jews would suffer with it.

There is nothing “missional” about this, though it was certainly a policy that would benefit the Babylonians and God’s “servant” Nebuchadnezzar. It is simply a strategy for survival. I don’t think, therefore, it gives us a good enough reason for doing mission as the propagation of shalom in local neighbourhoods.

The missional focus may even blind us to an exegetically more appropriate lesson for the post-Christendom western church—that it should not cling to the hope that everything will soon revert to church-as-normal, that it has to come to terms with the fact that its exile will be long, and that it must develop the resources and practices to sustain it and preserve its integrity.

Comments

Very good observation Andrew. Don’t you get tired of the way Christendom has pretty much missed the entire context of the Bible. It seems like it’s prevalent in every aspect of Christendom; starting with Creation (Ge. 1) and ending with its eschatology (Rev. 22). Don’t know about you but sometimes I feel completely worn-out from it.

“It must develop the resources and practices to sustain it and preserve its integrity.”

Do you have any suggestions or suggested reading?

It’s a book I plan to write. In the meantime, there’s a lot that I think is good in these books—somewhat off the top of my head:

R.K. Bolger (ed.), Gospel after Christendom, The: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions.

Alan Hirsch’s [amazon:978-1587431647:inline] and other books (I don’t think he does the narrative part well, but the socio-historical analysis and rethinking of mission are good).

Stuart Murray’s [amazon:978-1842272923:inline] and [amazon:978-1842272619:inline].

There’s a lot more emerging-missional-post-Christendom stuff out there. The problem is that it doesn’t connect very well with biblical studies.