Along the margins
Vibrant theology as well as Christian mission happens along church margins.
Yes, what takes place at the center is important. Councils, assemblies and conferences make decisions that may or may not nourish the body of Christ. The impact of those decisions is often felt for centuries.
The Amish Mennonite leaders of the 19th century met every year between 1862 and 1878 to answer questions and encourage each other in the faith. They stopped gathering, though, because they could not agree on the way forward. Those who were conservative in practice became known as “Old Order” Amish. Those who were progressive started Amish Mennonite conferences a few years later (1888-1893). Some of these merged with Swiss/German Mennonite conferences in the next generation, becoming a significant part of the Mennonite Church USA heritage.
Today it is not hard to see the impact of the Amish Mennonite leaders’ decisions at their “center” of 150 years ago. Both groups have thrived, but quite differently. The conservatives pointed the way to what has become one of the most visible and tightly-knit communal churches in the world, the Old Order Amish. The progressives embraced missions and higher education, leading to entities like MC USA, mission boards, colleges, Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference.
What if the conservatives and progressives of the 19th century had stayed together from 1878 on? We can only guess. Today’s Mennonite and Amish Mennonite churches would be very different. There would be no “Old Orders” of either Amish or Mennonites. The progressives would almost certainly not have “progressed” so rapidly.
What happens at the center of the church makes a difference, a difference that impacts it for centuries.
Mission, on the other hand, takes place along the margins of the church.
It could scarcely be otherwise, since mission happens at the personal and corporate intersections of followers of Jesus and those who are not yet. These are the edges of the church. Whether we live on these margins at home or abroad, our witness is somehow a matter of life on the edge.
Our margins are at least as important as our centers. Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8) directed them to the margins. There must have been many conferences in the Jerusalem church of the first generation, but we remember only the two that helped it to move beyond its center.
Many letters must have been written by first-generation church leaders, but we remember those addressed to new churches along the margins (Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, Rome). There were many local church elders in the earliest church, but we remember the servants who went to margins (Stephen, Philip, Peter, Paul).
We have only one Lord, whom we remember at the Lord’s Table because he went to the very margin of human existence and laid down his life (Heb. 13:12-14).
William Carey, the great Baptist pioneer of modern English missions, met Jesus when he heard a “nonconformist” preacher speak from those very verses in Hebrews. And three centuries before Carey, the Anabaptists were nothing if not a people who consciously lived on the margins between the church and the world. Indeed, we believe the margins to be where a faithful center is discerned most clearly. Perhaps, at the end of the day, this is the greatest gift of a truly mission-minded church.
R. Showalter, of Landisville, Pa., is chair of Mennonite World Conference’s Mission Commission.
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