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What the Exile Can Teach Us about Returning to Church

Photo of Debbra StephensDebbra Stephens | Bio

Debbra Stephens

Transplanted in the South from her home state of Michigan, this suburban mom-of-two loves her Lord Jesus and His wonderful Word. A dedicated student of the Word, she loves to share what she learns in the classroom, at events, and on the page—dependent upon the ever-faithful Holy Spirit to turn thoughts to text. Debbra has authored four Bible studies, all published by 21st Century Christian Publishers in Nashville, Tennessee. She launched the series Advent Living Books for her seasonal daily devotionals in 2018. Debbra blogs at her website debbrastephens.com and has been published in Christian Woman Magazine.

Greater than the return of the hobbits to the Shire, greater than Dorothy waking in Kansas, even greater than Nemo’s return to the reef is the return of the disciple to an in-person worship service.

That return feels like a great deliverance from exile.

I arrived at our outdoor service on Easter Sunday, before the sun rose—excitement and emotion insulating me from the chill in the air. It’s a moment I will not soon forget, for it was far too long in coming.

The Body of Christ is the disciple’s home. Even though we are connected while apart, united by the Holy Spirit, it is both the grace and design of God for us to be together. Which may explain why this separation has felt much like a type of exile. Except we were banished to our homes. But many of us have been away from our heart’s home, the church.

It’s not possible for me to even imagine what it was like for the Jewish people to be oppressively taken into exile.

They were displaced from the land promised by God as His chosen people. They were torn from their homes, families, and temple life, which was central to their lives because it was symbolic of the presence of God dwelling among them. Being away from church during the pandemic is hardly the same as the Jewish exile to Babylon, but it has made it slightly more relatable.

The prophet Jeremiah had a message for the Jews exiled in Babylon. He instructed them to settle in, build houses, farm, and raise families (Jer. 29:4-7). They were to carry out activities of a normal life as they waited for restoration. There is just such a record in the Old Testament about a man named Daniel who remained faithful in such circumstances. They were able to sing the communal prayers in the Psalms even in exile. As the people, nation, and kingdom of God, they had still been given the worship service and Jewish feasts ordained by God.

Back in our present day, quarantine looked different for a lot of different people.

Many wanted it to take on a redemptive quality. They wanted to come out the other side better for it. They learned new skills, took online courses, got healthy. And now the time has come to emerge. And we want the return to also have a redemptive outcome.

Masses are returning, as churches are re-opening and cases are waning. But what we are returning to is different. Processes are more controlled (and rightfully so). Safety precautions are in place. Gatherings are typically smaller, attendance is lower. In many churches, people are masked and spaced apart.

It’s a joy to be reunited with church family members. However, as we look around us, we long for those who have not yet returned.

Again, I recall the exiles. I imagine their disappointment when, at the end of decades in exile, they returned to the rebuilt temple. Things just weren’t the same. But that doesn’t necessarily mean things were worse. Gratitude transforms everything—including, and most especially, worship. We are thankful to God. We are thankful to be there. We are thankful for the technological age we live in that made gathering on Sundays possible during our isolation. Endless streams of Christian content was readily accessible to feed and encourage faith. It made things temporarily bearable, no doubt—and yet it was still hard. Because we were isolated. And discipleship is meant to be lived out in community.

As we return, let’s ask: What can we learn from the returning exiles?

What can redeem our time spent away? What will make us better disciples now that we are rejoined with the Body?

Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

(Ps. 126:2-3, 5-6)

Return Exuberant

The praise of the returning exiles exuded great joy and celebration. Allow the Spirit to revive your heart and your worship. Praise God for His faithfulness in the time of our greatest need. Rejoice, for He has brought us from isolation back into the fellowship of the saints.

Return Enthralled

Psalm 126, considered an exilic psalm, says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” They scarcely dared to believe it. When I walked back through our church’s front door, I scarcely dared to believe it. It was a dream come true. And an answered prayer.

Return Engaged

It’s easy to be distracted during streaming services online. Now, being present, determine to be fully present—heart, mind, and soul. Engage fully with the service, the sermon, and others. Deliberately connect with fellow returnees. And find ways to serve.

Return with Encouragement

After a difficult season, we are all in need of encouragement. Let’s take these words of Paul to heart to “encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thess. 5:11).

Take time to reach out to those who have not yet returned. And make it a priority to encourage the ministry staff. They have pastored a hurting congregation through difficult and needy times, for an extended period of time. The mental and emotional bandwidth required to come up with solutions in unfamiliar circumstances has left many of them weary.

Make a Commitment to Return

Maybe you have not yet been able to return. Maybe you live in an area under restrictions, or your church has not yet re-opened, or health limitations are keeping you at home. Fiercely cling to hope. The nation in exile clung to hope (Ps. 42:5, 11; 43:5). They hoped in God and His promised restoration. They longed for the day when they gathered in their homeland with their fellow countrymen to praise God.

A disconnected disciple will always be lacking. We need one another. We are also bound to one another. Romans 12:10 says, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” The Body needs you just as much as you need them. It is the home-away-from-home the Lord has provided for the Christian exile to be nourished, fed, and trained to serve other disciples.

This devotion to each other will make for a great return.

Have you made your return? I pray it happens for you soon if it hasn’t already. For the Lord is pleased when His family is gathered together. As is the rest of the family.

Let’s pray it’s the greatest comeback of all time. Pray that our appreciation for the church and one another is greater than ever. Pray that our fellowship is more deeply cherished. That we strive for stronger unity. That we will be more patient and compassionate with one another for the shared struggles we’ve experienced. And may the Lord’s Church see unprecedented days of revival.

Pray that our appreciation for the church and one another is greater than ever.

(For more from Debbra, visit debbrastephens.com)