Our ministry as a Marginal Mission Network has a dual focus: mobilizing the Church to the margins and building the church from the margins.
Meaningful engagement at the margins advances the Kingdom and builds the Church – at the margins, by bringing access to the Gospel and the community of the faithful – and away from the margins, because a fuller experience of Jesus’ presence invigorates the imagination of what the Church is and could be.
We’re called to marginal ministry, and, feel that this term best sums up what we do. But what does it mean?
It does NOT mean that we see ourselves or our service as being “not of central importance” or “close to the lower limit of qualification, acceptability, or function : barely exceeding the minimum requirements…” (God forbid!). So what are we talking about? What IS “marginal ministry”?
First, marginal ministry is Jesus ministry. It is ministry in the name of Jesus and ministry after the pattern of Jesus.
- It is ministry in the name of Jesus and ministry after the pattern of Jesus. Henri Nouwen’s book “In the Name of Jesus” has made a big impact on us. Our formulation of “marginal ministry” is simply a teasing out of some of its key emphases… particularly the path of Christian leadership as being one of “downward mobility.”
- We’ve immersed ourselves in the ethos of Philippians 2. The call to “consider others more important than ourselves” sounds rather tame when we are surrounded by people who look, speak, and act as we do. But around those who the world and its systems and its wisdom says are LESS valuable… that’s where it makes an impact. We can no longer “look down” on those upon whom the world looks down. We embrace the reality that Jesus’ emptying of his privileges as God, and coming as a servant was, in today’s language, divine Self-marginalization. And as Jesus was sent by the Father, we are sent by Jesus.
When we follow Jesus into the world – HIS world – we see him relating to this world, and all the people in it, “without margins.” Those whom society marginalized were a special relational focus of the Master. The differences remained… but the Savior, and those who stood with Him, now embraced and shared that marginal existence.
Secondly, marginal ministry is built on the conviction that Jesus’ presence is uniquely manifested at the places and among the people we consider marginal.
The margins are not places of weakness and brokenness – (that defines all of us “under the sun!”) – but sources of power and creativity. That’s where (and who) we want to be. This is not a new-fangled insight: this dynamic is as old as the Christian movement itself. Andrew Walls describes “the Christian story (as) serial; its center moves from place to place. No one church or place or culture owns it. At different times, different peoples…have become its heartlands…Christian history reveals the faith often withering in its heartlands, in its centers of seeming strength and importance, to establish itself…beyond its margins. It has a vulnerability, a certain fragility at its heart—the vulnerability of the cross, the fragility of the earthen vessel.”
What do we mean by “the margins”? The “margins” are created when those at the “center” (who have the power to do so) make an issue of certain forms of difference, not valuing them as diversity, but problematizing them, rendering them as things that turn us into “us” and “them.” We often marginalize those forms of difference that most acutely remind us of our own mortality, weakness, unworthiness… This process results in labeling (stigmatizing) others, which is then reinforced by stereotyping, the use of “constructed images” to obscure the human reality which actually unites us.
Why is a stranger strange? Because she is “not ‘us’”. Not one of us. Because we NORMALIZE ourselves. This is essentially idolatry, since we turn the image of God (which is Jesus) in us into the image of ‘me’ or ‘us’ (at what we consider our best).
HOW do we “normalize ourselves”? Our view of God becomes the “right” one – including doctrine becoming dogma. Our form of worship becomes the “only acceptable” form, the only thing God will accept. A “normal” Christian, a “normal person” is basically one who reflects our best characteristics, those things we see and value or desire most in ourselves.
WHY do we “normalize ourselves”? Out of FEAR. Particularly a “felt need” for control – not as much because we are (or want to be) “controlling”, but because of our “blessed rage for order” and fear of “chaos.”
We use our implicit understanding of this “self-normalization” to set “boundary conditions.” It initiates a process of building, and then maintaining walls and barriers. Once built, we can install checkpoints there… Are you sufficiently “like us” to be “one of us”? Then, you’re IN. Are you sufficiently “unlike us” to be “not one of us”? Then, you’re AT THE MARGIN.
And it’s a tragedy when “ministry” or “mission” is complicit in these processes of marginalization (when we see ourselves as “(in) the center”). Because when that happens, we find ourselves insulated from the presence of Christ that is manifested uniquely at the margins. In the “one true church” there IS NO CENTER (other than Christ). Marginal ministry begins from this perspective.
Our embrace of what we’re calling “marginal ministry” opposes marginalization with welcome with hospitality (philoxenia, literally loving the stranger). It’s an effort to bring this often overlooked (but yet critical) dynamic of the gospel to life in word and deed in today’s world:
- God in Christ extends welcome to us as strangers, invites us into the divine life, making us God’s family, God’s friends… apart from any consideration of individual or collective worth or merit.
- God’s act of extending welcome, hospitality, and friendship to us in Christ is what defines and grounds our identity, our dignity and destiny.
- God’s hospitality enables and calls us to extend creates hospitality to others. Divine hospitality elicits human hospitality.
- This divine welcome transcends the boundaries and limitations of our culture’s (and our church’s) expectations in such a way that God’s people must bear an identity that is, by the world’s standards, stigmatized, since it includes people who would ordinarily be outcasts, marginalized, or considered less valuable or worthless.
- In other words, God’s hospitality calls into being a community that embodies this boundary-shattering welcome both in its social makeup and in its practices of continuously extending God’s welcome to the strangers, the outcasts, the vulnerable, and the stereotyped, the marginalized in our context.
THAT’s precisely what “marginal ministry” is about!
Marginal ministry is not about helping “poor unfortunate souls” (though there are poor people on the margins who are unfortunate and they do have souls and we can help). Nor is it primarily for the BENEFIT of the stranger (though there is, one hopes, great blessing to them). Marginal ministry builds the church. How?
- Consider how “ramps” constructed to “benefit” “them” result in greater utility (blessing) to many: It’s better for everyone. Marginal ministry employs Universal Design thinking to strengthen and beautify the Bride. We’re not just talking physical access to building, but access to community, to relationship. Not just physical ramps but social ramps.
- Perhaps the greatest benefit of marginal ministry is its deconstruction of our own “self-normalization”. Because seeing ourselves as “the measure” DISMEMBERS the Bride. And the “restricting” these walls and borders impose renders the Bride ANORECTIC.
Marginal ministry is about strengthening and beautifying the Bride – reimagining it as the “new” “US” (formerly the “old us” plus “old them”)… and working together to bring that dream of the bride into reality.
Marginal ministry embraces a marginal perspective and positions itself at the margins because Jesus is uniquely active there. It renounces ministering from the “center,” because that’s where we get caught up in “othering” instead of building the body of Christ. We won’t traffic any longer in paradigms that retain the “us” and the “them” labels that marginalization attaches to people, to communities. As Jesus did for us, we “own” the status of “marginal people of God,” so that we can empower others and build the church. As Philippians 2 teaches us: Patterned after Christ’s humility, we identify with the marginalized. And patterned after Christ’s obedience, sacrifice for the marginalized.
We rely too much on the same strengths that enable us to “norm and “other”… and not enough on the power that is perfected in weakness. As long as we remain “settled in the center,” such a Church is scarcely unimaginable.
Come dream with us.