George Thompson Jr. is Associate Professor of Leadership and Ministry Practice at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. The Alban Institute has recently published his Church on the Edge of Somewhere: Ministry, Marginality and the Future (2007). He offers a helpful tool for analyzing congregations in relation to their surrounding context by looking at two scales that he calls inner directed---empathetic; and conventionality---marginality. He believes that most American churches are inner directed and conventional. He says “such congregations do not make waves. What is known of them publicly is considered respectable enough, even if their theology and religious practice happen to possess some purported challenge to the status quo. Their actual participation in matters of the public arena is as second- or third-tier performers, politely and sometimes tepidly following someone else’s’ lead” (p.60).
All Saints’ would fall more of the time into his category of ‘empathetic conventionality’, “a congregation at home in its environment, yet deliberately reaches beyond itself in the name of Christ” (p.75f.) Thompson wants to see more churches exhibiting the characteristics of empathetic marginality, and points to the Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. as exhibit A. One such characteristic is that congregations of this type are ‘effective at articulating their edge’ (p.88) They follow their call in ways that mean that they do not fit comfortably into the world around them. They do not seek to be unconventional as a goal, but find themselves following their calling in clear ways that have the consequence of their not being quite comfortable in every respect for the ‘conventional’.
We could look at our congregational history in terms of those times when we have moved toward or beyond the margins of conventionality. We began as a Sunday School on the Northern edge of the city. Some think that we represented a mission to workers in a nearby pencil factory who were otherwise ignored. Later, when many churches were moving to new properties further out of town, we made a conscious choice to stay put and live and minister in a changing community. We could point to the days of civil rights and the ordination of women and how in both instances All Saints’ took a clear and early lead. Or we could look at the decision to let go of the night shelter and move into a new, more challenging, more costly and more radical ministry of Covenant Community. At such times we have moved more clearly to the margins, not simply offering assistance to ‘them’—whoever they may be—but becoming ‘them’ in some way, inviting them into ‘our’ midst and so being changed. Those are the times when we have moved toward empathetic marginality and every such move has led to some of our brethren and sistren choosing to go elsewhere, usually toward some more conventional and therefore comfortable place to be. Once in a while at such times we have people who decide that being ‘inner directed’ is really the most proper response to the gospel and we hear about how we should stay out of politics and spend more time teaching people about prayer and other ways in which they can be in relation to God.
It is not easy moving toward the margins. In the contextual education section that I help lead at the Candler School of Theology we have to remind each other on a regular basis that we do not seek to be marginal; we seek to be faithful. We do not seek to grow, we seek to be faithful to the calling we have been given. We do not seek to ‘win converts’, but to present the Good news of Christa and invite others to join us. We don not seek to manipulate others; we seek to be transparent and open in our commitments and so on.
It is not always easy to do the right thing. Alan Bennett captured it well after declining an honor from Oxford University in protest of their accepting money from Rupert Murdoch for the Rupert Murdoch Chair in Language and Communication. He wrote; “I wish I could say that this refusal leaves me with a warm feeling of having done the right thing, but not a bit of it. I end up, as so often when I have tried to get it right, feeling I’ve slightly made a fool of myself, so that I wonder whether after more momentous refusals martyrs ever went to their deaths not in the strong confidence of virtue but just feeling that they had somehow muffed it" (Untold Stories p.241). I think what he is writing about at one level is the power of convention, of fitting in, of staying within the norm to get along in life. Christians at their best are brave. Seeking to maintain convention for its own sake and ours is not brave.