The Church in the World as Resident Aliens

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I have friends who are considered aliens. The United States IRS tax code uses an archaic term to designate foreigners who are legally granted permission to reside in the country while retaining citizenship in another: resident aliens. As great as these people are, and despite my best efforts, when I hear the word “aliens,” I just can’t fully scrape away the childhood mental images of green, one-­eyed extraterrestrial creatures with antennae. As strange as this phrase may sound to my ears, it helps us capture the spiritual tension in the sacred overlap.

It was Paul who wrote in his opening greeting of his letter to the Ephesians “to God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1), emphasizing their dual earth/heaven identity as people who possessed an earthly ZIP code while still belonging to Christ. The apostle Peter also understood that the early followers of Jesus felt out of place and urged them to live faithfully in a pagan culture. He used a similar phrase, often stated in various Bible translations as strangers, pilgrims, foreigners, sojourners, temporary residents, or exiles (1 Peter 2:11). A few translations still retain the phrase “resident aliens.” I wish more translations would use that phrase. But this is not just a New Testament reality. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was in bondage in Egypt and later hauled off into exile in Babylon, living as resident aliens in both places.

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon address this topic in their book Resident Aliens. Though written a few decades ago, it has proven itself to be prescient. The authors write that when followers of Jesus Christ are baptized, their citizenship is transferred from one dominion to another; in the process they become resident aliens in the surrounding culture.1 In our baptism, when we come up out of the water, dripping wet with matted hair and soaked clothes, it’s as if the church hands us our green card.

God’s people, Israel, felt this disorienting displacement and the subsequent push-­and-­pull of their identity. Israel had left slavery in Egypt via the dramatic parting of the Red Sea. They were no longer slaves in Egypt, but they were not yet residents of the promised land. Instead, they wandered in the wilderness for an entire generation. The story of Israel, God’s people, and their we’re-­not-­slaves-­but-­we’re-­not-­quite-­fully-­free identity is a story of resident aliens. Then, finally, freedom. Land. Home.

Generations later, the people of Israel were hauled off into exile in Babylon, a pagan country. We see in the Book of Jeremiah that God’s call to Israel was to retain their foundational identity as God’s people even though they were resident aliens in a foreign land. Christians tend to put a lot of focus on one particular verse from the twenty-­ninth chapter of Jeremiah—­verse eleven. Yes, God loves us enough to give us a hope and a future. And while it sounds wonderful and inspirational in a graduation card, sadly, this verse is often taken out of context. God wasn’t promising graduating high school seniors they’d thrive as they head off to college in the fall; he was speaking directly to a large group of weary exiles living in a pagan land and wondering if God was still in control—­and if he was in control, whether he still cared about them.

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Despite their status as exiles, God tells them to stay put—­put down roots, build houses, plant gardens. Get married, and put down roots. Have a family, raise your kids, and encourage them to bring grandchildren into the world. Seek the peace and flourishing of the local culture because if the local culture is at peace, you will be too (Jer. 29:5–9). God called Israel to build, to engage the culture with a posture of settled rootedness, even as they were living amidst the same people who hauled them off into captivity. God exhorted them to seek peace and pray, to live in a way which was focused on shalom in the present while also focusing on God’s future intent.

We, too, are spiritual exiles and resident aliens. We live here, but we don’t really belong here. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, if we find in ourselves a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. When we live faithfully in the way of Jesus, we feel tension: while we have a mailing address, the world is not our home. It is not the kind of tension we feel in situations of conflict or an emotionally charged conversation; it is much more like the tension that occurs when you stretch a rubber band. Neglecting to stretch the band means it will never serve its purpose, but stretch it too far, and it will snap. This is the kind of tension we feel when we wonder if we’ve gone too far—­or not far enough. When we wonder aloud if we’re doing it right—­if we’re being too Christian or too pagan—­maybe that’s exactly the space where we need to dwell.

Here we must pause and consider: is the world to be despised, dismissed, and disregarded as evil, or does God love the world, giving us license to enjoy much of what he has created? We must hold in tension the inherent goodness of creation—­of what God himself made—­and the subsequent moral corruption brought on by humanity. How are we to live in the midst of this reality? We don’t write off the culture entirely, but we don’t endorse it carte blanche, either. Thus, as resident aliens, we need wisdom to navigate the tension, knowing when to use the gas pedal and when to hit the brakes. The apostle Peter wrote this in one of his letters: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). The faithful way of life in exile is to live among the pagans, not apart from them. But even as we live this good way of life, we need to come to expect that pagans will be upset with us. We will be misunderstood, our words will be misconstrued, our motives will be questioned—­and we will be accused of wrongdoing because we will be disrupting and critiquing the status quo (Adam Gustine, Becoming a Just Church: Cultivating Communities of God’s Shalom [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019], 43–44.).

But Peter also knew that retreating and sticking one’s head in the sand was not the way to faithfully follow the risen Christ either. It’s a different, more extreme position. It is the way of prophetic witness, which not only faithfully represents Christ to the world but also works to renew others within the community. We don’t reject every element of the world in which we live (there are many good elements which exist, of course) and yet we don’t fall madly in love with the world, either.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The church is the place of belonging for resident aliens. It exists, as Hauerwas and Willimon write, as “an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief.” But it should not be as a colony seeking to huddle and cuddle and hope the world just leaves us alone. “When we are baptized,” write Hauerwas and Willimon, we “jump on a moving train . . . We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone.” (p. 55) The train has been rumbling down the tracks for quite some time, and yet it bids us to run hard, grab hold, and hop on.

Living in this confusing space, we may at times experience some sort of identity crisis. Peter instructed resident aliens to avoid sin, living such upright and different lives that those around them would see their way of life and praise God because of it (see 1 Pet. 2:12). It sounds like he’s advocating for a separatist approach here, but his encouragement is to submit to the government rulers in the land and also to live as free people. Live freely, he writes, but don’t use it as a license to do whatever you please. Love your fellow believers, worship God, honor the emperor (2:13–17). That’s a lot of embodied tension as resident aliens. But how would they know how to live this way? He instructed them to look to the example of Christ. He lived, he died, and he suffered. He bore our sins so we might die to sin and live honorable, holy lives. His wounds were the resolution, the healing for our wounds. It is within the context of the church that resident aliens become rooted in their identity in Jesus.

Pre-order Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully in the Space Between

The church, immersed in God’s story and commissioned to participate in God’s mission, takes context seriously, committed to seeing the story of Scripture come alive in our current culture. Author and practitioner Mark Scandrette leads a Jesus community in San Francisco called ReImagine. Mark and other leaders convene on a regular basis to explore how to help committed followers of Jesus grow spiritually while at the same time engaging with others who are not yet on an expedition with Christ. In order to explain their approach, they refer to each of these two spaces by colors. Yellow space refers to situations where Christianity focuses primarily on the personal world of faith. This includes individual rhythms, practices, and spiritual disciplines (reading Scripture, praying, participating in a church, etc.). Blue space refers to the times and places that are primarily others-­focused (social justice, service, outreach, activism, etc.). ReImagine realizes that these spaces are not divided; they overlap. The community refers to those overlapping spaces of blue and yellow as green spaces and those who are committed to those spaces as green people, where context is both individual and collective, internally oriented as well as externally oriented, and where both the religious and the irreligious find connection, meaning, and commonality (for more on this see Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003], 27–28). Green people who have been issued green cards.

It’s no secret that the church in North America has lost a great deal of its cultural, moral, and spiritual influence over the past few decades. Because of this, we must boldly become green people. It has been said that the seven deadly words of the church are: we’ve never done it that way before. To paraphrase this kind of thinking, we have no interest in becoming green. It’s too dicey. We’d like to remain yellow, thank you very much. As North American Christians, it’s time to convene a family meeting to remind ourselves we aren’t called to be docents of our denominational museums. We can no longer afford to remain yellow.

But there is hope on the horizon. Several churches are growing tired of embracing the church-­as-­we’ve-­always-­done-­it approach. A growing number of them are stepping out of maintenance mode thinking. They are drawing on courage, wisdom, and compassion, moving toward and embracing this new way. They are turning those seven deadly words around and saying, with great joy and anticipation, “We’ve never done it that way before,” and adding, “Let’s try it and see what happens.”

Instead of simply cloning existing forms of church, we need to cultivate and embrace new Jesus-­saturated postures and approaches that meet people where they already are. The last thing I want to do is be a part of managing the decline of the Western church over the next several decades. But when we submit ourselves to the creative Holy Spirit and seek to plot good kingdom mischief on his behalf, the triune God smiles in agreement.

If you’re asking questions about how to faithfully live in and reach a culture with the gospel, J.R. Briggs offers a helpful new resource. The widening of political, racial, generational, and religious differences often leads to an “us vs. them” mentality all too common today. In The Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully, author J.R. Briggs communicates a refreshing vision that embraces tension and calls us to live in radical love and faithfulness between the extremes that isolate and divide people. Get it from our store here.

This resource may be helpful for:

  • Anyone struggling with the tension of faith and culture
  • Church leaders and leadership teams
  • Laypeople looking to faithfully engage their neighbors
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J.R. Briggs is the founder Kairos Partnerships (kairospartnerships.org), an organization whose purpose is to serve hungry kingdom leaders through coaching, consulting, speaking, teaching, and equipping. He also serves as the Director of Leadership & Congregational Formation for The Ecclesia Network and as a National Trainer and Strategist for Fresh Expressions U.S. He is an affiliate professor of practical theology at Missio Seminary in Philadelphia and hosts two podcasts: The Monday Morning Pastor, and the Resilient Leaders podcast. You can find him on Twitter at @jr_briggs

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