2016 is what has become jokingly known as the year of no baptisms! Of course there were many across the globe but for the first time in my ministry there were no baptisms in the church I served. Melt down! I wrote a list of names I had baptised over the previous eight years – 50 odd – and as I wrote each name, I realised that only one was conversion growth. All the others were people with some sort of church background, be it children of the church, transfer from other Christian background or people who had come back to Jesus in later life. One conversion in eight years – blood, sweat and tears. One! I went on a journey with the church, how might we become a church that sees third or fourth generation non-Christian come to faith and become central to our life together. I concluded that it was almost impossible. During this time God began to call me into missional listening. A calling, born from Paul in Athens, to listen to the community so intently that when the invitation comes to share the Gospel, I could do so from a deep place of understanding. After many miracles this calling became an actual thing and my old identity as a Baptist minister in a traditional church had died. As I began to listen for what might be next in my ministry, what might God have planned with the listening project – I had entered unknowingly into a liminal season, where an old identity had died but a new one was yet to be born. A liminal space.
My favourite illustration of liminality comes from the band Coldplay (via Steve Aisthorpe). Liminal space is the space between the two trapezes. You have let go of one and are yet to grab the second. Liminal space. And it is not just I that find myself there, but also many in the Western church. Alan Donaldson spoke prophetically at Baptist Assembly last year stating “something has died, but something has not yet been born”, liminal space.
Liminal space is frightening. Loss of identity is uncomfortable. Basic questions no longer have easy answers – everything feels deconstructed. Funding can be fragile – with no exciting project to sale. Motivation weakens to lack of end goal. Attendance is few due to people not knowing what they are signing up for. False prophets with big dreams promise huge rewards and carry people away. It is scary in liminal seasons.
And this fear can lead us in two different ways. We can follow the Israelites in their liminality. They have died from their old lives as slaves but are yet to reach the promised land – a time of liminal wandering, learning to trust God. As they spend time in liminality, they cry out for their old identities in Egypt – there they knew who they were, knew things would be provided, “let’s go back to the dead – at least we knew who were and what we were doing”. Or we could join the disciples in the upstairs room. They have been instructed by Jesus to not do anything; to have a time of liminality where all they do is pray – as Jesus left them for heaven – to wait until the Holy Spirit comes and compels them into their new identities. But they can’t just wait and pray, they need to do something new – let’s replace Judas, call lots, call Mateus, and let’s just say we do not hear about Mateus again in scripture!
We want to run back or begin the new. I constantly want to run back to my previous church role, where I knew how my week worked, knew I had money and accommodation, a team to work with. I constantly want to run forward and plant a church, or an exciting mission project. But the call is to remain in the liminal. Because it is in the liminal that God transforms and it is out of the liminal that the new is born. In liminal space, Joseph loses his identity as favourite son and becomes redeemer of his people. Ruth loses her identity as a Moabite and becomes part of the genealogy of Jesus. Paul, blinded, loses his role as chief church persecutor and becomes great church planter. It is in the liminal we are transformed and the new is then born for us.
So, how do we stay in the liminal if it is so scary and our natural instinct is to run back or forward. Four thoughts:
Stillness. When you are flying from one trapeze to the other the posture needed is of absolute stillness – so that you are easy to catch. The same is true with God. Stillness. Living life like a Swing, the further back into intimacy with God the more able to join in the mission of God. (More of that later in the magazine).
DNA. Coldplay, as well as talking about trapezes, mention that we are a comma not a full stop. As we spend time looking at who we are as community, celebrating all God has done, the future is born with that same DNA but in new creative ways.
Communities of discernment. The most important lesson as we missionally listen is to learn to come to God with empty hands rather than full hands. Too often we come with our ideas and plans and ask God to bless them. Liminal space is admitting we do not have a clue what we are doing and together as community coming with empty hands asking God to show us the new.
Worship. Liminal space, like all times, is a time for worship. It is as we worship that we are transformed and we get the opportunity to witness to our great God. As we live lives of worship, the invitations come from our communities, and the new becomes clear.
When we began missionally listening, we believed that something new was on the horizon. What we have learnt is that it is in the liminal space that transformation takes place and outcomes beyond your imagining come about supernaturally. May you embrace liminality (as scary as it is), and may God do beyond your imagining where you live, and the communities you serve.
Ben Lucas RM Consultant