Speaking from the Margins
Christian Ministry in a Secular Context
On Friday night in central London, the streets come alive to a frenetic pace of activity. Digital boards flash brightly over historic buildings, advertising what’s on for theater. A global mix of smells waft from food stalls and packed restaurants. Music fills the squares, every genre from Afro-Caribbean to a rousing British rendition of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Bodies brush past one another as they hurry up and down the shopping streets—Regents, Oxford, Bond—bags in hand. Above ground and below, everyone is going somewhere, seeking after something, whether they know it or not.
London is a global city of roughly 9 million people, and on one particular Friday evening, I found myself with many of them in Leicester Square. I was headed to a work dinner with the Alliance for Transatlantic Theological Training, where I serve on the operations team. The crowds were so thick it felt like Christmastime. As I wove through the throngs of people toward the restaurant, I heard a man’s voice amplified through a microphone above the noise of the crowds. He was evangelizing, telling the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I listened, my ears straining his words through biblical and theological filters. Was he sharing the truth? Yes. Was he corrupting it with hateful speech or false interpretations of the Bible? No. His proclamation was bold and passionate, but not angry; he acknowledged the reality of sin and called people to repentance, but he did not condemn. The last words I heard formed a question and an answer: “Will you receive God’s love? In Christ, it is poured out for you.”
Hundreds of pedestrians went along, seemingly unphased, as his words faded from our ears.
This is not so much an assessment of street evangelism, but a reflection on the passersby. As I continued on toward my destination, I couldn’t get this scene out of my head. Here was this man, standing on the margins of society, speaking eternal truth into the whirlwind of the culture. People would catch only a soundbite as they moved quickly past him, but would they listen?
They need the whole story, I thought, and to know that their own stories—their eternities, their present lives, their very existences—are intertwined with and defined by the reality of Jesus Christ crucified, buried, and resurrected.
To minister in a post-Christian context is to attempt to pierce the bubble of noise in the Western world. The words of proclamation often are quickly received, translated, and filtered out; words like God, sin, hell, salvation, heaven, mercy, faith, truth, and even man and woman. People ascribe the meanings they want or toss them like relics of the past back into the storage of their minds, and carry on. How is it that Christians are to have any faithful witness in this kind of context?
More specifically, how are Christians to serve faithfully in the public square when the core convictions and motivations for service have been discarded, manipulated, or outright rejected by most of the public?
Moving Forward with Help from the Past
Sometimes, we find the help to move forward waiting for us in the past. The story of William Wilberforce, whose persistent advocacy through British Parliament was instrumental in bringing about abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, shines like a beacon of hope and direction for Christians seeking to live faithfully in secular culture and the public square. I have long been familiar with Wilberforce’s legacy, but only several years ago did I learn of his ongoing correspondence with John Newton, the former slave trader who became a minister and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Newton faithfully encouraged Wilberforce throughout his career to maintain his Christian convictions and his place in Parliament—to let truth compel him to work for the good of his neighbors. Wilberforce and Newton advocated for abolition from the core place of Christian conviction, and while Wilberforce exerted influence through his seat in Parliament, he also spoke from the cultural margins in his own way.
In 1796, Wilberforce put forward a bill in Parliament to abolish the slave trade, but it failed to gain the votes needed to pass in the House of Commons. It is said that a number of politicians whose votes could have pushed the bill through were not present at the reading because they were attending the opera that evening. Today in the West, we are no less tempted toward decadence while evil persists around us.
The public square is certainly one place where Christians must engage with truth, love, and conviction, for the good of our neighbors. However, in a post-Christian context, our training ground must begin in the local church. In northwest London, members of my church, Redeemer Queen’s Park, sometimes go out themselves into the streets to discern persons of peace, or people receptive to the message of the gospel (Matt. 10:11-13), and to offer them good news and prayer for whatever they might be enduring.
Life in the city is hard. It is lonely, ruthless, and cold. We are all strangers together, a friend said recently, and so members of our community try to close the distance between one another simply by offering kindness and encouragement, and also the most profound truth ever made known to us. It is not always received, but this is not for us to control or worry too much over.
The church, in this way and in others, speaks from the margins of society. Not many are coming to us, even though they are searching. So we must go to them. They do not know what to look for, just as we did not when our eyes were blind and our hearts were darkened to the truth.
As American culture rapidly progresses into a post-Christian ethos, it makes sense to brace ourselves and examine how things might be different. However, we know from history that Christians have been required to endure, to speak from the margins against seemingly impossible odds in which the world and its lusts for power and glory are highly favored. We also know from history—not to mention the words of Jesus—that lukewarm Christianity never did anyone any favors. Our fight is not for relevance, but against the powers of darkness. And there is power in a historic faith.
Not too long ago, the novelist William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” As Christians in a post-Christian world, this feels prophetic on multiple levels. The true stories of our faith live on into eternity, and they cannot die, because Christ has risen. The Word is alive, ruling and reigning. Culture has attempted to “move past” the truth, but it cannot, not really, because the truth belongs to the Alpha and Omega.
Living and Ministering in a Post-Christian Context
Even as we attempt to shed caricatures of the faith that are unhelpful and confusing at best and harmful and satanic at worst, we must ask God for grace that the true gospel, the living Word, would come to bear on our lives, and that it would shine through us into the darkness of the world.
There is no sense in being naive. The prince of the powers of the air is stalking around, seeking to cultivate chaos and darkness as the world spirals further down. Ministering faithfully in a post-Christian context means knowing where you stand, and not only accepting that but embracing it and asking God to work it for good. Not for worldly power or impressive influence, but for the kind of good that Matthew writes about in his Gospel, where good works are seen and God is glorified as a result. It can feel hopeless to pray and strive toward this vision. Will our works even be seen as good when the eyes that see them are blind? It is not for us to say or control this, for only God opens hearts and eyes.
In many ways, I am still learning what it means to live and minister in the post-Christian world. There is much to say in the way of practical methods and approaches the Church might take, and many who can speak with much more wisdom and experience than I have. What seems to me to be incredibly important for Christians to come to terms with is that we must speak. Wherever we are called to testify—in public spaces or to the friends around our tables—we cannot keep quiet about what we have seen and heard and know to be true.
This is a challenge that reverberates deeply within me, and many others. We must ask God how he would have us speak. But we must speak. Perhaps it will be to offer prayer from a portable coffee cart on an urban university campus. Perhaps it will be over a dinner table with a neighbor. Perhaps it will be through the public works we engage in vocationally. Perhaps it will be to a friend with questions, considerate of the deep doubts and longings we all work through in the course of our lives. These ways will not go unseen.
The post-Christian world is a dim place growing dark, but that is where light has always shone brightest. And so, perhaps learning to live faithfully in this type of culture also means learning to recognize—and repent—when you yourself have become jaded to the supernatural power of God while living in the midst. The remnants and influences of the most true story are there: in our songs, our art, our literature, our longings for peace and renewal and dignity. They are there in our quests for love. These are the things we are not yet past, and as image-bearers searching for our true home, God’s Word still has much to say to us. All we are called to do is to listen, and in turn, to be the feet that bring the good news of the gospel to others.
Jesus has promised that the gates of hell cannot overcome the growth of the Church, and this is not by our power, but through our faithfulness as the power of the Holy Spirit works among us and in us. So we can hope, and speak, and know that this hope and this message will not put us to shame.