The Church Needs an Exorcism—And What We Can Do About It

I can’t shake the image that the expressions of Christianity in the United States swirling around white evangelicalism and evangelical-adjacent movements are in a state of convulsion. In fact, I’m convinced all the grotesque signs bubbling to the surface—the duplicity, coercion, supremacy, gaslighting, scapegoating, misogyny, and toxicity [takes deep breath]—reveal this ecclesiological thrashing-about could actually be an exorcism. And this is good news.

Moving from a world shaped inside (predominately white)* monocultural church enclaves into a more holistic, multiethnic gospel community is the work of repentance. Repentance is the preeminent response to the good news Jesus embodies in our midst, and it involves the reorientation of our vision and posture toward ourselves, others, and present circumstances. It involves the social architecture and ordering of our lives being made new.

Repenting our way toward a more holistic gospel community begins, in part, with embracing the present state of convulsion as a kind of exorcism, an exorcism of the death-dealing spirit that animates our social imagination for what it means to live as Christ’s body. This means moving forward as if the present convulsing is our very opportunity for reorientation.

To follow Jesus is to welcome the Holy Spirit’s disruptive and unsettling presence, expecting reorientation as normative. When we walk with Jesus, open to the Spirit, the invisible becomes visible, both human complicity with death and the kingdom of God’s life are unveiled. To follow Jesus is to welcome the Holy Spirit’s disruptive and unsettling presence, expecting reorientation as normative. Click To Tweet

I am noticing three places of reorientation that flow from the Spirit’s deliverance and the destabilization that comes as demons of supremacy and control are exorcised.

1: Thinking More Apocalyptically

The first place of reorientation that primes the conditions for the others is thinking more apocalyptically about the current conditions that shape our ministry context.

In part, this means seeing the challenges unfolding inside and proximate to our church communities as the conditions and time of God’s future, already fulfilled in Jesus, tearing into the present by the Spirit.

We are not locked inside the mechanism of history, fully subject to the best or worst efforts humans can do. Neither are the prevailing systems and structures merely a providential ordering of history that we unquestioningly watch unfold from inside a holy huddle while focusing instead on the “spiritual,” abstract truths about the gospel.

Thinking more apocalyptically means having a dual vision for (1) how the present institutions and structures (including our religious instructions and structures) are bent toward death, and (2) how the Spirit of God is presently interrupting the status quo, revealing the demons animating the systems we’ve built, but also bringing newness in Christ.

The arrival of God’s animating Spirit to bring deliverance from death will destabilize all the bits of our built environment that are sources of oppression that masquerade as religious fidelity (e.g. church growth paradigms that have been vehicles for white supremacy and patriarchy). Again, this is good news. This is how we begin to see exorcism as a necessary part of the Spirit’s healing and deliverance.

Assuming the interruption of God’s future into our present brokenness means, among other things, we can live without supporting, grasping for, or doubling down on structures of control. We don’t have to control history because God has fulfilled history in Christ. God’s future is now interrupting the present by the Spirit. We don’t have to control history because God has fulfilled history in Christ. God’s future is now interrupting the present by the Spirit. Click To Tweet

If this is true, then answers about what to do in order to act faithfully are not obvious. Thinking apocalyptically means having eyes to see the convulsion as a Spirit-generated crisis. Each crisis then becomes an opportunity to discern the conditions for faithful action by asking, “What is the Spirit of God exposing and revealing here?”

2: Complexifying our Relationship with “Culture”

With an apocalyptic vision for the Spirit’s arrival, we can also experience reorientation by complexifying our relationship with culture. If we’re open to how the Spirit destabilizes the prevailing dehumanizing and destructive forces that animate (white) monocultural church, our relationship with culture will get less “pure” and more complex.

In the imagination of the (white) mono-cultural church, culture is often framed as the worldly stuff “out there.” Culture (with a capital C) is monolithic. It can be objectively evaluated and named at a distance from the basically neutral position of a “Christian worldview”.

This imagination produces a practice where we are ever in a posture of evaluation and critique regarding perceived points of difference. We are always measuring what is “out there” or “other” against our standard of orthodoxy or aesthetic normativity. We stand above culture declaring “clean” or “unclean” and often go to war against the unclean when it encroaches.

That mode of evaluation and relationship to the particulars of context often (unwittingly) follows a “kernel/husk” framework. The idea is that there is a pure gospel kernel, and our task is to distill the cultural husk from the gospel kernel. The husk can be on a spectrum from helpful to benign to harmful, but the kernel is the pure, un-cultured gospel. The goal is teasing apart the cultural bits from the gospel bits, using what is good, throwing out what is bad, and always sticking with the plain gospel message.

Missiologists have offered models that complexify the kernel/husk framework**, but my point here is that complexifying our relationship with culture is an appropriate feature of the disruptive and destabilizing work of the Spirit. The Spirit’s exorcising and healing work in monocultural church involves drawing us out of models of purity that create boundaries of exclusion and hierarchies of supremacy. The Spirit’s exorcising and healing work in monocultural church involves drawing us out of models of purity that create boundaries of exclusion and hierarchies of supremacy. Click To Tweet

The existing imagination for thinking about church-culture relations can nurture those destructive boundaries and hierarchies under the best of pious intentions. But often the Spirit is delivering us from idolatry in which we are ignorantly complicit. This unveiling feels bad, at times, because we’re trying to do the godly thing. Much convulsing emerges here.

Instead, we can embrace when and how our expressions of church are always, already mixed up with and articulated through the artifacts and forces of cultures in our context. Through the Spirit, points of perceived “difference” are no longer the fulcrum for evaluation and distance, but rather invitations into a journey of learning, healing, and new life.

We can begin to ask, “What forces are at work shaping the imagination, language, and regular practices embodied in our life together?” and “With whom is the Spirit drawing us into fellowship with, and how can “sites of difference” reveal for us surprising places where we are complicit with demonic powers OR surprising places of new creation we could never have seen on our own?

3: Reckoning with Power and Embodying Power Differently

In a way, exorcism is a reorientation of power. It reveals and challenges the kind of power that animates our imagining, speaking, and acting. This is why convulsion is an expected response to the Spirit’s disruption—ungodly habits of power are being revealed and challenged. The insidious thing (hence the need for exorcism) is that these ungodly habits of power are largely hidden and amorphous.

The opportunity for reorientation is to reckon with power and then seek to embody power in alignment with the way of God revealed in Jesus, presently manifested by the Spirit.

This reckoning in (white) monocultural churches begins with learning to name how power goes deeper than an individual’s bad habits or good intentions. Ungodly power circulates through the social structures, discourses, and corporate practices in our congregation. Individuals can reinforce and extend ungodly power within our congregations, but the point is that the deforming forces that marginalize and exclude on the basis of difference (of being “other”) move between our bodies, so to speak.

The good news of the Spirit’s disruption is that we don’t have to reach for prevailing, dehumanizing modes of power in order to participate faithfully in what the Spirit is making new. We have access to a mode of power that exceeds the kind used to dominate and win.

This “excessive power” is cruciform in shape. It is reciprocal (not unilateral) and abundant (not zero-sum). It flows between our bodies and is leveraged to give voice and agency to people who have been silenced, oppressed, and marginalized. Cruciform power can re-script how our church social structures represent what is normal, good, beautiful and true. Cruciform power can re-script how our church social structures represent what is normal, good, beautiful and true. Click To Tweet

We can tend to the Spirit’s destabilizing work around power by asking questions such as these: “What kind of work does our theology or practice do, especially in the lives of those on the margins of our community?” and “Who built our congregational environment and who was it built to benefit?”

As our churches continue to wrestle with difficult questions that continue to emerge around us, may we embrace the exorcism of our death-dealing ways as good news, and the patience to wait for the Spirit’s guidance on what comes next.

*Throughout this piece, when I reference the “monocultural church,” I am assuming that predominantly white monocultural expressions represent a fundamentally different historical formation and relationship to socio-political power than historically black church traditions and other non-white and immigrant church expressions. They are not equivalent. In general, non-white monocultural church traditions represent the effort of marginalized groups to own and express agency as God’s people that has been denied or excluded by white, mono-cultural church traditions.

**In particular, see the work of Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh and then Willie Jennings’s engagement with them in chapter 3 of his book The Christian Imagination.

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