Living on the Margins

By Stuart Murray

The Church on the Margins

As the new century dawns and Christians in Britain survey the landscape, it is surely evident to almost all of us that the church is in a very different situation today from where it was at the start of the last century. Though some sections of the population, especially in the inner cities, had long been alienated from the churches, and though there had been for some decades already a steady decline in church attendance, the church in 1900 still operated as an institution at (or at least near) the centre of the social and cultural life of the nation. The church in the year 2000 is no longer anywhere near the centre. We wake up in this new century as members of a community on the margins.

Updated church attendance figures were published earlier this year. These are not entirely discouraging and reveal some significant changes in patterns of churchgoing that will repay careful reflection. But the figures make clear, as all previous surveys have done, that fewer people are participating in church life and that the church is becoming ever more marginal in society.

Of course, surrounded by fellow Christians in a thriving local church or at a festival, we can try to maintain the facade. We can sing triumphant songs, pray boldly, make pronouncements on social issues and plan exciting new programmes. We can pretend we are still at the centre rather than on the margins. Or at least we can for a while. But gradually our more thoughtful and honest members begin to slip away, discouraged by our unwillingness to emerge from the ghetto and face up to reality.

But, even if we do sneak a glimpse outside and see how far away from the centre we now are, and even if we resist the strong temptation to close our eyes to this, we can so easily look for a quick-fix solution. This is not surprising, for we are influenced by our "instant results" culture. Short-termism plagued many churches in the 1990s. The magic date, 2000, was used to jump-start all kinds of programmes that were poorly conceived, failed to probe deeply enough into their context, and delivered much less than they promised. They did not turn the tide, which is still going out.

One popular quick-fix solution is activism: another decade of evangelism, more church planting, a new community action programme. Another response is to jump on a bandwagon: finding an approach that appears to be working elsewhere and presenting this to a weary, suspicious but good-hearted congregation as the answer for your context too. Equally popular is prayer for revival, which some continue, despite all the false alarms, to promise is just around the corner.

What these solutions have in common is an expectancy that within a few years, certainly no longer than a decade, the tide will have turned and the church will be holding centre-stage again, or at least well on the way back to this coveted position. It is hard to know whether to be more impressed by the grace of congregations that adopt such solutions, or their gullibility.

But what if there is no quick-fix? What if none of these - or any other - solutions will make any significant difference in the next twenty, fifty, one hundred years? What if the church remains on the margins throughout this century and into the next one? Revival is a harvest term. But what if we are nowhere near harvest time yet? Is this why the returns for our efforts are so small? What if our task over the next few decades is to break up the soil, sow fresh seeds and water them carefully?

The Church in Post-Christendom

During the twentieth century, we witnessed the final years of the Christendom era in Western Europe. This era can be traced back to the fourth century, when Constantine I adopted Christianity as the imperial religion and brought the churches in from the margins to the centre. After 300 years of life on the margins, years of exciting growth but uncertainty, insecurity and struggle, Christians had an opportunity to work from the centres of power, to exercise influence throughout society, to revise the laws, to build magnificent cathedrals, to teach the thousands who followed the emperor into the now respectable churches. Surely this was revival! Amazed church leaders celebrated the triumph of the church over the empire, the victory of Christianity over rival faiths. Some of the more thoughtful leaders realised there would be a price to pay for this and wondered if the price might be too high, but most revelled in their new positions of influence and wondered if the millennium had arrived.

Over the next few centuries, the system known as Christendom developed, in which the church was at the centre of society as a major landowner, guardian of morality and unquestioned spiritual authority. Church attendance was compulsory, as was tithing, and dissent was not tolerated in a society where almost everyone was regarded as Christian. Christendom had many positive features, but it was also fundamentally and frequently oppressive. The church in the Christendom era was wealthy, settled and conformist. Being a Christian meant believing the right things and behaving as a loyal citizen. Mission in the Christendom era relied heavily on inducement and coercion.

The church was at the centre, its spiritual and moral authority backed where necessary by the physical and legal authority of the state. But on the margins were many who felt alienated. Movements of dissent arose periodically, usually among the poor. Critical of the wealth and power of the church at the centre, protesting against the corruption they saw, these maligned and persecuted groups called the church back to a different way of being church. Rediscovering the teaching of Jesus, they suspected that when the church came in from the margins to the centre, the radical Jesus had been found to be too disturbing and had been pushed out from the centre to the margins. The Christendom system was too strong for these groups to have much immediate impact, but they at least kept alive a persistent vision of an alternative to the status quo.

Centuries later, under the sustained onslaught of the movements known as renaissance, reformation, enlightenment, industrialisation and urbanisation (to name but a few), Christendom has finally crumbled. The sixteenth-century Reformation initially did no more than break up the monolithic Christendom of previous centuries into several competing mini-Christendoms. Their contemporaries, the Anabaptists, took on the mantle of earlier dissident movements, attempted to restore Jesus to the centre, and urged more radical change. Christendom itself, they insisted, was the problem - not just doctrinal errors or ethical abuses.

The Christendom system survived the upheaval of the sixteenth century, but the seeds of its destruction had been sown. By the middle of the twentieth century, alert senior church leaders from mainstream traditions were publicly acknowledging the end of Christendom and starting to imagine what life would be like in post-Christendom. There were calls for the church to be separated from the state, for changes to the parish system, and for new approaches to baptism. Some welcomed the emerging culture as an opportunity for the church to rediscover itself and its calling. A few even suggested the marginalised Anabaptist tradition might have a contribution to make in this new environment.

Vestiges of Christendom remain in the public consciousness and in anachronistic laws and customs, but vestiges is what they are. We live today in a post-Christendom society. This is a complex society - plural, secular, multi-religious, technological, postmodern - but not Christian. And in this society, the churches are again on the margins, as they were in the early centuries.

Coming to terms with this reality is crucial if we are to avoid despair, hyperactivity and empty promises. Post-Christendom is a new missionary challenge. We have not been this way before and we are not yet sure how to respond, or even how to think. It is different from pre-Christendom (though we can learn from the experiences of churches on the margins in the first three centuries). It is different from Christendom: what “worked” then may not work now, or even make sense. And we cannot go back or reinvent Christendom, even though many long to do so. One of the things (though not the only thing) that concerns me about the current emphasis on revival is that this is a Christendom concept, calling us back to a past experience rather than on into God’s unknown future.

Post-Christendom is not an easy environment for Christians. Nor will the transition from Christendom ways of reacting be quick or painless. There is much to unlearn. There are new attitudes and strategies to discover. We can no longer think, speak or act as if we were still at the centre. Accepting our situation on the margins will be an important starting point. This will give us a fresh orientation, a changed perspective and a new humility. We will still worship and pray, but with a new tone and focus. We will still evangelise, but with a new blend of boldness and sensitivity. We will still work for justice and care for our community, but with a new understanding of the issues.

And we will settle down for the long haul. We will never lose the note of urgency as we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, but we will no longer assume that we know fully what we are praying for. We will continue to testify faithfully, by word and deed, to the unchanging gospel, but we will pray for discernment as we listen to our culture and ask what the gospel means in this context. Rather than despairing of a delayed harvest, we will dig deep, sow seeds and water them patiently, rejoicing in signs of early growth without succumbing to the temptation to confuse these with the full harvest. And, as we do these things, we will begin to sense the excitement of this time and respond to the challenge of following God’s Spirit into this new century and this new era.

Resources for Life on the Margins

A vital task as we enter the third millennium is to discover new ways of being church that operate from the margins, do not require as much institutional support, are less grandiose and expensive to maintain, abandon an inappropriate moral majority stance in favour of a prophetic vocation, and embody the missionary ethos appropriate in post-Christendom. But where do we look for resources as Christians in post-Christendom, as churches on the margins?

Not surprisingly, I believe that one of the places we should look to is the Anabaptist tradition. For nearly five centuries this tradition has offered other ways of thinking and living than those which characterised Christendom. Perspectives on economics, truth-telling, violence, community, mission and discipleship that were marginalised during the Christendom era now make good sense to growing numbers of Christians in post-Christendom. Above all, the Anabaptist emphasis on the centrality of Jesus and the determination within this tradition to take seriously his teachings may point the way to creative and imaginative expressions of faithful discipleship that will challenge the post-Christendom assumption that Christianity is boring, predictable and passé.

But the Anabaptist tradition is also the heir of earlier marginal movements - Lollards, Waldensians, Hussites and others - whose convictions were similar but whose writings were mainly destroyed by opponents in the era before printing. As such it points back to a long legacy of dissent from Christendom and alternative thinking and practices. Christendom was not the full picture. There were other ways of following Jesus and of being church that might yet inspire and help us today.

Further back still are the churches of the first three centuries, whose experience on the margins of society and whose nearness in time to Jesus and the apostles offer insights and perspectives that may challenge and encourage us. We might also learn from the experience of the Donatist church in North Africa in the early decades of Christendom. "What has the emperor to do with the church?" asked Donatus, representative of those who would resist the Christendom system. "Compel them to come in!" ordered a frustrated Augustine as later Donatists refused to bow to persuasion to join the church at the centre.

Then there are the other churches and traditions outside the boundaries of Christendom - the Celtic movement in the West to which many are looking today for resources and inspiration, and the much less familiar Nestorian movement in the East. Church history is so often told from a European perspective and from the centre that we can neglect what was happening on the margins. Some historians have suggested that during the Middle Ages there were more Nestorian Christians in Asia than Catholics in Europe! But we draw so little on this tradition.

It is not that there is nothing for post-Christendom Christians to learn from centuries of Christendom. There are wonderful resources here, however we might judge the system itself. But it may be that we should be looking especially to the margins for clues as to how we live and witness to Jesus in this new environment. These margins may be the dissenting movements mentioned above. They may be movements of the poor and marginalised in the global Christian community. They may be churches and mission initiatives on the margins of our own society.

Above all, a church on the margins refuses to despair because we worship a God who throughout history and in Scripture has frequently chosen to break in from the margins rather than out from the centre. Rather then pining nostalgically for the good old days at the centre, we may choose to accept the freedom and struggle of life on the margins, learn from others in similar circumstances, discover new ways of being church and wait with expectation for what God will do next.