I’ve never been a fan of the Oreo cookie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the whole thing that I don’t like…I’m not that crazy. The cream part in the middle, that’s where you’ll find me. In fact when I was younger (hmmm, including yesterday) I used to remove the top cookie, eat the middle and either leave the wafers for someone else to eat or throw them away. For me, the good stuff is what happens in the space between the hard places of the top and bottom wafer.
Liminality is defined as a place in between. To some it’s a place of uncertainty and incompleteness. For others it’s a place of discovery and possibilities. Liminal space is a place of the no longer, the not yet, and the might be. It’s a fascinating place to find yourself; especially as it relates to the church. Canadian Author and Pastor, Len Hjalmarson put it this way: “Churches are entering a nowhere land that has come into being in the turbulent waters of societal shift. We have become like travelers with maps that are outdated and that no longer describe the landscape. The sense that our maps no longer function increases our sense of lostness, as well as our anxiety about the future. “ (Broken Futures, p.2)
We love maps, GPS systems and tracking devices of all kinds. It’s comforting to know where we are in relationship to where we’ve been and more importantly to where we’re going. It also helps us to know where everyone else is as well. The challenge for leadership in churches during these messy or chaotic times of uncertainty will require a different set of tools. Helping people to navigate their cultural context can seem like an imposing task, unless of course we recognize the importance of using the resources that God has given to us as opposed to the way things have always been done. Hjalmarson refers to these resources as frameworks, therefore the role of leadership is to help people find meaning and purpose within them: “The meaning-making view assumes that people are naturally in motion, always doing something, and that they need, rather than motivation to act, frameworks within which their action makes sense.” (Leadership in a Chaordic Age, p.5)
Perhaps then one of the transitions we need to be unafraid to make is the transition from clean ministry to messy ministry, being unafraid to encounter, even welcome, healthy conflict which can used to filter through how our past contributes to our future. Conflict in these spaces in between need not be feared, rather embraced in as much as the clear purposes, are not sacrificed or compromised. A few observations about the transition from the clean, stream lined institutional view of the church to one that embraces the complexity of messiness:
- A traditional model seeks to have very clean organized systematic and predictable way of doing things.
- The challenge of leadership is to engage the life of the culture and thereby be opened up to messy ministry. It cannot be programmed, but guided to discover new expressions of our faith within the changing culture.
- A clear understanding of grace should deepen our capacity to listen to and assist those caught in the messiness of life.
- A clear understanding of truth should hasten our motivation, to direct people away from sinful characteristics, knowing that sin will need to be accounted for.
- It allows for failure, rewards the courage to try…through failure we often find success…failure is messy.
- Despite the mess, there should be a hopeful assurance that God can take the broken pieces of our lives and make something beautiful.
Canadian culture has not become more complicated. It has undoubtedly become more complex. However, leadership practices and organizational models, from a Christian perspective, have fallen behind the rate of change. The solutions that are possible in the liminal spaces of complex adaptive systems are important to examine, as they will be beneficial to understanding the key relationships that exist between the main components of the church: people.
People who are part of a congregation and people in the ever changing community. Understanding those relationships requires a preparedness to embrace new possibilities that may be both surprising and difficult. Yet they are necessary to experience the growth that has eroded away over recent decades. Leadership in the spaces between, where we’ve been (as a church) and where we’re going, will be necessary to allow people to enjoy the transformative excitement of new discovery, just like the middle of an Oreo cookie….Don’t get me started on the Double Stuff Oreo!!