Ministering to the Marginal
October is the month in which those of us who are responsible for the day to day operation of the parish begin thinking of the budget. Invariably talk ranges from dollars to the number of people in the parish and from there to the number of inactive people in the parish. “If we could only get our marginal members to contribute” is an often expressed lament.
Who are these inactive, marginal members? An adequate description involves several perspectives. A fellow Pastor recalled a conversation with a man who had not attended or associated with the Roman Catholic Church in 15 years. He adamantly insisted that he was entirely and thoroughly Catholic. As proof of his allegiance, he had refrained from attending any other churches. “It would not have been right,” he said. “I’m a Catholic.” After remaining faithful for so many years, he was astonished to encounter a Priest from his local parish inquiring into his membership. In the eyes of the church, he was a marginal member. In his own mind, he had been staunchly faithful.
Contrast this with a person in the very center of parish life, living on his or her personal life. I remember a hospital visit with a middle aged man who was quite active in the parish, served on several boards, attended church regularly, but he felt he was not a very good Christian. In terms of his spiritual life, he felt himself to be a marginal Christian.
A different example of marginal is the aspiring young father who believes the church is important to his children as a social institution. He drops his children off at Sunday School, but feels little need for the church in his personal life. Then there is the marginalization caused by sin. The sinner who simply cuts himself/herself off from God and the church. Sometimes the decision is made by default. Other interests have a way of commanding our attention and simply overwhelming our spiritual lives. None of us are strangers to the apathy that sits so comfortably in our lives.
Who has not lived, as least for a time, on the church’s margin? Whether by choice or sin, or economics, or prejudice; who has not been excluded when the church has gathered? These things have a way of separating us not only from God, but also each other.
There are many people on the margins of the church; some for days, some for years, some for life. We encounter them in the pew, at the grocery, in the hospital, at the meal table, in a funeral parlor, at the time of a marriage or baptism. No matter how we define the church, there will always be a margin. Margins exist because Grace demands them.
For the marginal Christian, you and I can become the connection link. Often there is a great need to meet the church in the flesh, face to face, person to person. Here we can share common experience, feeling can be expressed, ideas can be discussed, opinions argued. Sometimes the margin is the only place a person can go and still feel a part of the church. Life on the margin may be a cop-out for some, but for others it’s the only place to go on a ship without jumping overboard.
By the definition of the church, there will always be people on the margin. This is in no way unusual, nor should it be looked at as a problem to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is an opportunity for us to be forgiving and supportive when we or our neighbors sometimes color outside the lines.