loren Eric Swanson: Liminality

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Several months ago I picked up a book entitled, Mission After Christendom by David Smith. The opening line in the Forward captured my attention: "The church must forever be asking, 'What kind of day is it today?' for no two days are alike in her history.'" Smith outlines the history of Christianity and concludes that today we are in a state between two paradigms (on the cusp betwee the modern era--which Smith says, ended in Europe during WWI, and the post-modern era). Quoting Darrel Guder: "We ring our bells, conduct our services...and wait for this very different world to come to us. Pastors continue to preach sermons and carry on internal polemics over doctrinas as though nothing outside has changed, but the reality is that everything has changed and the people are not coming back to the churches" (p. 33).He posits that we are in a time of transition or limbo or "liminality."

A liminal state describes young boys in tribal socieities who are pulled from their mothers and live together for a season before their initiation into manhood. No longer children, but not yet men. Liminality describes Israel, when they were carried off into captivity. Everything they trusted in...that worked in the past no longer works. In a liminal state, what used to seem true and work no longer works and what will work in the future, has not yet been fully revealed...liminality. In liminal times there is confusion. As I have the opportunity to speak to Christian leaders and pastors I often ask, "If you know, with confidence, what you are doing in ministry, please raise your hand." There is much more laughter than hand raising.

Now, here's the good new: "...despite the feeling that we are in a dark tunnel, the present liminality 'offers the potential for a fresh missionary engagement in a radically changing social context" (Quoting Alan Roxburgh, p. 34). "We too face a point at which God appears to be terminating our known world and inviting us to a new world in which the true nature of the church and its mission can be recovered" (p. 35) This means that this is a time to experiment and discover. There is a lot of white space on the map.

One more quote from Smith that I liked:
“In crossing cultures, the missionary teacher becomes a learner, the one who is in possession of divine revelation discovers new truth, and he who seeks the salvation of others finds himself converted all over again.”


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