Church, Leadership and Liminality 2

We are continuing discussion of Alan Roxburgh’s fascinating and important little book  The Missionary, Congregation, Leadership and Liminality

Here’s Roxburgh’s take on what’s going on behind the massive cultural changes that are radically impacting the church in the West – and I’d argues Ireland is particularly deeply affected because Christendom was so deeply entrenched here.

Ever since the rise of the Enlightenment, Christendom there has been a gradual process of the disestablishment of the church by the secular world. The church moved from the centre to the periphery of public culture. But here’s an important point with which I agree – until recently this gradual marginalisation has not felt too threatening or alarming. Christianity, Roxburgh argues, renegotiated its place in modern society, retreating to the privatised world of individual faith and flourished there.

I agree with him because this was my experience as I reflect back on growing up within the evangelical sub-culture of Northern Ireland. Don’t get me wrong – I have a huge sense of gratitude for much of that experience. But in the midst of a bitter sectarian conflict that engulfed the state for decades hardly ever did you hear a sermon about faith and politics or what it meant to follow Jesus in a context of violent ethnic strife. The evangelical sub-culture was vibrant but seemed to have little to say to the world ‘out there’. That is why when ECONI started so many welcomed it with enthusiasm.

But what has been unfolding in the last few decades is what feels so disorientating and threatening to many Christians. ‘Marginalisation’ assumes the existence of a centre and a periphery but in post-modernity there is no margin, no centre, just a swirling mulitiplicity of views overlapping and competing with one another.  Now churches find themselves in the new and unsettling territory of often bewildering pluralism (what Roxburgh calls ‘the vast freemarket of spirituality’) as just ‘one more interest group seeking a market niche in the culture.’

Roxburgh argues that churches have tended to respond to this uncertainty in different ways, but each one is profoundly shaped by modernity and therefore inadequate to engage with the new missionary challenges of our postmodern world:

  1. PASTORS AS THERAPISTS:- adapting to the individualism at the heart of modernism
  2. RELIANCE ON TECHNICAL RATIONALITY: – adapting to modernism’s emphasis on technique, business strategy, marketing, growth, and success
  3. RETREAT into the comfort of community: – where the fragmented world outside is kept at bay.

These are inadequate because they are either ‘opting out’ of engaging in mission (1 and 3) or they are desperately attempting to ‘regain’ power and prestige that comes from success and being at the centre of culture (2).

What’s needed, he suggests, is for western churches first to understand their current context, and then to re-imagine their life and witness for a missionary encounter with a post-Christendom culture. This is his focus in chapters two and three which I will post on next.

How do you feel about the church’s increasingly marginal or peripheral role in Irish culture? Is this a good or a bad thing?

4 thoughts on “Church, Leadership and Liminality 2


    The Church looks set to return closer to it’s vintage roots as it emerges Patrick. This IS a GOOD THING.

    – More Power: This time from the Holy Spirit, NOT social/moral/or political position
    – More Authenticity: Reliant on faith more than Magisterium
    – More Reality&Discomfort: Embracing a culture of discomfort and living the FULL Gospel


    PS. Lend me that book when your done : )

  2. I think that the evangelical church in Ireland is living in very challenging times as people face so many economic and religious disappointments. I think we need to go back to preach the gospel of the whole life, a gospel that it is not only for the forgiveness of past sins nor only for the future life, but for the here and now. We need to learn to rely in the fact that our identity comes from understanding that Emmanuel, God with us, is for today and He is the one who meets all our needs. If we do not remind ourselves on a daily basis of this, we will continue seeking to have our needs met in church programmes, exhuberant or liturgical worship, in leaders or in the safety of the community, never realizing that there is so much more that the gospel offer us.

  3. Ana, Norman: Interesting comments – I’m hearing BOTH positive ‘new beginnings’ in a new missionary context AND a context of very negative attitudes to ‘church’ and especially formal religious institutions. And you both are pointing to the need for the church to authenticate the gospel by its life and practice, not just words?

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