Essay

The Church’s Future Is on the Margins

By November 23, 2020 19 Comments

Over the past several months I’ve been doing a slow, unhurried read through the book of Jeremiah. It strikes me as the right book for this moment, a kind of literature for exiles in a dark time of national trauma. Will Willimon refers to Jeremiah as a “book of endings, a book that deals with what the faith community thinks about when an old world is passing and a new world is not yet seen.” There is much anger and hurt, Willimon goes on to say, “for that is the way people often feel when a once-predictable, known world is being wrenched from their hands.”* Sound like 2020?

Jeremiah is a beautiful and complicated book, shuffling between hope and despair as poetry and prose collide. Parts of it soar and are unmatched in eloquence and pathos. Other parts can feel like you have to trudge through. The last several chapters feel like trudging to me. And the end of Jeremiah just sort of drizzles off to a rather anticlimactic conclusion.

But in the final chapter I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. Everything is burning to the ground. The Temple. Homes and shops. The entire city of Jerusalem destroyed. People are being carted off into captivity. Then there’s verse 16, hidden in the smoldering heap of other verses: “But Nebuzaradan the captain left some of the poorest people of the land to be vine-dressers and tillers of the soil.”

A Sustainable Alternative to Conventional Tillage - The Permaculture  Research Institute

Amid all the destruction, some are left behind in the ruins. The poorest people of the land. And they are given a vocation: To be vine-dressers and tillers of the soil. Vine-dressers, an image that Jesus would use to describe God (John 15). Tillers of the soil, like in Eden before the Fall. Do you see? In this time of national trauma, when an old world is passing away, God is doing something new in the ruins. Is this a hint of new creation? God plucking up and pulling down, but also building and planting something new and hopeful? And it is happening among those on the margins.

This verse stood out to me all the more given the final verses of chapter 52, and thus the conclusion of the book. It ends with King Jehoiachin of Judah, who was captured along with so many others (including the wealthy, the educated and the elite), being released from prison by King Evil-merodach of Babylon. Jehoiachin’s prison clothes are removed and “every day of his life he dined regularly at the king’s table.” In addition, he was given an allowance by the Babylonian king, protected and pampered in the palace up to the day of his death.

Now most commentators agree that this ending is the work of editors to provide an appendix, intended to give hope to the exiles in a dark time. God’s judgment on his covenant people would not be the last word. They had a hopeful future in Johoiachin, who represented the royal Davidic line. I get that.

But the contrast is remarkable to me, and largely because of the cultural and political moment in which the North American church finds itself. I believe we are experiencing deep national trauma on so many levels right now, and we will not fully understand the impact for years to come. Moreover, we’re in the midst of a seismic shift regarding the church’s location in society—a shift that has been happening for decades but is now accelerating dramatically. This is true even in places where a Constantinian footprint remains, like northwest Iowa where I live.

He wears the armor of God': evangelicals hail Trump's church photo op | US  news | The Guardian

What we’ve seen among the white evangelical church in particular is a scrambling to hold on to power and privilege. We want to be in the palace, dining daily at the king’s table, getting special favor. We want security and protection. As Kristin Kobes Du Mez describes in her outstanding book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, this promise of power and protection has long been an allure for white evangelicals to “strongmen” like Donald Trump. It’s palace Christianity.

But this is not where God’s hopeful future resides. As the old world passes away, a new world is being born in the ruins, among those on the margins who have taken up this faithful, creational vocation as vine-dressers and tillers of the soil—stewards of shalom. Steve Toshio Yamaguchi affirms this in his profound essay “From the Palace to the Streets,” where he claims that the future of the church lies with those who’ve long been excluded from the palace, denied power and privilege—especially our immigrant churches which have had to learn how to survive and thrive in the streets, without favor from the state. The future of the church will not be a palace Christianity, says Yamaguchi, but a “street Christianity.”

After Arrest of Protected Immigrant, Sanctuary Church Members Cry Out for  Justice - United Methodist Insight

Here’s my confession: While I believe all of this to be true, I also resist it. As a white male who has benefited from palace Christianity, letting go of the old world is hard. But it’s time. It’s time. I have so much to learn, and so much to unlearn. And there is so much I don’t know. But this one thing I do know: The Spirit of God is summoning me to have the courage and humility to leave my own palace and become a student of my teachers in the streets—my brothers and sisters who have already taken up this biblical vocation to be stewards of a future not our own.

“The future is already here,” insists pastor Dave Gibbons. “It is just on the margins.” And it is on the margins, where the future meets us in the present, that we also come to discover another Table with another King who has the audacity to whisper, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

* From the introduction to Jeremiah, The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p.1079.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.

19 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    good.

  • mstair says:

    “ … the future of the church lies with those who’ve long been excluded from the palace, denied power and privilege …”

    Good thoughts for today!

    “While I believe all of this to be true, I also resist it.”

    Could we not find some comfort and energy in that, at last in our lifetime, we assemble as a church that will display its full power and purpose? The work will be more difficult, but also more honest – matching more of what our Hebrews 11 forebearers endured?

  • Pam Adams says:

    Brian, We all should be as you are uncomfortable with our privileged situation and see the others who have not been privileged.

  • Duane VandenBrink says:

    Brian, Thanks for the insight this morning…… Very well could be true……
    We are in the midst of birthing pains of a new church…..
    Shalom….. Duane

  • John Paarlberg says:

    Thank you Brian. Well said.

  • Nolan D Palsma says:

    Brian:
    You always bring something to the table. Thanks for your insights. We pastors are discerning about what the church will look like when the pandemic eases.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Palace Christianity. . . vine dressers and tillers . . . memorable metaphors that really carry the message. So timely. Thanks!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Whoa, Brian, well written indeed.
    What insight. What a vision of the Church’s calling.
    My sense is Covid-19 is Reality’s manifestation of the toxicity of the present administration, with its “evangelical” hangers on.
    Empire/Palace Constantinian Christianity vs. The Church in and at the margins. Nice juxtaposing there. House churches again rather than the megachurches of yesterday. To each generation its own vision.
    You are a gift to us all my friend. Keep it up. Honesty. Humility. Shoulder to the plow. Not looking back. The new heaven and the new earth.

  • Naomi Mares says:

    Thank you for your words Pastor Brian 🙏🏽

    • John vanStaalduinen says:

      One of the tillers of the vines, an outcast, unloved, marginal person has been working among us for four years. He is not of the elite political or religious caste. His mannerisms are not refined enough to hide his flaws. This man humbled himself to serve a country that was in decline politically, morally, and financially. Enough people recognized where the country was heading and elected a worker, a tiller to turn the tide, to cut off the unproductive vines so that everyone could be lifted up. The elite political and religious leaders have resisted the tillers humble work of bringing peace to the middle east, his work of lowering taxes of the oppressed, his work of honest environmental protection. The elite religious have gone so far as to demonize the people they have been put in charge of for supporting this marginal man. The elite political have brought false charges against the man.
      The author here states that the church should come along the side of the marginalized, did they miss what was directly in front of them?

      • Paul DeVries says:

        John … who are you referring to in your statement?

        Paul

        • John vanStaalduinen says:

          President Trump is who I was referring to. Did you have someone else in mind?

          • Jack Organ says:

            Hello John, I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but I can’t just let this comment sit here. While I can clearly see him being unloved by his family and something of an outcast among elites, President Trump is not poor, nor humble. His adverse experiences seem to have made him crave attention and power. It is true that much of the political establishment and pretty much anyone who identifies as liberal have harshly criticized him and not taken his presidency seriously. This poverty of character and good faith is nothing like the poverty that so many around the world and in America are kept in due to various factors.

            As someone who has worked with and lives around many people who qualify as poor, I find it disrespectful and false to claim that President Trump is marginalized in the way that the author was talking about. I’d be happy to continue discussing this if you’d like.

            Brian, thank you for the piece, I thought it was lovely exegesis and pertinent to our times.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Especially in light of yesterday’s Gospel from Matthew, of the Sheep and the Goats.

  • Jim Payton says:

    Thank you for this … it resonates with profound insight and truth, in every regard.

  • Kay Joiner says:

    “the promise of power and protection” – it is sad to see how this has so splintered the church, neighbors, and communities, and is so evident in small town NW Iowa. May we all both individually and collectively as the church look to the example of Christ and not pursue promises of power. Thank you for your words. Thank you for your leadership.

  • […] a previous post, I wrote about my conviction that the future of the church in on the margins. Referencing an essay […]

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