Searching for God on the Margins

Alan Arnold
Pinnacle Associate

Many, perhaps most, readers of this blog are both recipients and transmitters of the established church culture that once was dominant in North America. That’s certainly true of this writer. But since you are reading here, we assume that your perplexity, like ours, drives you to seek
understanding of American churches’ steady decline in influence and strength. We may be in a “back to the future” moment that can provide insight and direction. First, a brief look backwards is in order.

With the advent of Constantine’s merging of empire and Church came a shift in the locus of Christian recruits and energy. The Apostolic Church, with roots in soil that hosted the marginalized, had emulated Jesus’ concentration on announcing the good news to the poor and dispossessed. Christ’s message and resurrection was a direct challenge to the wealthy and powerful notwithstanding the few counted as early followers (e.g. Levi, Zacchaeus, Jairus). To an extent, this merger with imperial power and status sapped the Church of its vitality amongst those slighted and minimalized by society.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we find many re-discovering a mission field that offers the prospect of engaging more fully in God’s mission of bringing people to a knowledge of Christ.

The out-migration from our congregations of the Nones and Dones, while distressing to local and denominational numbers and budgets, has delivered us opportunity. This ironic twist is built into the decline of established Christianity in the U.S. revealing an opening to a once and future mission field. This is a lesson offered by the missional church conversation of the Post Modern Church.

Those active in the missional field call this locale Third Places, following home and workplace in standing but highly significant. Third Places are places where we spend time when we have time off – where people hang out with those with whom they are most comfortable. The missional church intentionally hangs with these folk in locations such as poker clubs, biker bars, skate parks, dog parks, etc.

One example is the mural ministry in the Mission District of San Francisco. Missionals work with city officials to locate bare outer walls that provide canvases for neighborhood graffiti artists. Together, missionals and artists imagine and design a work rich with social and political messages. After the wall is divvied up, artists go to work on each’s specific expression within the whole. The result is a neighborhood enhanced by large wall art as well as a civic spirit invigorated by communal action.

Another example is Joshua House in St. Louis. Starting as a club house for local bikers, Joshua House has evolved into an eclectic group which now includes couples, college students, and single moms. Sunday morning gatherings center around food, sometimes convening in an organic garden. The founder, Tim Cobillas, says, “Jesus went out and invited the tax collectors and outcasts to join him. We do the same.”

While few disciples are prepared culturally and emotionally to labor in God’s foreign vineyards, there are missional settings in every locale in which disciples can serve as ambassadors on the margins. Coffee shops, gymnasia, Habitat for Humanity sites, and food banks are all mission sites. None require seminary training; all are open to experimentation. The key offering of the missional church is presence and an absence of expectations. It is enough to simply bring the peace of Christ into settings that are a comfort to those who by chance or by choice are at a distance from the institutional Church. God will do the rest.

The harvest is still ripe and laborers are still few in number. Even so, the missional minded will find that God has already prepared for their work wherever they visit in Christ’s name.