The term “diaspora” is both a historic and religious term used to describe “a large group of people with a similar heritage or homeland who have since moved out to places all over the world.” (source: vocabulary.com) The Old Testament diaspora describes the exilic period when the Jewish people were deported and scattered from Judea to Assyria, Persia and Babylon over several generations.
A similar diaspora of the followers of Jesus took place after Pentecost, as the Christian movement went from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The word has subsequently been used to describe the scattering and migration of refugee populations across the globe. As these phenomena occur, language and culture are also dispersed with the people.
I have heard the current situation of the church, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, described more than once as a diaspora experience. We, Christ followers, who are used to gathering for worship, fellowship and ministry in a particular location are currently unable to do so. We have been dispersed to our homes, and across our communities. Some have even lamented this situation as something of the displacement of faith.
I would contend, however, that diaspora need not be thought of as displacement. Just as the Jewish people of the exilic period would discover their relocation away from Jerusalem and the Temple did not equate to the end of their faith; so too we see that Christ followers are discovering our current, limited diaspora need not displace nor squelch ours. For the devout Jews the exilic period resulted in new expressions of faith. This period saw the rise of the synagogue within Judaism. As the focus of faith moved from the Temple, and it’s animal sacrifice, which had been destroyed and thus stopped; worship and gathering focused on the study and teaching of the Torah in the synagogue service. A new type of clergy, the rabbi, also arose during this time to give spiritual direction, teaching and guidance to God’s people.
The fist century Christian diaspora would also see new roles for leaders emerge as missionaries and church planters took the reigns from the early disciples of Jesus. The result of this diaspora, empowered by the Holy Spirit, was the exponential growth of the church as it spread across the known world. Out of challenge came opportunity – in both cases, as the people of God were attentive to the Spirit of God.
We can draw both strength and hope from the history and example of faith-filled people who’ve gone before us during this current period of diaspora. Lament is of course always an appropriate response of grief and loss, and not to be overlooked nor quickly placated. Yet, rather than settle in to a paralyzed place of feeling displaced, with nothing to do about it; why not look upon this diaspora’s opportunities for God’s new thing to spring forth?
As the church has left the building, leaders/pastors/staff have been challenged to think about how to share ministry differently. Could it be that new expressions and roles are emerging that will continue with us in our faith practices? What new emphases and fresh expressions are catching the wind of the Spirit now, in these times? How is renewal beginning to happen during this season? Are Christ followers becoming more bold in how they welcome, invite and encourage friends and family to unite with their online worship services, bible studies, mission opportunities, and other forms of ministry? Is there an awakening to faith during pandemic that wasn’t here before?
Time will of course be the judge as this period of diaspora history is still being written. Nonetheless, I believe there is much from our past than can encourage and empower our present. I hope you, too, will choose not to dwell on displacement, but discern the new thing of God that’s ready to spring forth.