Leadership and Liminality

“Does your community need a church?”

A few months ago I asked a well respected Australian social researcher Mark McCrindle to speak at our church on the topic ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore’. The idea was to convey through  statistics and discerning emerging trends in the Australian landscape, just how different a society we live in today compared to even twenty years ago. One thing that he pointed to was just how displaced and marginalised the church had become in Australian society. When through a survey a sample of the population was asked ‘What do you think your community needs more of?’, people responded by saying that more parks, shopping centres, dog walking parks, cafes were desired but hardly any mentioned churches.

When people were asked about what they thought of the church the responses that came back were something in the order of ‘hypocritical’, ‘focused on money’, ‘power’, ‘abuse’ and other labels that were quite unfavourable. One comment that Mark made which nailed the church’s irrelevancy in our culture will stay with me. He said that in a focus group as they spoke about religion and the church, one person said ‘Look, it’s not that we don’t care on purpose it’s just that we don’t care.’ For me that summed it up. The church is so irrelevant that it’s not so much the fact that people are engaged in a battle with religion but the fact is that people have given up and are ignoring the church. It just does not factor into their everyday lives.

For some of us as Christ followers we have discerned this increasing marginalisation for some time. For others it is like a splash of cold water to the face. In the same way that Dorothy in the wizard of Oz wakes up to find that she is no longer in her safe, comfortable home town of Kansas but in the topsy turvy land of Oz, some Christians today are only waking up to the truth that the place of the church in our culture today is no longer at the centre but on the margin. I find this process of ‘waking up’ fascinating as I observe some Christians fighting to retain the remnants of Christendom.  One example was recently when our Prime Minister surprisingly found himself engaged in an exegetical battle in a public forum regarding same sex marriage. A pastor questioned him regarding his position and our Prime Minister responded with a sharp and dismissive response. Social media the next day went berserk of course but some of the responses displayed remnants of Christendom. One comment for example was that more respect should have been shown to a Pastor. But in a culture where Christendom has ended should a pastor expect respect?

Our response to the marginalisation of the church, in Australia anyway, seems to be that we vacillate between a normative posture of Christendom, with such comments as ‘Pastors should deserve more respect’ and those who discern with eyes wide open that this culture of Christendom has ended.

That tension that we are living in today, that is the messy gap between the death of Christendom and the emergence of a very new positioning of the church, is a liminal space. And it dawned on me a while back that every church leader in the West is today lead


Richard Rohr defines liminality as ‘… “Limina” the Latin word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. Liminal space , therefore is a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is where you have left the “tired and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else…it is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun.’ This notion of an ‘in between place’, of not being able to go back to what you once where but at the same time still not sure of what you are becoming tomorrow is surely a place of ‘no fun’ as Rohr states.ing in this time of liminality. All of us. Every single one.

Many of the reactions that we have as church leaders to leading in this liminal space are in response to the disorientation, dislocation and marginalisation that we are experiencing. Some of us, even though we may not know it respond to this marginalisation with a warrior posture and articulate our engagement with the world using battle terminology. We embrace or perhaps grasp at a binary philosophy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We worship harder, sing louder and proclaim that the ‘gates of hell will not prevail against the church’. We spiritualise our reaction and then pull down the curtains nestling in comfort into our fortress like huddles. Or perhaps some of us  take a more proactive approach by trying harder to ‘fix’ the problem. This is what Alan Roxburgh in his book Introducing the Missional Church, calls the ‘Developmental’ reaction. He says ‘A Developmental church believes it can grow and reach people in the new space by improving on what it is already doing. This attractional perspective focuses on producing programs and content that attract people to the church. The social system inside the church is one that assumes most of what they are doing is right but it’s just not being marketed well…The developmental church believes the issues of mission and ministry are solved by improving and building on the basic paradigm out of which it already operates and doesn’t even recognise its assumptions until they are pointed out’. I think most of us as leaders have been operating in this more proactive yet ultimately ineffectual position for some time now until we encounter that ‘wake up’ moment which beckons us towards the unchartered territory of the margins. The wake up moment might come as we experience church decline, it may come as we become aware of our irrelevancy, it may come through experiencing sheer exhaustion due to the demands of ministry today or it may come as we connect with a kind of longing inside of us which is the Spirit whispering those with ears to hear that invitation to embark on a new adventure with God as he helps us to step out of the old and into the new.

Because the fact is that God is always at work to do new things around us and while we can discern a dislocation and marginalisation we can also discern the move of his Spirit calling us to participate with him on his mission today. But we will need to let go of those old paradigms in order to truly see the reality and hope that God is at work in the church today. Walter Brueggemann, in Spirituality of the Psalms, says that our resistance to change is so profound and imbedded in us.

He says ‘The dominant ideology of our culture is committed to continuity and success…and is also resistance to genuine newness and real surprise. It is curious but true, that surprise is as unwelcome as is loss. And our culture is organised to prevent the experience of both.’ It is too true that we are organised in our lives and in our churches around order, control and predictability. We fear mess and surprise as Brueggemann states. I know this because as a leader I rely on predictability in church in order for its success and management. But this is a negation of the Spirit who does new things within the people of God.

The liminal space is the perfect place even though it is uncomfortable, to experience and recognise loss and surprise that are characteristics of the work of God in the life of his body, the church. We grieve in this space about the loss of the old and this is something that should not be denied or hurried. We need to listen to the people we lead as they struggle with their young adult children who are ‘leaving the church’, we need to listen to the voices of those who are reacting to the liminal by fearfully holding on to old paradigms, we need to hear those who say they increasingly lack trust in ministers, we need to be honest with those who are doubting that their faith will survive in this space. It is all valid in a time of liminality. Grief is a normal response. Anger is valid too. Disorientation is the norm. Doubt is a given……yet so is hope.

Sacred Space

Liminality is also a called  a ‘sacred space’. If we take this stance of hope then we realise that even in the midst of the tossing and turning of the times we must take our shoes off for we stand on holy ground recognising that God is at work right in the liminal where we live and minister. Rather than looking back we turn instead to the God who calls us out of Ur and towards a place where we do not know where we are going yet it is good because he is with us. We move towards a God who can do and likes to do surprising things that unexpectedly exhibit signs of his presence as his kingdom breaks in, sometimes loudly, other times, most times, secretly and quietly. This is one aspect of the liminal space that has challenged me deeply as a leader of a church. Putting it in blunt leadership terms, this liminal space challenges my view of what I call successful as I lead my church. It teaches me that the surprising and quite work of God in my daily life of service with my brothers and sisters who I lead as a pastor, is something that I must view with awe. It humbles me that God is in the mess, the margins, the disorientation and even in the perceived irrelevancy of the church. Douglas John Hall in an essay called “Ecclesia Crucis: The Theologic of Christian Awkwardness” says this, ‘Our role as Christians, as the people of the cross within that world, is precisely what Jesus said it was; To be salt, yeast, and light. All of our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were modest. A little salt, a little yeast, a little light. Christendom tried to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself to be the object of God’s expansive grace, and not the beloved world. Today we are constrained by the divine Spirit to rediscover the possibilities of littleness. We are to decrease that Christ may increase. We cannot enter this new phase without pain for, truly we have been glorious, in this world’s own terms. It seems to us a humiliation that we are made to reconsider our destiny as “little flocks”, as “merely” salt, yeast, and light. Can such a calling, we ask, be worthy of the servant of the Sovereign of the universe?’

Liminality has taught be to answer ‘yes’ to this question as I seek to lead in this sacred space that we inhabit today.

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