New Book: To Aliens and Exiles

My new book has just been published by Cascade. It’s called To Aliens and Exiles: Preaching the New Testament as Minority-Group Rhetoric in a Post-Christendom World. OK, it’s a mouthful. But let me break it down for you:

Over the past few decades, Christians in the West have rediscovered the fact that we’re a minority. I mean, we’ve always been a minority, numerically speaking—if you’re talking about genuine, committed followers of Jesus. But recently it’s become apparent that we’re more and more a cultural minority as well. Rather than being at the centre of culture, as we were throughout Christendom, we’re increasingly at odds with culture. A culture that perceives us not just as quaint, superstitious, or weird—but sometimes as oppressive, regressive, and even dangerous in our insistence on following an invisible God who revealed himself in ancient texts. We’re a minority group, in a society that views us sometimes with amusement, sometimes with indifference, and other times with outright hostility.

Which is pretty much the position the very first Christians were in. And the situation to which the various writings in the New Testament were addressed. “To aliens and exiles,” as the apostle Peter puts it. At its heart, the New Testament is the rhetoric of minority. It aims, on the one hand, to insulate the fledgling church against conforming to the dominant culture, thereby ceasing to exist. Yet on the other hand, it urges them to live and speak in such a way as to win over people from that dominant culture. It’s a rhetoric that calls its minority audience to attractive difference.

The book is all about reminding ourselves of how the New Testament speaks to followers of Jesus—both then and now—calling for that attractive difference. How we can allow Scripture to speak into our rediscovered minority existence, just as it did to the small, marginalised churches in the first century Mediterranean world.

The book is written with preachers uppermost in mind, but really it’s for all Christians. Especially as we’re all navigating what for many of us in the West is new territory: the experience of being outsiders in our own society. I’ve also made it available as a bookcast, if you prefer listening to reading. You can order it from me directly or via the publisher’s website; it will shortly be available on Amazon in hardcopy or ebook.

Here’s the introduction, if you’re wanting more of a taste of what it’s about.

Introduction: The New Reality

The landscape has changed for Christian preachers in Western society. And it’s changed quickly, in the space of a generation.[1]

A generation or so ago, the values we preached were generally consistent with the aspirational values of the dominant culture, if not their actual practice. Now, our values are increasingly seen as regressive and dangerous. Back then, a Christian worldview could be assumed as a starting point and go largely unchallenged by a society which considered itself at least culturally “Christian.” Now, we must be prepared for that worldview to face challenge, even from among the Christians in our audience. Previously, Christian ministers were accorded status as leaders in the wider community and could speak with some level of acknowledged authority. Today, their relevance is being questioned if not rejected outright, hastened by the well-publicised failings of so many clergy.[2]

In short, we can no longer preach with the assumption that we are part of the dominant culture. Increasingly, we preach conscious that we belong to a minority. Not a persecuted minority by any means, but a minority all the same—one which is being pushed unevenly yet undeniably from its former central place in society toward the margins.

Given this new landscape, how do we now preach?

Waking up to our minority status

Let’s begin with the obvious—or what should be the obvious, even though we’ve been slow to see it. Indeed, over the past couple of decades many have made this point—in far more detail and nuance than I have space for here[3]—but it says something about our collective blindness that it’s still necessary to rehearse it once more. Our first order of business is to recognise and, to some extent, embrace our minority status. And to understand that true followers of Jesus have always been a minority throughout the history of the church. This isn’t a new situation in which we find ourselves, even if it might feel like it.

And the reason it feels like it is because for many generations—really, ever since Constantine—Western society considered itself to be, in a cultural sense, “Christian.” Church-based institutions were frequently at its civic core, Bible stories and phrases were an important part of its shared cultural and linguistic heritage, and Western society viewed itself as being based on “Judeo-Christian values.” It blurred the line between faith communities and the wider culture so that we could choose to “tune out” our minority status. As Ben Witherington puts it, speaking of the USA:

Our country has been suffering from truth decay for a long time. The problem with numerous of my fellow white Evangelicals is that they have mistaken civic religion for Christianity or so blended together nationalism with their understanding of the Christian faith that they can’t tell the difference. So, we should all be reminded that America is not the promised land, we are not Israel…[4]

While this is not as stark in countries like the UK and Australia, there is still the residue of a society whose social and political structures were inextricably bound up with Christendom. For some Christians, this blurring of the lines gave the illusion of a Christian society. How can we think of ourselves as a minority when we live in a “Christian country”?

Over the past half century, the line has become less blurry. It’s become more difficult to ignore the tension between the worldview of Christians and of mainstream society. The Western world is now “post-Christendom,” a term described by Stuart Murray as

the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.[5]

It’s that loss of coherence and influence that we now feel, as we become aware of how increasingly out of step we are with the views of the majority.

This has accelerated over the past decade or so, as many of the values Western society inherited from Christendom have been steadily discarded now that the underlying Christian rationale for them has been rejected. This is most obviously seen in the areas of gender and sexuality. My colleague, David Starling, puts it this way:

When I was growing up, back in the seventies and the eighties, to be a Christian was to be viewed as a kind of goody-goody, as someone who was a little bit quaint and needlessly uptight, but basically harmless. These days, increasingly, to be a Christian—to be a Christian who is committed to a conservative view of sexual morality—is to be a kind of deviant from the established social order.[6]

This, probably more than anything, has hastened this feeling of being out of step. There is a significant difference between being seen as “a bit weird,” but still an accepted member of the wider community, and being seen as subversive, or even dangerous purveyors of “hate speech.” We have become the “repugnant cultural other,” a phrase coined by Susan Harding to describe mainstream society’s attitude toward fundamentalists,[7] but now applicable to Christians in general. Not only do we believe different things, but many of those things which we believe are now considered repugnant by the majority culture: variously regressive, oppressive, and abusive. It’s that which has made our minority status impossible to ignore or brush over any longer.

We’ve always been a minority, but we’ve now been (re)awakened to the reality of it. How do we now preach?

The rhetoric of minority

Whenever a group is aware of its minority status within the wider culture, its internal and external discourse reflects this. To survive, it needs to define the group identity, provide a rationale for its continued existence, and set the nature of its interactions with the majority. In other words, minority group rhetoric is born. (We’ll discuss this in more detail in the next chapter.)

It’s no different whenever Christians are conscious of their minority status. They may be in the minority simply for being followers of Jesus, or they may already belong to an ethnic or cultural minority—a situation which is further complicated by their faith in Jesus. Either way, this gets reflected in how they preach and speak: how they define their identity, purpose, and relationship with the wider world. But there are several trajectories this Christian minority group rhetoric can take, not all of them helpful.

The first is where Christians try to minimise the differences between their group and the dominant culture. This can take quite helpful forms, in which believers are encouraged to abandon unnecessary cultural oddities and traditions which might hinder acceptance by the majority, and to adopt, instead, some of its cultural forms and practices—following the Apostle Paul’s example of becoming “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:19-23). The message tends to be along the lines of: we’re just like you, except we also know Jesus. This is good and, indeed, biblical insofar as it breaks down barriers to people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ (which is Paul’s point). It can be a little less helpful if it encourages an “attractional” model of church, in which we think the masses will flock to us if we could just get the product and sales pitch right. And it can be downright dangerous if it conditions us to seek acceptance from the majority at the expense of what ought to make us different in the first place; if it provides a convenient excuse for us to soft-pedal those beliefs which the majority finds objectionable or repugnant; if it’s done with a view to keeping a seat at the table, maintaining our influence and tax breaks.[8] The end result of such a rhetorical approach is, in the words of Stephen McAlpine, “a world in which no one is angry about Christianity, because Christianity is too weightless, hollow, and toothless to get angry about.”[9] We become so much like the culture that our message is no longer distinctive, and ultimately, we lose our very reason to exist.

The second trajectory we can take is the opposite rhetorical strategy: to embrace the difference and see the dominant culture as the enemy which is trying to bully us into conformity. It’s a circle-the-wagons, us-against-them rhetoric which rallies the troops to do battle against the godless, pagan world around us. This approach can find some degree of support in Scripture, most obviously Peter’s epistles, John’s Gospel,  and Revelation (so long as we don’t spend too long considering the differences between the rhetorical setting of their original audiences and our own). And it can serve to increase the sense of belonging and commitment members feel to the church—making it tempting for some to exaggerate the level of hostility from the majority culture in order to spur the group to greater levels of resistance.[10] (We’ll talk more about this in the next chapter.) The problem is, of course, that it’s an unattractive rhetoric which does little to encourage converts. And it’s often tinged with an attitude of entitlement that suggests the post-Christendom reality has not been fully grasped. We might remain distinctive, but we’re not fulfilling our mission to the world.

The third trajectory is the most difficult one. But it’s also the most biblical. It’s the one consistently taken by the New Testament authors as they wrote to the small groups of Jesus-followers which were scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Some of these groups had already been a minority due to their ethnicity, most notably the Jews of the diaspora. But all had become a minority due to their faith in Jesus. And they are addressed as a minority group—mostly implicitly, but sometimes quite explicitly, as in Peter’s addressing of his audience as “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11). They were facing a dominant culture that treated them variously with indifference, disdain, or outright hostility. They were under significant social (and sometimes physical) pressure to conform to the majority, while at the same time fulfilling their commission to win over that majority with the good news of Jesus. They needed to define their identity, articulate their purpose, and maintain their distinctiveness—yet to do so in a way that was attractive to outsiders. They had to be attractively different.

As Western Christians who have recently been reawakened to our minority status, the New Testament provides us with a model of how we can engage with the majority culture while maintaining our minority group identity. Its minority group rhetoric—if appropriated carefully—can become ours, guiding how we speak among ourselves and how we present to the outside world.

That’s what this book is about.

And although this has implications for all of our discourse—making this a book for all Christians—the particular focus of application here will be on how it’s used in preaching, since preaching tends to shape and define the rest of our rhetoric.

Using the rhetoric of the New Testament

If we’re going to use the minority group rhetoric of the New Testament, we first need to know how it works. The first chapter introduces us to minority group rhetoric in general, using insights from the social sciences. We’ll look at why such rhetoric is needed in order to counteract pressure from the majority culture to conform; this is especially true in honour-shame based cultures, such as the ones addressed by the New Testament. Mostly, religious minority groups either assimilate (and so cease to be distinctive) or isolate (making it hard to win converts). The New Testament’s approach of attractive difference is a solution to this problem that plagues all minority groups.

The second chapter takes us through the strategies used by the New Testament writers to promote this attractive difference, all of which address one of six key questions:

  1. Approval: whose opinions do we care about and whose opinions can we ignore?
  2. Disapproval: why can we ignore those who disapprove of us?
  3. Identity: who are we and why are we distinctive?
  4. Practice: how do we live? That is, what do we do that makes us distinctive?
  5. Worldview: how do we see the world, and how does that differ from the majority?
  6. Salience: why is group membership so important right now?

The chapters which then follow are the heart of this book. They show how this plays out in selected writings of the New Testament, highlighting the different emphases of each and the different minority situations being addressed. As we compare the situation of the original audience with our own—and understand how the biblical author seeks to speak into that situation—we can begin to formulate interpretive and preaching strategies that bring the minority group rhetoric of the New Testament to bear on our own culture.

The final chapter is no mere afterthought. It’s an acknowledgement that many of our brothers and sisters around the world have been acutely aware of their minority status far longer than white, Western Christians have. What’s more, our experience of being a minority pales in comparison with many believers who—as well as being part of an ethnic or cultural minority—have experienced social and economic marginalisation, and sometimes physical persecution. We have much to learn from them in many areas, not the least of which is their use of the minority rhetoric of Scripture. They have learned out of necessity to pay attention to where the Bible addresses those who are marginalised and oppressed minorities, and to use that rhetoric to speak into their own context. For this reason, the last chapter presents the reflections of some African-American pastor-theologians who were asked to give the white, Western church some of their wisdom—and they graciously obliged.

Persecuted, marginalised, or…?

Before we begin, however, this reminder of the others who have gone before us should give us pause before we hastily adopt the posture and terminology of a persecuted or marginalised group. Clearly, there’s a vast difference between our experience, and that of believers around the world who stand to lose more than employment opportunities, tax breaks, the respect of the mainstream media, or friends on social media. How do we take that into account?

I think there are two simplistic extremes to avoid when answering this. The first extreme comes from the relative lack of physical persecution in the West. Keen to find relevance in this key Scriptural theme, every time someone says something a bit mean about God or Christians we make a big song-and-dance about how we’re a persecuted people. We end up redefining persecution as having hurt feelings. 

The second extreme is the opposite reaction. It comes from reading the descriptions of persecution recorded in the New Testament, and from hearing stories of the Persecuted Church today: beatings, imprisonment, torture, and execution. We compare that with our own “suffering” for Jesus and realise that we haven’t got it that bad after all—which is perfectly true! So we then decide that the persecution texts aren’t really for us, and how dare we even breathe the “p-word” about ourselves when people in other times and places have died for their faith!

While this shows a proper respect for those who undergo severe suffering for the name of Jesus, it misses a few important things. Firstly, it suggests that the significant percentage of the New Testament which speaks about persecution has nothing much to say to us, beyond praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters. Secondly, it forgets that most of the original readers of the New Testament writings didn’t suffer the fate of Stephen and subsequent martyrs. They weren’t beaten or imprisoned or killed, but they still suffered ongoing marginalisation and social exclusion (e.g. “publicly exposed to insult” in Heb 10:33; or made “synagogue outcasts” in John 16:2).[11] And thirdly, it neglects the fact that the New Testament is more concerned with the perceived shamefulness of being persecuted, rather than the severity of the suffering involved (although that was, of course, linked). Even in the Gospels’ descriptions of Jesus’ death, it’s the shamefulness of crucifixion that’s emphasised.

So as we read these texts, let’s keep a balanced perspective. We’re not enduring adversity anywhere near the extent to which many first century Christians did. But we are experiencing social shaming and exclusion, as we increasingly become the “repugnant cultural other” in the eyes of the majority. Our ability to articulate our beliefs publicly without fear of consequence is slowly being eroded,[12] and we’re incrementally being pushed to the margins of public discourse.

Increasingly less and less of what we consider acceptable as a public apologetic is accepted by the public. And increasingly the orthodox Christian frame is seen not only as odd, but bad.[13]

What’s more, it’s all happening unevenly, so that anyone seeking to dismiss this notion could point to any number of individual instances of where Christians can still speak with freedom and influence. But the trajectory of the past few decades is clear. As Lyndon Bowring, Executive Chairman of CARE, put it in an interview:

The greatest challenge… is the growing secularization of society, where Christianity is being increasingly squeezed out of our national life. The ultimate result of this tendency will be a society that is hostile to Christian truth and practice.[14]

What we most frequently suffer for the sake of Jesus today is this loss of respect and a sense of being pushed slowly to the margins, becoming objects of ridicule and/or disgust. Therefore, I think it’s better to see “persecution” on a continuum: from severe persecution and martyrdom at one end, to occasional social exclusion or shame on the other. One is far more severe than the other, of course, but the pattern is still the same. We’re being dishonoured, to some extent, because we’re faithfully following Jesus—whether they’re throwing rocks, as was the case with Stephen, or only throwing shade. So I prefer to use milder terms like “marginalisation” and “exclusion” for what we suffer. Yet when the Bible talks about persecution, I see it speaking to that experience, too. After all, that was the experience of most of the first readers of the New Testament.

So how can we learn from their experience as a marginalised minority?

That’s what this book is about.


[1] Writing in English, I speak mainly of the Anglophone societies found in places like the UK, USA, New Zealand, and my own country of Australia. The landscape in the European West changed at least a generation before that. 

[2] Tim MacBride, “To Aliens and Strangers,” in Starling & Jackson (eds.), Not in Kansas (Sydney: Morling Press, forthcoming).

[3] See especially Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come; Fitch, The Church of Us Vs. Them, 1-9.

[4] Ben Witherington III, “Praying for the President,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2019/05/31/praying-for-the-president

[5] Murray, Post-Christendom, 21.

[6] D.I. Starling, “Preaching on Sex in a Post-Christendom World,” Morling College Preaching Conference 2018, unpublished paper.

[7] Harding, “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” 373-93.

[8] Stephen McAlpine, “The Beguiling Technicolor of OZ,” in Starling & Jackson, Not in Kansas, notes that “Our apologetic strategy has been to stress sameness in order to receive secularism’s approval and a place at its table because at an unspoken level we value the same things it does…”

[9] Stephen McAlpine, “The Beguiling Technicolor of OZ.”

[10] See, e.g., Coser, The Functions of Social Conflict, 106.

[11] DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, 44.

[12] The extent to which we should expect this freedom from consequence is the subject of much debate. It’s also not helped by those who articulate their beliefs in an insensitive manner, or quote Scripture in a rhetorical setting quite unlike its original.

[13] Stephen McAlpine, “The Beguiling Technicolor of OZ.”

[14] Lyndon Bowring, “At the heart of CARE,” Care Today 20 (2010):4, cited in Chester and Timmis, Everyday Church, 20.