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Faith on the Margins

For eight summers I worked as a fishing guide in the tidal waters of British Columbia. These waters are renowned for their powerful currents—quiet waters between small islands are transformed into mighty rivers in a matter of hours, with speeds up to ten knots.

One of the products of this dynamic flow of water is the back eddy. A back eddy is a marginal current that gathers small creatures that are food for large fish. We frequented the back eddies in search of one of the world’s great sport fish—the silvery salmon.

As we sat in our small boats day after day, we would watch larger ships moving by in the mainstream. It was difficult for the large boats to fight the main current, and much safer in the calm waters in the wide channels. They would move with the flow, fishing rods outstretched over the stern gunnels and troll along hoping to pick up a fish.

Little did they know that with their lines streaming out behind them, riding high as they moved along at ten to twelve knots, they were unlikely to catch anything. We fishing guides knew that the sport fish we sought loved to frequent the margins of the back eddies, where the powerful main current trapped the shrimp and herring on which they loved to feed. We sank our lines deep in the current with heavy weights in a style called “mooching.” We held our boats steady against the whirling currents and kept our lines hanging straight down.

We often felt envious of the comfortable cruisers as they sailed on by, tourists waving from sun-drenched decks, usually with cocktails in hand. It looked so comfortable and easy … the three or four large fishing poles played out their lines, streaming in great lengths in their wake.

We sometimes felt we were going nowhere. Our small boats moved in small circles as we mooched along the edge of the rapids. But we caught lots of fish, and often, large fish.

We could have allowed ourselves to be defined by the main stream. We could have allowed our small boats to imitate the larger ships. We too could have had lines streaming out behind us, pina-coladas in hand, but we had more serious work to do. We were there to fish.

It is tough not to be defined by the main stream. The big money is tied up in big ships. But we learned that though the large boats were impressive and seemed to be going somewhere, they were really only useful for tourists. The serious fishermen knew this, and they hired us in our small boats to fight the currents for the fish they sought.

In the Christendom era the church was at the center, and Christian leaders were usually heard as important voices in the culture. Now, however, we are increasingly on the fringes, and our story of faith is heard as just one more possible description of reality. Stuart Murray describes this transition in culture as one from the center to the margins, from majority to minority, from settlers to sojourners, from privilege to plurality, from maintenance to mission and from institution to movement. Our opportunity is to rediscover the dynamic of our faith as a missional movement.

As ministry decentralizes and moves to homes, malls, pubs, the internet, fractal networks and reduced structure, and as we move away from positions and roles and titles to functional leadership, we are learning to lead from the margins.

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Greater numbers of people are providing leadership today because they are leading from unusual places. They often lack resources and formal training, but are willing to risk responding to the call of God in their lives. They often lack the legitimate credentials of established structures and well-funded organizations, but they have the approval of God.

While this movement to the margins is outwardly a shift in position, it is also a shift in authority. The choice to abandon worldly status is clearly articulated by Mark Strom in Reframing Paul, when he says, “Dying and rising with Christ meant status reversal. In Paul’s case, he deliberately stepped down in the world.” Paul became marginal for greater impact in the Kingdom.

Where once leadership was seen to come from the front, from appointed persons in defined roles, from paid professionals, and from the few to the many, now leadership often comes from the one walking beside us. Instead of the Wizard, it is Dorothy who has wisdom. Instead of Aragorn or Gandalf, it is Frodo whose obedience may be the fulcrum for change.

We need to pay attention to the divine drama that occurs around us in everyday, ordinary, incarnational ways. Faith should be more about conversations and less about events, more about smallness and less about big buildings, more about ordinary people living kingdom lives, and less about charismatic leaders and their sweeping visions. As we find God in the ordinary stuff of life, we can learn to pay attention to small miracles. Life on the fringes can be vital and dramatic life if we reshape our perspective.

The mainstream isn’t always the best place to be, sometimes there’s more to be learned from a faith on the margins.

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