21. At the Margins

April 14th, 2012

The church fulfills its mission at the margins of the congregation, where those who actively follow Christ encounter those who are not a part of the community of faith. Picture a congregation as concentric circles. In the center circle are the pastor, the leaders and staff, and key volunteers who plan and think and pray and act to lead the church. Farther out is the circle that includes other leaders, including teachers, volunteers, and helpers, and then another circle for those who attend and participate in worship, work projects, and Bible studies. The next larger circle includes all those who attend with less consistency.

When we reach the edge of the farthest circle, we discover on the other side of the margin the people who are not part of the community of faith. The church fulfills its mission at that edge, where those who belong to the community engage and interweave their lives with those outside the community. There, at the margin, we fulfill our mission, through service and justice ministries—helping, serving, relieving suffering; and through our sharing the goods news of Christ—seeking, inviting, welcoming, and nurturing faith. In a missional church, the boundary is wonderfully permeable, and members reach across the edge and new people easily enter into the faith community. The mission of the church is not fulfilled in church planning meetings composed of church members talking with other members about church business, although those meetings may be important to strategize about the mission. The margin is where the action is.

Jesus focused his attention on the margins of the community, usually over the objection of the religious leaders of his day and the counsel of his followers. Nearly every Gospel story involves Jesus speaking with the marginalized: calling tax collectors, healing lepers, engaging a woman at the well, interceding on behalf of a woman accused of adultery, receiving children, challenging money-changers, praying with a thief on the cross. We have no stories of Jesus attending meetings! When he does gather his disciples, he draws their attention to the people at the margins: “just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family . . .” (Matthew 25:40 NRSV).

Leading involves redirecting the attention of the congregation toward the margins where we fulfill the mission of Christ. Leading means outward-focused thinking.

Early Methodist conferences refreshed pastors and laity in their attention to the mission field. The mission was not fulfilled at conference; rather, conference was a means of reinvigorating one another for continued engagement with the mission field.

We could describe the general church with concentric circles as well, with bishops and general agencies and general conference somewhere in the center, then annual conferences and their ministries farther out, and then congregations where the mission is fulfilled.

No offense to bishops or conference staff, but the mission of the church is not fulfilled in conference offices. Conference offices don’t feed the homeless, counsel the bereaved, or host divorce recovery groups. Rather, conference leaders strengthen congregations to fulfill the mission. In effect, we help people to help people. Congregations don’t exist to support the conference; the conference exists to start and strengthen congregations and to develop the leadership streams to make that possible. We lead congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ.

Many general agencies are one more step removed from the locus of the mission than the conference is. The General Board of Discipleship or the United Methodist Publishing House do not teach people the faith; they teach people to teach people. The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry does not lead people to faith, it prepares people to lead people to faith. Other agencies, such as the General Board of Global Ministries, provide channels and connections throughout the world that expand our understanding of the neighbors our congregations are called to serve.

Sometimes we prepare reams of petitions to present at conference sessions in the belief that if the petitioners can win a majority vote of approval for their cause, we have fulfilled the mission of the church. But the mission of the church is not accomplished at meetings, no matter how large; or by petitions, no matter how well-crafted; or by changes in the budget, no matter how well-motivated. At best, these are preparatory. At worst, they represent avoidance behaviors that keep us focused inwardly on the organization.

Within a mile of your church, an elderly person lives alone, feeling abandoned and isolated. Within a mile of your church, a couple struggles to strengthen the last threads of love that bind them together. Within that radius, children live with no one to invite them to the spiritual life or to the community that can help them discover God’s grace. A middle class family struggles under the anxieties of losing a job, and an immigrant family lives in fear. A teenager contemplates suicide. Within a mile of your church, dozens of people wrestle with personal addictions related to alcohol, prescription drugs, or illegal substances. Hundreds of people carry burdens of unresolved guilt and grief and despair, and do not belong to sustaining communities who surround them with love. Hundreds more wonder about the purpose and meaning of their lives, and do not have the vocabulary to express their inner longings and searching as spiritual hunger.

The people at the margins of our church represent the mission field entrusted to us by God. They are the reason your church exists. Your church is the means of grace God uses to reach them. And by the grace of God, most of our churches are imbued with the vision and resources to engage far beyond one mile, but to reach across the community and around the world.

The Call to Action invites us to redirect the flow of energy and resources toward increasing the number of vital congregations that make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This is not about institutional survival, but about missional renewal. Church leaders are trying to move the focus of a large, complex organization from the center to the margins once again, to draw our attention to the mission field. Local congregations provide the primary arena through which God works to reach those at the margins in the spirit and way of Jesus.


What ministries of your congregation reach the people at the margins? What changes of attitude, behavior, and focus cultivate a deeper sense of mission?

What redirection of conference resources, personnel, and energy might increase the number of congregations that reach out? How does your conference prepare and form people for outward-focused ministry?

To delve deeper, read Luke 15:1-7. What does this passage mean for people at the margins?

Some excellent resources for congregations desiring to become more outward focused: Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge by Rudy Rasmus and Dottie Escobedo-Frank; Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations by Gil Gendle and Alice Mann, and The Race to Reach Out: Connecting Newcomers to Christ in a New Century by Michael Coyner and Douglas Anderson.

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