Do we picture Jesus as a person on the margins? Progressive Christians do see him that way. Some evangelicals and fundamentalists do. Prosperity gospel advocates tend to place Jesus in the middle of everything promising great rewards for those who follow him. Many conservative evangelicals have adopted this stance too. Progressives typically see Jesus on the margins of society. I also see Jesus on the margins of the church.
Margins of The Church
Where is the focus of the leadership of your congregation or denomination? Does your church have an “in-crowd?” Do you see corruption due to cronyism or nepotism in how the church is led, the diocese, the synod, the conference? Pastors and progressive lay members try to get churches to reach out to people on the margins. Food banks, recovery ministries, and other forms of charitable outreach do these things. They are good deeds for some churches.
Apparently, the church, as an institution, cannot avoid putting someone within it on the margins. We talk about the outcast from the church especially when we are discussing issues of sexuality or gender identity. But what about those who are marginalized in other ways? We often marginalize people based on family structure, economic position, and personal ability. We have done better in dealing with some issues such as ableism. Yet, we still bring the world and its distinctions into the congregations.
Jesus in Your Church
It is often asked, “Would Jesus be welcome in your church?” Or we are asked, “Could Jesus preach from your pulpit?” My question for the church is, if Jesus visited your church where would he sit? Next time you are in worship ask yourself this question. If you normally sit toward the front, you may want to sit in the back to do this. My guess is someone will notice you being out of place. That may be your first indication of a problem.
During a meal at a church I often visit, I noticed all of our friends sit together. This is normal behavior for many of us. But this church has a recovery ministry. Many of the participants in that ministry sit off the the side of the dining room. It is easy to criticize others for ignoring people on the margins. Yet I was doing it too. I am one of “those people” who are served by the recovery ministry. I had to think about that.
The Small Margins of the Church
When I look at the churches that are considered successful — large attendance, large budget, large staff, and many services and programs, I know many within them are marginalized. Denominational leaders overlook this problem. The congregations are celebrated for many of their programs. Rightly so. But denominational leaders often marginalize smaller and medium-sized congregations. The ministries of these congregations on the margins serve too few people to receive attention and support. I know many of these congregations will die. But it won’t be because they did not try to survive.
The Model Is Broken
The service-center model of church needs to go. It must first leave our imaginations. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Would Jesus come to your church to be served? What seats would he choose? Wherever Christ chose to sit in your church, he would be there to worship. If he attended a church board meeting, he would ask questions most of us would find uncomfortable.
What should be the new model? I do not have that vision. I have preferences which come from the service-center model. But on the margins of the church itself — the small fellowships and communities that cannot do big things — will be where the vision comes. It often has in the past. I will patiently work for it.