In The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality, Roxburgh expands on three interrelated points:  Marginalization, Liminality, and Missionary Ecclesiology.  He defines marginalization as what the Church experienced in the past few hundred years as the emerging Modern World forced the Church from the center of society/community to the margins.  Liminality is “the transition process accompanying that change [of] state or social position”, and missionary ecclesiology explains how the Church today needs to become more missional – missionary-like – in its interaction with culture.

The Church experienced marginalization and adapted quite amiably to it.  When pushed from the center of society, it found its new home in the new suburbs.  It sought to regain its status as the center of something:  instead of being at the center of the community, it reformed itself as the center of private piety.  The Church took as its own modernity’s value of individualism and effectively became the center of personal, private spirituality.

This marginalization took its toll on the role of the pastor as well.  In the age of Christendom, the pastor is teacher, professional (because of training), and acolyte (“dispens[ing] religious care and functions. p17).  With this push to the margins and the slow inevitable invisibility that the Church acquired as a result of not being in the center, the pastor evolved into a role that reflects modernity’s values.  In order to be relevant to the culture, instead of offering what only the Church can offer, the pastor role became counselor, businessperson, interpersonal coach, therapeutic clinician, marketer, etc. – all terms that relate well to our culture’s world, but which have little meaning in the Church.  Henri Nouwen writes of the danger of pursuing relevance in his book, In the Name of Jesus.  The Church should not be about making itself relevant to the culture it is in, though it is a product of its culture; instead it should offer what it alone can offer:  community, belonging, salvation.

The first marginalization – the push to the suburbs and private spirituality –  altered the Church.  What the Church experienced during that upheaval is called liminality.  Liminality is limbo:  that in-between-ness that is experienced in the process of transition.

Liminality can be best understood as a two-stage process.  The first stage, the loss of central status, explains the Church’s transition from center of society to its margins.  The second, the loss of center, relates to the whole of culture’s transition from modernism to postmodernism – the transition from society’s having a center to not having a center.

Generally, the first response of individuals or groups in the throes of liminality is to attempt to reclaim the former position.  In the case of the Church, its response was to recover their place at the center.  Since it was impossible to return to its former place as center of society, it adapted to its new marginalized surroundings, becoming the center of individual spirituality.

However, since the second stage of liminality indicates a loss of center, it is impossible for the Church to return to its former place or even to retain the center of spirituality.  The center of society was lost when several things collided:  Fact became separated from value, science from ethics, objectivity from aesthetics.” (9)  The center, previously built upon moral, political and religious centers, gradually dissolved.  There is now no moral center (relativism), political center (fragmentation and partisan nature), or religious center (physical or spiritual – the church building is no longer the center of the town nor is it the center of private spirituality).  The Church has lost even its central place in spirituality because there is, in our culture, no longer a consensus about meaning and purpose, values and directions.  People are largely skeptical about the Church’s claim to this spiritual center.  In Roxburgh’s words, “there are no longer any grand theories of the whole [meta-narratives].”  Without this consensus there can be no center.  “What is absent is any sacred or secular center [of society].” (12, emphasis mine).

But for the Church, Roxburgh insists, “this is great opportunity.  It “offers the potential for a fresh missionary engagement in a radically changing social context.” (27)  However, in order for the church to seize this opportunity for missionary engagement, it must learn to listen to churches already living outside the centers of cultures around the world.  It would be enlightening for us to study churches in countries in which the Church is not central.  In northern Thailand, Pastor Timothy Tang has planted nearly two dozen churches in less than three years.  Seven have been planted since the Spring of 2007.  Yet, his ‘home’ church has only 30 or so members.  Pastor Timothy lives in a society where the numbers of Christians hovers around 1% of the population, and so he engages that culture, that society, with a missionary attitude.  We have much to learn from him.

Finally, Roxburgh focuses on missionary ecclesiology – having a missionary attitude towards the culture we live in.  Since the Church is no longer the center, and especially since there is no single center of society, the Church needs to somehow permeate the culture.  He suggests this takes place through “communitas” and in defining the pastor’s role as poet, prophet and apostle.

The Church “communicates the values of the dominant culture…For example, good citizenship.” (62)  But the Church is responsible for doing more than just call for good people to continue being good.  It, through communitas, must create an “alternate vision for the social and political issues facing the people.” (53)  It needs to take the old religious symbols and breathe new life and meaning into them (54) through a careful, intentional, and transformational bricolage of formerly-disconnected religious elements.  Leaders must be grounded in the “lived experiences of the past” and “formed by tradition rather than culture.” (57)

But though the pastor and church need to be formed by this tradition rather than culture, the pastor can only lead (and the congregation follow effectively) insofar as he/she intentionally encounters this culture. (66)  The Pastor must act as poet by remembering tradition and also articulating the experience of those fragmented, alienated and lonely.  He/she must enter the culture, give voice to the needs in it and help the Church hear God speaking through these marginalized voices. (58-59)

As prophet, the pastor must help the Church hear to Gospel afresh, to hear “the Word from the outside [not something that we control] that gives a new vision and fresh definition to being God’s people.” (61)  As apostle, the pastor is to be in the world, not just in the church.  “Separations are not acceptable in a missionary situation.” (63)  As apostle, the pastor leads the church as a servant on its way into the world.  He/She is no longer the counselor, clinician, businessperson, coach, marketer, etc., but leader of a movement – leading the Church, the people, into the world as missionaries.

Though I’ve enjoyed the ideas discussed in this book, I’m left with a few questions:  This book was written ten years ago.  How has the Church’s and society’s situations changed?  Has this book been prophetic?  Is Liminality the way of Christianity in the United States?  And, if the Church realizes it is no longer the center of anything, what is the new direction for the church?  How do we call forth a new community in the midst of “individualized and privatized spirituality?” (55).





3 responses to “Liminality

  1. Hi Josh….
    It’s Carol. Really appreciated reading your post — well done! Your synopsis on the changes in the pastor role are well said. I was wondering if you saw the transition and the role of the pastor — poet/prophet/apostle as helpful the changing pastoral role or if you think it confuses things for those taught to pastor in the therapeutic model (or expected to operate in the model)? How would a poet/prophet/apostle framework work in your church or another. What are your thoughts of taking elements of our reading from Bretherton being immersed in the Christian tradition and contemplation of the scriptures — focusing on immersement and translation (p. 47 from Chapt. 2 reading) — is the “secret” then to do an old thing well? (also from Bretherton, p. 47)? Again excellent post and thought provoking questions.

  2. There is certainly confusion for those of us in the “pastoral care” mindset, especially when we’re gifted in that area. However, the poet and apostle mindsets were most helpful, pointing the way to engagement with modern/postmodern culture. I especially appreciated the poet’s role: to feel and listen to the angst in our community and to give voice to that within our church circle, and then to allow ourselves to hear God’s call to us from that angst. That is a powerful picture for me. It helps us see God ‘out there’ and not simply ‘in here’.

    Roxburgh touches on the need for being grounded in Christian Tradition, Scriptures and contemplation (p57). One thing he emphasizes is that leaders in the luminality stages need to be grounded in Christian Tradition. I cannot agree more. This seems fundamental to not being overcome, yet at the same time engaging, culture.

  3. I agree with you — when I read the pastor/poet it speaks to a powerful role especially during liminality. The more I think about the readings we did earlier they are all fitting together (which takes me back into those books). Without affirmation and grounding in our Christian tradition the anxiety in liminality will cause even long-term Christians to become overwhelmed. The voice of the pastor/poet will be a voice needed…..May the Lord sustain you…

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