To imagine what the church in exile looks like, consider a trend in wedding ceremonies. Or read what most Americans do on Sunday.

For many Christians, it’s hard to imagine what the church in exile looks like. An exile is an outsider. The church in exile means American Christianity operates outside the arenas where cultures are mostly made. It’s an outsider. But what does that look like?

Look at wedding ceremonies. According to wed­ding-plan­ning web­site Wed­ding-Wire, only 25 percent of today’s cou­ples mar­ry­ in a re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tion or ceremony. This is according to a re­cent sur­vey of 18,000 cou­ples. Most get married apart from any recognition that Christianity has something meaningful to contribute to marriage.

This is especially true for millennials and GenZ. Most want cus­tomized ceremonies created from scratch. Couples out-sourc­e vows to on­line consultants who typically have little knowledge of the Christian tradition. They’re often asked to of­fi­ci­ate the wed­ding.

Or consider what an increasing number of Americans do on Sunday. Years ago, I started reading the “Sunday Routine” in the New York Times. I’ve yet to read of anyone going to church. For example, take a look at how Candace Bushnell spends her Sundays.

Bushnall is best known as the creative force behind “Sex and the City.” She lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Sundays start with “poodle time” (Pepper and Prancer), then reading (“news binge”), writing, yoga, leisure, dining, and errands. No mention of ever going to church.

Or consider Anne Welsh McNulty, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs. She’s now the chief executive of the McNulty Foundation, focused on locating and nurturing the next generation of leaders. In the last three years alone, the foundation has given more than $18 million to organizations with that goal in mind. McNulty is looking for individuals seeking to address seemingly intractable problems. How does she spend her Sundays? Reading, relaxing, dining, and spending as much time as she can with her three grown children. No church in the picture.

Or consider Tracy Pollan. She lives in Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her husband, the actor Michael J. Fox, their daughter, Esme, 17, and their Great Dane mutt, Gus. Sundays are about enjoying the city. “We’re super active as a family and get out and explore.” No mention of ever exploring a church.

I realize the New York Times can be a bit biased when it comes to the church. But you’d think that somewhere, somehow, at some time, someone would merit a story about going to church on Sunday. I bet some of the city’s influentials do, but to date, none have been highlighted in what Gawker says is “the best part of the Sunday paper.”

I experienced this firsthand as a consultant for an international company. I would occasionally travel to New York City where some of its innovation lab people work. Over lunch one day, I mentioned a number of churches in the city trying to solve problems in the workplace. I asked which ones they had heard of. None.

This is what the church in exile looks like. It means Western Christianity is largely outside the arenas in which the greatest influence in cultures is exerted. We can help the homeless but don’t help Whole Foods.

I’m encouraged that a few Christians feel exile. There are young leaders like Pat. He works for an international sportswear company in Baltimore. Pat will tell you God-talk would be a very awkward in his company. Pat and I are working on reframing the faith so that his company might one day take the gospel seriously.

America’s influentials—whether in New York or elsewhere—have forgotten what happened in 321AD. The church established Sunday as a day off for worship. No more working seven days a week. But that was then. This is now. Sunday is a day for everything but worship. If you doubt it, look at trends in wedding ceremonies. Or read the “Sunday Routine” in the New York Times. Let me know when the word “church” appears.

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7 Responses to “Ceremonies and Sundays”

  1. hsl says:

    Insightful as usual; thanks!

  2. Ron says:

    I am afraid you are dead on, Mike. And after NFL season begins in a few weeks, “church” becomes even less of an option on any given Sunday.

  3. Greg says:

    Mike, in your experience, how common is it for Christians to deny that the church is in exile as you’re saying?

  4. Glenn McMahan says:

    Perhaps we can take some clues from Aretha Franklin. She was criticized when she started producing more mainstream music and less Gospel. People said she “left the church.” Her father, a minister, came to her defense, saying, “She didn’t leave the church; she took the church with her.”

    As Rodney Stark points out in his book “The Rise of Christianity,” first-century Christians would not have understood the notion of “going to church.” They understood themselves as “being the church” all the time, in every context. Likewise, the definition of worship need not be reduced to singing hymns in pew. All of life can be worship, service to God in every moment of every day.

  5. Mike Metzger says:

    Glenn: Good point on all of life being worship. If more Christians recognized this, corporate worship would likely be richer than it often is.

    Greg: Great question. I recommend you run your own survey (I’m stealing this idea for Edgar Schein’s work on organizational culture).

    Schein, a professor at MIT, said an organization’s actual mission is what initially comes out of someone’s mouth – without prompting. Same applies to Christians and their take on the times. So ask a Christian about their church. Or the world we live in. Say nothing more. Listen. Note their initial response.

    Ever hear a Christian say, “we’re in exile.” If yes, how often?

    In my experience, it’s rare that a Christian (without me priming the pump), says “we’re in exile.” This past week, I asked two friends about their church. “It’s growing.” No mention of exile. Schein would say the actual mission of this church (regardless of its mission statement) is to grow numerically.

  6. Andrew Shaw says:

    Mike,

    Not to diverge from your overall theme too much, but how much do you think Christianity in America is heading into exile (maybe there already) versus the NYT and other media outlets possibly are increasingly disconnected from the “real world” and less relevant than they used to be? Is the apparent exile just that the traditional media outlets are clueless and pushing their own narratives vs actually reflecting on true American culture? Maybe this is a different topic of discussion?

    For context perhaps look at the plummeting figures for NYT readership: https://www.statista.com/statistics/273503/average-paid-weekday-circulation-of-the-new-york-times/

    Another question I have: is the exile US-wide or more acute in certain States and cities? I’m British where Christianity has been in exile for several decades. Here in the US I’ve sensed a decline when I was living in Kansas, but recently moved to Houston where church-attendance appears to be thriving still.

    Andy

  7. Dave T says:

    I’m sorry I’m weeks behind but I just had to say something: Mike when you say, “This is what the church in exile looks like. It means Western Christianity is largely outside the arenas in which the greatest influence in cultures is exerted” I just don’t get how your statement is justified.

    What is exile? What would it look like to you for Western Christianity to be inside the arenas in which the greatest influence in cultures is exerted? What is Western Christianity to you? What are the arenas in which the greatest influence in cultures is exerted?

    Being in exile is the state of being barred or expelled. If Western Christians aren’t being arrested for being Western Christians then they’re not in exile. Perhaps X number of Western Christians either don’t want to be or don’t care to be where they can be inside the arenas in which the greatest influence in cultures is exerted OR X number ARE ALREADY THERE and they’re picking battles more important than what gets mentioned in the NYTimes.

    I do not feel like I’m in anything resembling exile. I think the Western Christian church is desperately in need of stronger leadership but that’s self-imposed shackling and not restraint placed by an enemy.

    Where men and women are honest, fair, generous, and reasonable, for starters, as Western Christians, they may already be leaps and bounds ahead of colleagues who are not, in being individuals who are bringing human flourishing to culture where their colleagues are not.

    And Andrew Shaw, actual paper readership has nothing to do with actual readership in a digital culture. I for one never paid for a NYTimes paper but I’ve had a digital subscription for years.

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