Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Thriving on the Margins of the New Map

Written by: on February 24, 2022

I wonder if anyone ever traced the success rate of those voted “most likely to succeed” in their high school. Certain traits or advantages prepare some for the potential that may or may not be realized. I enjoy the true stories of those who succeeded without the outward signs indicating potential. For that reason, Forrest Gump remains one of my favorite movies. The true story of William Smith fits the category of those “not most likely to succeed.” With evident aptitude, but without the position or education of others, Smith transformed the way we understand the world.

Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World details the self-taught journey of a man who observed, studied, hypothesized, tested, and ultimately proved what he theorized. Classified in the earth sciences, specifically as geology, Winchester also details William Smith’s work’s social and religious implications. Fascinated by fossils and rocks, William Smith sought to understand what lies beyond beneath earth’s surface. He produced a map with the soil stripped away and England’s geological layers exposed. His work led to economic growth with oil, iron, coal, diamonds, tin, platinum, and silver.[1] Geology opened new opportunities for numerous capitalistic endeavors. In addition, “the new rationally based world of science and the old ecclesiastical, faith-directed world of belief” clashed.[2] Before Smith, the common belief of the world’s “young age” was calculated down the very hour.[3] After Smith, century-old assumptions fell or, at least, faced stiff, new challenges. Few people change the paradigm of how the world is understood, but William Smith belongs to that select group.

As I read this account, a principle surfaced for me. Learning about past realities opens new opportunities for the future. A new understanding of what came before can stimulate new ways to think about the world and thrive. This principle can be applied figuratively to the church in this current cultural moment. As Christendom fades in the West and a Post-Christian dynamic emerges, biblical values increasingly shift to the periphery. What is the church to do? A temptation to hold on to and seek to revitalize the assumptions under which the age of Christendom functioned provides one option. It is possible to keep reading from the same map of a world that no longer exists. In a metaphorical sense, the “spiritual map” changed dramatically. To continue to operate with the old map in a new reality offers little future value.

A new cultural reality requires new strategies for effectiveness. Could the answer lie in the ancient past of the church? I believe it does. In the first three hundred years of its existence, the church existed marginalized on the fringes of the Roman Empire, enduring seasons of persecution and illegal status. With little political power before Constantine, the church changed the Western world in a short span of time. Church historian, Bruce Shelley, states, “practical expression of Christian love was probably among the most powerful causes of Christian success.”[4] Care for the poor, visiting the imprisoned, meeting needs in times of famine, earthquake, or war marked some visible manifestations of faith. Shelley notes one behavior in particular with significant impact. Followers of Jesus often provided a funeral for those too poor to pay for an honorable burial. North African scholar Lactantius (c. 240-320) wrote, “We will not allow the image and the creation of God to be thrown out to the wild beasts and the birds as their prey; it must be given back to the earth from which it was taken.”[5] Sociologist Rodney Stark notes that the Christian response in times of pandemic was “efficacious” and proved influential in the growth of faith in Jesus.[6] These acts of compassion and their results bare out the words of Jesus “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 ESV) Those who follow God can help people see the God behind the efforts.

Rather than seeking its Christendom past, traditional power positions, or political solutions, the way forward can engage culture with acts of compassion like the early church with modern application. Perhaps ministry in the twenty-first century needs to look more like it did in the first century rather than the last century. That activism strategy also marked the church during more recent growth in Britain, as described by Bebbington. Could this be another season of opportunity in a time of marginalization? One of the dynamics of William Smith’s time centered on ultimate questions like “why they were where they were, who had placed them there, what was the point, what were their origins, what was their fate?”[7] Those questions stand relevant for the church today in a period of disruption. Perhaps now is a time to create a new “map” for ministry in this day, informed by what transpired long ago.

[1] Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World (New York: HarperCollins e-books), 19.

[2] Ibid., 40.

[3] Ibid., 47-48.

[4] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1982), 49.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), 78.

[7] Winchester, The Map That Changed the World, 68.W

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

13 responses to “Thriving on the Margins of the New Map”

  1. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Roy: I feel like your post boils down to the church getting back to the main point. I agree with your reflections and how the new map informed by the ancient is needed. In your context, how do/would you approach those within the church that feel the Bible is what they would consider to be an outdated/incorrect map? I feel with deconstruction becoming more prominent, it will be harder for the church to truly get back to the main point.

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Kayli, I agree that “biblicism” declines in this season. I also believe our view of the Bible informs so much of what we not only believe, but then do. When we preach/teach, we do make support of the accuracy and integrity of the Bible an emphasis. We have many people from a Mormon background, and they have heard there that the Bible is corrupted, so it’s an issue here even without this time of biblical doubt. Honestly, we see the most growth in people’s spiritual life as they engage their faith in practical ways. We have a number of compassion efforts that show God’s love in practical ways. As people participate, engagement with the Bible grows. We also emphasize small groups and the personal application of the Bible to real life. It is a challenging day, but that also means a time of opportunity.

  2. mm Andy Hale says:


    I’m going to challenge the notions that “Christendom fades in the West and a Post-Christian dynamic emerges, biblical values increasingly shift to the periphery.”

    The fact is that more people are spiritual today than ever before. Just because mainline denominations are declining doesn’t mean that people are any less seeking truth through untraditional means.

    The decline of an institution doesn’t necessarily equate to a reduction in biblical values. If you give an honest assessment of many, if not most, eras of a Christo-centric world, we discover an ignorance toward biblical values. For just one overwhelming example, we turn to the systemic racism of America, more specifically, the American South. Considered to be the “Bible Belt,” ask any minority of the last 400 years, let alone the last half-century, how loved they get by those good Christian people that treated them as trash, robbing them of basic human decency, let alone treating them as property.

    Maybe the Biblical values that are being lost are the ones that are unholy wed to a dominant white culture of conservatism that is loosely based on the Bible and more closely tied to Manifest Destiny.

    Yes, many are leaving the institution church and not looking back, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are leaving Jesus and not finding church in nuanced ways.

  3. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Roy: Nice connections made with this week’s reading about Smith and Christian history. You make some great points about past realities instructing us on a way forward. Perhaps Augustine had that in mind when he discussed the City of Man and the City of God? The way forward was the City of God, but the present reality that we all have to navigate and endure is the City of Man. And in the City of Man there is injustice and lying and stealing–all the things that Smith had to endure.

  4. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Andy, thanks for you thoughts and challenge! My point about biblical values shifting to the periphery is about faith’s influence upon culture being marginalized as a movement. For right or wrong (and it’s a combination of both), the time of the institutional dominance during Christendom exerted strong influence on culture. The attention and change being brought to systemic racism is welcome but I would not say it came from Christian influence. Would you argue that biblical values are on the rise these days in American culture? I wouldn’t. I believe that a faith lived on the margins will strengthen individual faith and the church in the long run. Some day, we need to have a conversation about spirituality and biblical values. Just because spirituality is higher than ever does not equate to biblical values. I also welcome aspects of the institutional church dying in the hopes of something that is more like the early church described by Rodney Stark and others. I believe the church in America is dying for a change best found on the margins of culture.

  5. Elmarie Parker says:

    Roy, thank you for your thoughtful post, and to you and Andy for this thought-provoking exchange.

    It has been a very helpful experience for me to be living in the context of the Middle East these past number of years and experiencing the ways in which the diverse Christian communities there, all of whom are no longer the mainstream/center of their societies, bear witness to the values and practices of God’s realm and reign. The tangible practice of holistic love is at the center of their practice. One young Muslim women in Iraq commented to her friends when they asked why she liked to hang out at the local Reformed-heritage church in her city: “if you want to know what love is, you have to spend time with these Christians.”

    Being with the church communities in the Middle East has helped me realize how dominated by ‘right thinking’ my American church community has become over the years; we like to argue with one another about whose ‘thinking’ (or ideology/theology) is correct. In the meantime, our capacity for loving neighbor, enemy, and the most vulnerable has been severely under-developed. We’re working on transforming that dynamic, but it is hard and messy work.

    As you reflect on church in the USA no longer being at the center of influencing culture, what spiritual disciplines do you think will most help followers of Jesus to enter more fully into holistically loving their neighbors, enemies, and the most vulnerable?

    In the vein of your and Andy’s conversation, I see the rise of Christian nationalism (white conservatism, yes, but not only white conservatism) in the USA, I also wonder to what degree the institutional church has actually been marginalized (or at least some conception of the church, warped though it may be). It seems so much of what is happening in State legislatures is an attempt, however poorly done, for parts of the American Christian community to make sure their understanding of biblical values becomes policy and that disagreeing with their understanding of biblical values becomes criminalized. How do you understand this dynamic? To what degree is this healthy legislation in a democracy (as opposed to a theocracy)? And what lessons from the past might be helpful in navigating these season of life in the USA?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Elmarie, thanks for sharing that story of the Muslim lady connecting with that church. Love is supposed to be THE defining characteristic of followers of Jesus and that story illustrates the power of love. About Christian Nationalism – I’m not sure there is anything more detrimental to the influence of Christianity at this time in America. One man’s opinion here: it’s idolatry, placing more faith in political power than God. You ask about spiritual disciplines needed – it’s not strictly a spiritual discipline but I believe the need to practice faith, not merely to attend a service or gain information. More specifically, I believe compassion shows God’s love in practical ways and engages people with their faith in meaningful ways. The more I read about the early church living on the margins, I see faith in action as one key way to build influence.

  6. mm Eric Basye says:

    Roy, thanks for the post. I like the direction you took it. Just today we (the family along with my parents) were driving back from a weekend skiing. On the drive, we listened to Matt Chander’s church (though he did not preach in the podcast we listened to), but it too was along the same thing – as we leave “Christendom,” what is our response to be? They are working through 1 and 2 Peter, which I LOVE for so many reasons. Hence, by bias comes out…. I do believe we have something from the past, a map to so speak, to look back on and learn from – the Bible.

    Can’t wait to see how these thoughts inform your NPO!

  7. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Great title! You have me hooked and I haven’t begun to read your essay. I too am a sucker for the underdog, maybe because I can relate. I appreciate your take on marginalization, to put into common terms, are we not called to be a radical fringe of hope, righteousness, truth, peace and truth. The goes along with something that I have been struggling with, if we have access to the God of the future, why are we not determining the direction of our society instead of being victim to it? I don’t know maybe we are to be able to learn from the past, embrace the present, and eagerly look forward to the future.

  8. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Roy thank you for this thought provoking blog.

    When I read your sentences, “It is possible to keep reading from the same map of a world that no longer exists. In a metaphorical sense, the “spiritual map” changed dramatically. To continue to operate with the old map in a new reality offers little future value.” I leaped to what Friedman says about a imaginative gridlock system….in it’s anxiety the system will continue to come up with new answers to the same question instead of reframing the question. What do you think the reframing questions are for the church in this time and place?

  9. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Roy, like you. I am fascinated by the stories of those who succeed against all odds. Individuals who, like Mandela, may have been born in remote villages, yet rise above their challenges to maximize their potential. One of my most favorite stories along these lines is that of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore. LKY, as he’s fondly called, organized a team of outstanding local leaders and together they created a roadmap for Singapore’s future. Within only 30 years they transformed the city-state from an obscure third world island to a first world country that is sometimes the most competitive country on earth. I hope we will see more heroes rise from our margins and make the impact they were born to make.

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