I am not a historian or an anthropologist. But I think there’s a common tendency to begin at the margins of society and move toward the mainstream.
At the cultural level, one generation rebels against the previous generation. But, eventually, the actions of the younger generation become mainstream, and the cycle continues when the next generation than rebels.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were on the margins of society, going from small, nomadic family to large family to slavery to freedom. Then the outcast people wanted a king like all the other nations. They wanted to be mainstream.
Jesus spent most of his time at the margins of society, eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus was so marginal, he was called a “drunk and a glutton.”
After the resurrection of Jesus, the church continued to serve people at the margins of society with a small group of 120 people. Much of the church’s earliest beginnings were among people at the margins. Then, within a few centuries, the church went mainstream.
Fast forward to recent centuries, Methodism began at the margins of society. John Wesley, who got nowhere in his efforts to reform the Church of England, began ministering among the people at the margins. But, sure enough, over the course of time, Methodists became more and more mainstream, to the point of being called “mainline.” (Incidentally, Scott Kisker discusses how this process developed in his book, Mainline or Methodist?, and argues that we should be Methodist, not mainline.)
One of the problems with the move from marginal to mainstream, is that once you get to the mainstream, you feel like you’ve arrived, so you begin to you coast. When the mission is complete, the purpose switches from mission to maintenance.
So, what’s the answer? Part of the answer is to refocus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Disciple-making is messy work. For people who are committed to being mainstream (well-accepted), disciple-making is unappealing.
This is why the need for transformational leaders is so great in the church right now. Transformational leaders change the focus from maintenance to mission.
When we forsake the mainstream and go back to the margins, we give up our need to be accepted and well-liked, and we become more courageous, so that the least, the lost, the last, and the lonely can experience the saving message of Jesus Christ.
Let’s go back to the margins!