According to Alan Roxburgh, the North American church in late modernity is firmly in liminal space…meaning that there is little that is firm or solid as we transition into a post-modern or post-colonial era. “Liminality is a term that describes the transition process accompanying a change of state or social position,” and our churches are feeling the rumbling of a massive cultural shift that is changing our ecclesiological geography.
In truth, the North American church has been on the margins for some time now, but it has been a comfortable arrangement. The church reigned over the public sphere and functioned as the chaplain of culture, Roxburgh says. But only in recent years has the church become aware that it is on the margins…the cultural quake has got the attention of many church leaders at long last. Many pastors, denominational leaders and faithful disciples are trying to gain their footing in this new decentered reality. They are surveying the aftermath of modernity and see that they are on the margins, and they are not alone. And the question of how to reimagine, retool and rebuild the church overwhelms the most thoughtful among them.
These North American church leaders have lost their point of reference. Like the tsunami that wiped away entire villages leaving nothing standing in its wake, many of the monuments of modernity have been taken out to sea. What is left is a territory with no recognizable landmarks. No wonder so many of us feel disoriented and at a loss. There are no longer any street signs to follow – we need a compass, a remnant of a map or, truth be told, the leading of the Spirit. Alert and thoughtful leaders are trying to chart a new course…but with a very vague map and an atrophied sense of direction. How can we find our way in liminal space? Who knows the terrain of the margins?
There is a hint of direction in Roxburgh’s text …look to the margins! He suggests that resources for navigating liminal space for the North American church will include reengaging Scripture and, to the current point, ‘…listening to the voices of those Christian groups that have long lived outside the center of culture.” He believes that the future direction of the church will be discovered as we engage with ‘dissenting churches’ and ‘ethnic groups.’ “They understand the position of the underling and the outsider. Liminality requires us to listen attentively to their ecclesiologies.” This is one of the most valuable insights gleaned from a reading of Roxburgh’s treatment of liminality – there are leaders who are capable of leading us and who know the terrain…because they have been operating on the margins for years.
What Philip Jenkins might add is that leaders from the margins are not only operating there, they are actually thriving! The growth of the churches in the Global South witness to the presence of effective leadership operating in marginal contexts. While Jenkins admits to a loose definition of Christianity for the purpose of his study, he does say that his definition includes those who would identify themselves as Christian and do believe Jesus to be the messiah. So we can include some of his insights as we contemplate those from Roxburgh…and see that there is a potential leadership treasury in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The expanding Christianity of the Global South should capture our attention; we must assume that where there is such growth, there are capable leaders leading the way.
“For whatever reason, Southern churches remain almost invisible to Northern observers,” Jenkins states. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Southern churches have also been out of the range of our vision. But that needs to change in order for North American churches to work their way through this liminal space. We need to see Southern churches and, in particular, Southern leaders with fresh eyes. Indeed, we might find they are a sight for our sore eyes! Tomorrow’s leaders might be leading today…in Africa! The ones who can mentor us on ministry from the margins might be in Latin America! Maybe we need to consider traveling to Nairobi or Lagos not as missionaries, but as those seeking to learn from our more experienced brothers and sisters in Christ.
But let’s return to some domestic matters first. Here in the United States, many denominations are struggling to survive. As regular church attendance wanes, leaders are looking for strategies to bring people back into the fold. Roxburgh would say that many of these renewal strategies and church growth seminars are attempts to return to the hay-day of modernity… which is not going to happen. Nonetheless, we know that denominations are working hard at trying to revive their ministries – and their numbers.
A large international demomination provides an interesting case study for Roxburgh’s premise. In recent years, their churches have diminished greatly in number. Their social services may be world renowned, but their average congregation is about 50 people. The greater reality is that out of 300 corps in the western states, maybe 2 dozen have more than 100 members, and of those about 85% are ethnic congregations. The national and territorial leadership have been trying everything to revive their corps – they have consulted with Willowbrook practitioners, they have tried the 40 Day of Purpose and they have more recently partnered with Natural Church Development. They are trying hard to get back to where they once were. However, they seem to be systematically overlooking their best resource…their own ethnic congregations which are flourishing. As a matter of fact, they are the only branch of the church that has any significant growth at all! Yet the leadership regularly overlooks them as models of growth and seldom recognizes or promotes these ethnic leaders. They seem unwilling to enlarge their leadership structure to include these leaders and the cultural nuances of their leadership styles. They are so strongly wedded to the Western way of leading and doing church that they refuse to adapt their understanding and structure to accommodate these ethnic leaders. A true multicultural organization would be nimble and flexible, allowing these various ethnic leaders to bring their expertise and experience to the table for all congregation leaders to learn and benefit. But by shunning true diversity, the organization languishes.
These ethnic leaders operate from the margins of the organization. They receive little fiscal support and are not often trusted to manage budgets of any consequence. They are seldom asked to be keynote speakers for any regional or national gatherings. When recruiting top level leadership, these leaders are invisible. When recruiting new pastors, these ethnic communities are often overlooked. While the denomination translates it materials (from a Western perspective) into Spanish, Korean and Chinese…it never translates any of the ethnic materials into English or invites their leaders to offer training to the organization at large. So while they function at the fringe of the organization, they have learned to grow disciples in that situation of structural disadvantage. With little resource at their disposal, they have located other wells to draw from. Without central support systems, they have learned how to flourish from the edge of this international, well known organization. The irony is that the seed to their own future success is in their own ranks…within their own reach. If they but valued these Latino, Korean and Chinese leaders they might be on a better trajectory today. They might be able to chart a way forward from modern modes, through this liminal space and into the post-modern era with Gospel glow. But will they heed the voices from the margin…
Philip Jenkins argues that the churches of the Global South are already having an effect, be it a small one, on Northern Christianity. The case study just presented demonstrates his thesis: those leaders who have been trained and influenced by the Southern churches are working within Northern structures and finding success. They are taking lessons learned in Korea and Mexico and ministering to communities in America. The South is already beginning to reinvigorate the North! Again, will we heed their voices and learn from them?
Another recent encounter with a large denominational leader demonstrates a similar scenario. The superintendent shared that in 2005, if you tallied all the churches they started in North America and then subtracted all those that shut their doors, there was a net growth of 1 church. In all of North America the denomination only gained one congregation – that is an astounding fact! But then he shared that all the news is not grim – in Bangladesh they had 149 successful church plants and not a single church closed its doors in 2005. This leads one to wonder why there is not a superintendent from Bangladesh! Somewhere in the midst of that phenomenal growth we must acknowledge that there are exceedingly capable leaders operating from the margins of another large denominational structure. We hope that we will see the church not only bless the growth in Asia, but that the leadership in North America will seek out these Bangladeshi leaders as keynote speakers for their conferences, trainers for their church planters and mentors for their pastors. I hope that the North American leaders befriend their Bangladeshi brothers and sisters, and that these friendships give birth to great conversations about this shared journey in Christ. This is how they can navigate through the liminal territory – there is hope within their own denomination!
These stories are not isolated events in the Western landscape. They are just the most recent ones that have come forward. But what they illustrate is that the church in the North is traversing some rocky terrain and we are at a loss for how to move forward with any degree of confidence. We often wonder if there is anyone out there who has managed this situation before, anyone who can offer insight born from seasoned experience. There are those who can articulate the quandary with great poignancy, but can anyone say that they have some ideas about what to try next? I think Alan Roxburgh offered great insight and kernel of hope – that the experienced leaders are out there. These friends will not coach us in the formation of new programs, that is the modern methodology, but they can host a conversation, offer suggestions, share personal antidotes from their church experience, and walk with us through this disorienting time. Their friendship could be the greatest gift for this season, if we can take the time to be with them and listen.
We must look beyond our borders to leaders from other places and with other languages. These leaders have often functioned off our radar screen and been on the downside of former colonial structures. It might be that the very local / indigenous leaders we once overlooked are now the seasoned mentors we need by our side. We might need to make some apologies, mend some fences and rethink our notions of true leadership in order to access the liminal leaders we desire. Are we willing to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord and our Southern brothers and sisters? Can we humbly ask for their leadership, seek their insight and follow their instructions and recommendations? Can we walk as friends together? Such humility may be the prerequisite for hope…if we can submit to the leadership of our friends from the Global South, there is hope that they can teach us how to lead our congregations through this liminal season.
These few readings and few observations have just given rise to this strong sense that there are leaders able to lead us through the liminal season in North America, but we need to look for them in new places. Maybe for a season we should discipline our eyes and not look to Western seminaries and graduate schools, or look for denominational leaders based in New York or Montreal or London, or recruit the insight of NGO leaders in the West. Maybe instead we should look to the margins of our own organizations, look to the edges of our denominations and to the Southern Hemisphere’s seminaries and churches for a new breed of leader. It would appear that there is hope in this strategy – hope at discovering liminal practitioners who can mentor us in the way forwad.
Roxburgh, A. J. (1997). The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, & Liminality. Harrisonburg, PA, Trinity Press Intl.
 Ibid. page 23.
 Ibid. page 11: “Late modernity is a decentered world…The church’s monopoly over the private center of religious life (can no longer last) because the center-margin structure of society (is) disappearing.”
 Ibid. page 46.
 Ibid. page 46.
 Jenkins, P. (2002). The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York, Oxford University Press. Page 2.
 Jenkins defines Global South as: Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Page 2.
 Ibid. page 88.
 Ibid. page4.
 Ibid. page 192. Jenkins points out that this reinvigoration often happens by immigration and evangelization. Our example is an illustration of the former, as these leaders have immigrated from the Global South and brought their Christianity with them.