Life at the Margins
1 PETER 1:1–12
by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
This is chapter 1 from the book Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission
It is easy for Christians to feel discouraged when we read about declining church attendance or see the growing secularization of our culture, but we are excited about the future. In many ways the opposite of secularism is actually nominalism, so growing secularism is an opportunity to develop witness to Christ unclouded by nominal faith. Much of the decline in the church in the West has been the falling off of nominal Christians. As a result, what remains may be more healthy. We have the opportunity to become communities focused on Jesus and his mission. The number of true Christians may not be falling so steeply—if at all. What is fast disappearing is the opportunity to reach notionally religious people through church activities.coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence." He also identifies seven transitions that mark the shift from Christendom to a post-Christendom culture:
To seize these new opportunities, we first need to recognize that the Christian gospel has moved from the center of our culture to the margins.
LIVING IN A POST-CHRISTIAN CONTEXT
One hundred million people in the United States have no contact with church.1 Among this group are an estimated thirteen to fifteen million people who express a commitment to Christ and accept him as their Savior. This still leaves eighty-five million Americans who are unchurched and unbelieving.
The Easter 2009 edition of Newsweek magazine created a stir with the words "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" emblazoned across its front cover.2 The cover article by Jon Meacham quotes Al Mohler saying, "Clearly, there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society." The number of adults in the United States who do not attend church has nearly doubled since 1991. Over 3,500 United States churches close their doors every year, and the attendance of more than 80 percent of those remaining has plateaued or is declining.3 Researcher Mike Regele concludes: "The combined impact of the Information Age, postmodern thought, globalization, and racial-ethnic pluralism that has seen the demise of the grand American story also has displaced the historic role the church has played in that story. As a result, we are seeing the marginalization of the institutional church."4
Since the Enlightenment, Western intellectuals have assumed a link between modernity and secularization. Some rejoiced in this "progress" while others lamented the reduction of everything to "rationality," but they shared the assumption that modern societies would become secular societies. This secularization theory has been challenged by sociologist Peter Berger. "Not to put too fine a point on it," he says, but "they were mistaken. Modernity is not intrinsically secularizing, though it has been so in particular cases."5 The modern world is not becoming more secular. If anything it is becoming more religious.
But Berger identifies two exceptions. The first is geographic: Western and Central Europe. The second is sociological: the elites of the Western world. Pointing to a survey that named India as the world's most religious country and Sweden as the world's most secular country, Berger quips that the United States is a nation of Indians ruled over by Swedes. In other words, it is a highly religious nation, but its elites are deeply secular, even antireligious. So America feels more secular than it actually is. This has been the experience of Americans coming to do mission in the United Kingdom. They thought of the United States as a secular context until they came to Europe and encountered secular attitudes not only in the media but also among most ordinary people.
Although he refutes secularization theory, Berger does believe modernity changes the position of the church in the culture. "Modernity is not necessarily secularizing; it is necessarily pluralizing. Modernity is characterized by an increasing plurality, within the same society, of different beliefs, values, and worldviews. Plurality does indeed pose a challenge to all religious traditions—each one must cope with the fact that there are 'all these others,' not just in a faraway country but right next door."6
Pluralism means that although mainstream America is not secular, it is not necessarily Christian. We should not mistake religiosity for biblical faith. In the eighteenth century, American Christianity was the dominant worldview. Not any more. Now Western societies are a melting pot of worldviews. We can no longer assume that if people want to find God or discover meaning or cope with a personal crisis, they will go to church. They may attend any number of religious bodies or sects. Or they may go to a therapist. Or read a self-help book. Merely opening our doors each Sunday is no longer sufficient. Offering a good product is not enough.
It may be that middle America follows the lead of its cities and becomes more secular. Or it may be that America becomes an increasingly divided nation with secular elites but with a religious heartland. What is clear is that great swathes of America will not be reached through Sunday morning services.
What is true of the United States is even more true of Europe. America remains a far more Christianized culture than that of Europe. Research by the Barna Group in 2008 found that only one in four adults in the United States had no contact with the church, while 62 percent had attended church in the past month and a further 15 percent had had some contact over the past year.7
An American friend who has worked in Europe for the last seven years revisited the United States recently. As he sat drinking coffee in a MacDonald's in Florida, he was shocked to overhear so many people talking about Jesus or church as they waited in line to order. This doesn't happen in Europe! While one in four Americans has no contact with church, in Britain it is three in four.8 Even in the supposedly more secular areas of the United States, the Northwest and Northeast, the unchurched are still a minority.9 Moreover, among unchurched Americans there is a high level of sympathy for Christianity and even confessions of faith in Christ. Among those not attending church, 59 percent consider themselves to be Christian and 17 percent express a commitment to Christ and believe they will experience heaven after death through their acceptance of Christ as their Savior. Additionally, 19 percent of those not attending church read the Bible during a typical week, and 62 percent pray.10 In comparison only one in four people in the United Kingdom believes in a personal God who hears prayer.
When my wife and I (Tim) first moved into our current home in England, we got talking with our new neighbor, an elderly woman who lives alone. During the conversation we told her we had moved to the area to be part of a new church. "I'm glad you're Christians," she told us, before adding that she too was a Christian. It turns out, however, that she never attends church, and she has resisted all our attempts to talk to her about Jesus. So what did she mean when she said she was a Christian? Perhaps she meant that she is a nice person and good neighbor (which she is). Perhaps she meant she is not a Muslim (her neighbors on the other side are a Muslim family originating from Pakistan, as are perhaps a third of the people living on our road). What is clear is that she did not mean she is a Christian by any biblical definition of the word. To her, "Christian" is a cultural or ethnic label. It is not a declaration of her faith in Jesus as her Savior, or her allegiance to him as her Lord, or her membership of his redeemed people.
I think of my neighbor when I hear that, according to a 2001 United Kingdom government census, 72 percent of the United Kingdom population claim to be Christian. From this we might suppose that the United Kingdom is a Christian country with little need for church planting, but figures for church attendance reveal a very different picture. In 1851 around one in four people in the United Kingdom was a churchgoer. Now it is one in ten,11 though only about half of these are actually in church on any given Sunday.12 Of these, 40 percent go to evangelical churches.13 If present trends continue, average weekly church attendance in England will fall to 4.1 percent in 2020—one in twenty-five.14
Philip Richter and Leslie Francis categorize people as "churched" (regular or fringe churchgoers), "de-churched" (people who have been regular or fringe churchgoers at some point in the past but are so no longer) and "nonchurched" or "unchurched" (people who have had no significant contact with the church at any point).15 Based on their findings, the Mission-Shaped Church report concluded that the United Kingdom population is 20 percent churched, 40 percent de-churched, and 40 percent nonchurched.16 A 2007 Tearfund report found that almost 70 percent of the United Kingdom population has no intention of attending a church service at any point in the future.17 And this figure is set to increase over the coming years with affiliation to Christianity and attendance at church lower among young people. Only a third of sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds call themselves Christians.
Seventy percent of the United Kingdom population have no intention of ever attending a church service. That means new styles of worship will not reach them. That means fresh expressions of church will not reach them. That means Alpha and Christianity Explored evangelistic courses will not reach them. That means guest services will not reach them. That means churches meeting in pubs will not reach them. That means toddler churches meeting at the end of the school day will not reach them. The vast majority of unchurched and de-churched people would not turn to the church even if faced with difficult personal circumstances or in the event of national tragedies.18 It is not a question of "improving the product" of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events.
Despite the fall in overall church attendance, only one in six regular churchgoers thinks the church he or she attends is declining in numbers. Two-fifths think their church is growing.19 Perhaps some people are in denial about falling church numbers. But it may also be that many churches are growing but mainly through transfer growth. A declining number of Christians are consolidating into growing churches. It is still possible to grow a church by offering a better church experience than other churches. Whatever the merits of this, it is vital for us to realize that this is not evangelistic growth. It is possible to plant a church and see it grow without doing mission. "People can be attracted to a church by what it offers," says Jim Petersen, "but . . . increase of this sort isn't church growth at all. It's just a reshuffling of the same fifty-two cards."20
In the rest of Europe church attendance is higher than in the United Kingdom in Catholic and Orthodox countries, but across Europe Christian faith is at best nominal. The ten "mega-peoples" least responsive to the gospel are all found in Europe, according to the World Christian Database.21 A report by Greater Europe Mission concludes: "Although Europe has a high percentage of people who consider themselves Christians, the data shows that Europe has the least population percentage of Christians who consider themselves committed and evangelical."22 Europe is the world's most secular continent.
In Australia 68 percent of people may claim to be Christian, but like the United Kingdom this is largely nominal. Church attendance was 8 percent in 2001, down from 35 percent in 1966.23 As in the United Kingdom, it is the younger generation that is missing from the Australian church.24 A church planter in Perth wrote recently, "Many of my work colleagues are very suspicious of, or hostile, to Christianity. . . . I think in my work context in Perth it must be 'easier' to be openly and proudly gay than openly and proudly Christian."25
Two observations are pertinent. First, we cannot assume models of church growth from the United States will work in Europe. There is much that we can learn from the practice and theology of the American church. Our own experience in The Crowded House is testimony to that. But we cannot automatically import church growth and church planting models. In the United States you can still plant a church by creating a better church experience. If you do this in the United Kingdom, then the best you can do is attract existing churchgoers. That might be a valid endeavor, but it is not evangelistic growth.
Second, parts of the United States are heading in the direction of Europe. It may be time for the United States church to learn from the European church's experience of being on the margins of the culture. George G. Hunter concludes, "As measured by the simple indicator of church attendance, nations that were once substantially Christian are now largely lost to the Christian movement."26
LIVING IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM CONTEXT
We are living not only in a post-Christian context but in a post-Christendom context. Christendom is the formal or informal alliance of church and state that was the dominant model in Europe from the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century AD onward. The state authorized the church while the church supported the state. Christianity became a civil religion. To be born into the states of Europe was to be born into the church. The church as an institution was given special privileges. This mutual legitimization was symbolized in the overtly Christian coronation oaths, parliamentary prayers and sermons, the parish system, the coronation of monarchs by archbishops, and so on. The United States formerly separated church and state and allowed for religious toleration, but in other ways Christendom has been as strong in the United States as in Europe. The assumption is that Christianity should have a privileged status in the cultural and political discourse of the nation. Presidents and would-be presidents overtly reference their faith and close their speeches with the words, "God bless America."
Christendom, however, is increasingly a spent force in the West. Some of the symbolism remains. The British monarch is still the head of an established church, and bishops still sit in the upper chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament. But the reality of Christendom is fading fast, overtaken by secularism and pluralism. The Bible no longer has authority in public discourse. The church no longer has a privileged voice. Church leaders still get invited to state occasions, but on matters of ethics they are ignored. When the Pope visited the United Kingdom in 2010 he was greeted with all due pomp and ceremony as a head of state. But when it comes to his views on abortion and homosexuality, he is ignored by politicians and ridiculed by the media. Lyndon Bowring, the Executive Chairman of CARE, said in an interview, "The greatest challenge . . . is the growing secularization of society, where Christianity is being increasingly squeezed out of our national life. The ultimate result of this tendency will be a society that is hostile to Christian truth and practice."27
In his book After Christendom Stuart Murray defines post-Christendom as "the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses
1) From the center to margins. In Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
2) From majority to minority. In Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
3) From settlers to sojourners. In Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles, and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
4) From privilege to plurality. In Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
5) From control to witness. In Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
6) From maintenance to mission. In Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
7) From institution to movement. In Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.28
The legacy of Christendom is hotly debated. Some Christians recognize that it has come to an end but believe it leaves a largely positive legacy. Others celebrate its passing, bemoaning the compromises it imposed on the church. The church's privileged status in society, they believe, meant it had a vested interest in the status quo, which inevitably blunted its proclamation of the social dimensions of repentance and meant the church was aligned, or was perceived to be aligned, with the establishment.
The future of Christendom is also debated. Historian Philip Jenkins predicts a growing non-Western Christendom doing battle with militant Islam across the so-called Third World.29 Our focus, however, is on the West.
Here some Christians want to hang on to the last vestiges of Christendom, or they talk up the statistics of Christian affiliation however notional. Lynda Barley, head of research and statistics for the Church of England, claims, for example, that "Britain is still a predominantly Christian country," because, when asked in the census about their religion, more than seven in ten people consider themselves to be Christian.30 Yet a 2007 poll found that only 22 percent of men and 26 percent of women in Britain agreed with the statement, "I believe in a personal god who created the world and hears my prayers."31 So by any definition of Christian faith, almost two-thirds of those who say they are Christians clearly are not, for they do not even believe in a personal God.32 So why claim that the West is still predominately Christian? Because some Christians want to retain the notion that Western nations are Christian with the privileges and securities this brings. It allows us to continue on the basis of business as usual.
The Mission-Shaped Church report is more realistic: "The Christian story is no longer at the heart of the nation. Although people may identify themselves as 'Christian' in the national census, for the majority that does not involve belonging to a worshipping community, or any inclination that it should. Many people have no identifiable religious interest or expression."33
We are not pessimistic. There are many signs of life. Many churches are healthy. We sense a growing commitment to church planting across all the different tribes of evangelicalism. God's Word is still being proclaimed. The gospel is still the power of God for salvation. The Lord's arm is not too short that it cannot save. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in the world today. Christ will build his church. Our aim in reviewing these statistics is not to make us give up. Our aim is to show that the ways we do mission have to change.
CHRISTENDOM EVANGELISM IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM CULTURE
I, Steve, got into church planting in a strange way. In order to marry the woman of my dreams, I sat in the front room of her parents' house, asking her father for her hand in marriage. Her mother intervened: I could marry their daughter if I had a job and a house. It was Easter, and I was graduating in June with prospects of neither job nor house. Their daughter, waiting anxiously outside the room, was horrified to hear this stipulation. My girlfriend was even more horrified when she heard me agree. I left the house and cycled five miles in the dark to a man in a small village whom I knew had an empty building and a desire to start a church. I was twenty-two years old, but in two weeks I had a position and with it the house and job (supplemented by milking cows). We were able to get married within a few months.
On my first day in the job I started knocking on doors in the village. Every door was opened and then closed again. The same happened on the second day. And the third. So on the fourth day I got myself a clerical dog collar. From then on the doors were opened and I was warmly received. Being seen as a clergyman still had currency. Respect was still shown to the church. That was thirty years ago. Those days are now long gone.
There is nothing particularly new in our analysis of the demise of Christendom. But most of the attention in the discussion on the future of Christendom has focused on the impact of its demise on the church’s involvement in the wider culture and politics. Few have addressed what it means for the local church.
For all its vital rediscovery of gospel-centered theology, the Reformation in Europe did not lead to a recovery of gospel-centered mission by local churches. That is because the Reformers generally accepted the Christendom presupposition that Europe was Christian. To be born was to be born into the church. So the church’s mission to the surrounding society was pastoral rather than evangelistic. Later, with the rise of the evangelical movement, evangelism returned, in the words of Stuart Murray, “as a response to the rather belated recognition that Europe was, at best, only nominally Christian.” Murray adds:
But evangelism was still operating within a Christendom framework. Within Europe, it was assumed that the Christian story and the main tenets of the Christian message were familiar, so evangelism primarily involved repeated attempts to re-energise faith and commitment that seemed lukewarm. The emphasis was on calling people to make a renewed commitment to the implications of the gospel and to express this by activities such as reading the Bible, attending church more regularly, living morally respectable lives, and meeting the needs of others in a society without a welfare state. Beyond Europe, despite the heroic and often exemplary efforts of dedicated pioneer missionaries, evangelism too often degenerated into attempts to coerce or induce conversion and to impose a supposedly Christian and superior European culture on other societies.
As a student Tim belonged to a lively, evangelistic church. Each Sunday evening someone was interviewed at the front and asked how he or she had become a Christian. Week after week the same phrase kept cropping up: “My faith came alive.” Most stories were of people who had attended church as a child, but only when they came to university did their “faith come alive.” Evangelistic fruit came from, as Murray puts it, “attempts to re-energise faith.” And fruit there truly was. Nominal Christians were becoming living Christians. It was joy to hear those stories each week. But the opportunities to reenergize faith are diminishing fast as our culture becomes post-Christian.
We want to suggest that most of our current dominant models of church and evangelism are Christendom models. This needs to change as we move to a post-Christendom and post-Christian context.
Because we regard people as innately Christian in orientation, we think we can reach them through church meetings. So we invite people to our Sunday services or traditional celebrations in the church calendar (such as Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving) or special guest services or evangelistic courses. We’ve often been asked how we do mission without a notice board or public front door; people ask, “What about people who want to wander in off the streets?” The assumption is that mission equals a public presence.
We ring the church bell and expect people to come to our meetings to hear the gospel.
We also build evangelism around the traditional rites of passage. We connect with people through christenings, marriages, and funerals. We use baptism and marriage classes to present the gospel. We use these occasions to invite people to attend church regularly. To put it more colloquially, we reach people through the opportunities presented by “hatch, match, and dispatch.”
A Christendom model seeks to exploit our perceived privileged status on Main Street. We assume a dog collar will still opens doors. We assume clergymen will have a position of standing in society. We assume that events advertised on our notice board will draw people into the building. We assume we have a right to be heard when this is no longer the case and means we are perceived as strident and self-interested.
There is nothing wrong with any of these endeavors and a lot that is right with them, but they are fading opportunities. The number of christenings, church funerals, and church weddings is falling, as is attendance at Christian festivals.35
The Church of England bases a significant part of its identity on its physical presence in every community, and on a "come to us" strategy. But as community becomes more complex, mere geographical presence is no longer a guarantee that we can connect. The reality is that mainstream culture no longer brings people to the church door. We can no longer assume that we can automatically reproduce ourselves, because the pool of people who regard church as relevant or important is decreasing with every generation.36
John Finney's research Finding Faith Today showed that "the most important evangelistic work of the minister appears to be not in the church and the pulpit but in two other kinds of relationships: one to one meetings with non-Christians and the 'lapsed' [and] group situations, particularly those where there is an opportunity to talk about the nature of faith."37 His survey of recent converts found that only 4 percent said evangelistic events were the main factor with a further 13 percent saying they were a supporting factor.
There are three hundred thousand Mirpuri people in the United Kingdom from the Azad Kashmir region of Pakistan. There is no Mirpuri church. This is one of the largest unreached people groups in the world, and they are on our doorstep. So why is the United Kingdom church not throwing resources into evangelism among Mirpuris? No doubt there are many reasons. But perhaps one is the assumption that they are not our mission field. Some people, imbibing the spirit of the age, question whether we should evangelize people of other religions. Evangelicals may not think this, but perhaps unconsciously we assume we are called to reach people we somehow regard as dormant Christians. Stuart Murray says, "Arguing we should not evangelise other faith communities implies that we should evangelise only 'latent Christians' and that evangelism is unpleasant—both concepts deeply rooted in Christendom thinking."38
A newer feature of a Christendom approach is the outsourcing to "faith communities" of government services. Christian involvement in social action has a long and honorable tradition,39 but more recently faith communities are being paid by governments to provide charitable services. This is promoted both by the church and by a government state eager to reduce the size of the state. The danger is that this becomes a new way in which the church becomes an arm of the state. Along the way, its dependence on state funding with its attendant requirements may blunt the church's prophetic role and evangelistic proclamation. This is not an argument against the practice, but it is a call for us to be alert to its inherent dangers.
REACHING THE EIGHTY-FIVE MILLION
As we have seen, approximately eighty-five million people in the United States have no intention of attending a church service. In the United Kingdom it is forty million—70 percent of the population.
That of course means there are still many people who attend church meetings occasionally or are open to doing so in the future. So the Christendom models still have plenty of mileage in them. We are not suggesting that churches shut down evangelistic courses, guest services, Sunday schools, and so on. Many churches will see gospel fruit from such activities for years to come. We praise God for these opportunities and rejoice when churches work effectively to reach such people. But how will we reach the eighty-five million? Or the forty million? These are the critical questions, because these numbers are only going to increase.
Anecdotally church leaders recognize that we are largely reaching people on the fringe or the openly dechurched. People are "returning" to church. Research by John Finney in the 1990s showed three-quarters of those coming to faith in the United Kingdom were from dechurched backgrounds.40 But the number of people in the future who will return to church is dwindling all the time.
Consider attendance at Sunday school. In the United Kingdom in 1900 it was 55 percent. By 1940 it was 35 percent. By 1970 it had dropped to 14 percent. In 2000 it was just 4 percent. If the current trend continues, this will drop to only one in one hundred by 2016. One in seven forty-year-olds went to Sunday school, which means only one in seven forty-year-olds might return to church. In the future the number of potential returnees will dwindle to one in twenty and then one in a hundred. Penny Frank of the Church Pastoral Aid Society talks about this being "the last generation for the Church." She adds that, as a result, "children in some of our estates will never cross the bridge to church attendance."41 Ninety-six percent of children in the United Kingdom are growing up without any exposure to the church or its message. None of them will ever return to church! They might of course come to church for the first time, but they will not return to church.
Attracting returnees is not a strategy for the future. The Mission-Shaped Church report concludes:
The sober reality is that we do most of our evangelism, and even our church planting, among the 30 percent nearest to us—the fringe and open[ly] de-churched. But the stark question remains: what of our mission to the remaining 60 percent of the nation? Any apostolic church that derives its nature from the apostolic (or sending) character of God has no option but to face its mission to the non-churched, even if this is at the cost of finding new ways of being and doing church to exist alongside what we do and are at present. The task is to become church for them, among them and with them, and under the Spirit of God to lead them to become church in their own culture. 42
FROM ATTRACTIONAL EVENTS TO ATTRACTIONAL COMMUNITIES
In Christendom many people attended church, sometimes by legal constraint, more often by social constraint. In this context churches could legitimately speak of faithfully proclaiming the gospel, because each Sunday they had gospel-centered sermons. This is no longer the case. We cannot claim to be faithfully proclaiming the gospel to the lost through our Sunday preaching when most of the lost do not attend church. We need to do mission outside church and church events. This is something we need to recover rather than discover, for the modern evangelical movement was born out of a recognition that the United Kingdom was not a Christian nation and that it needed to be evangelized outside of church buildings and services. George Whitefield and John Wesley preached the gospel in the open air because they were not welcome in church buildings and because the people they wanted to reach where not in church.
We cannot rely on business as usual. It cannot mean more of the same. It must involve a qualitative change rather than simply a quantitative change. One of the common assumptions, when people fail to turn up to church, is that we need to improve the experience of church gatherings. We need to improve the “product.” We need better music, more relevant sermons, multimedia presentations, or engaging dramas. Or we need to relocate to pubs, cafes, or art centers. We need cool venues with cool people and cool music. The problem with this approach is the assumption that people will come to church if the product is better. To repeat what we said above: eighty-five million Americans have no intention of attending a church service, and these figures are higher among young people.
It is no good blaming the lost for failing to turn up. It is no good bemoaning the drift of our nation away from Christianity. “Our persistent ‘come to us’ mind-set suggests that we really believe that people who refuse to come in the front door are beyond the reach of Christ.” 43 A farmer cannot blame his crops if he fails to sow and reap. Sunday morning in church is the one place where evangelism cannot take place in our generation, because the lost are not there. Evangelism will not take place until we go out to connect with them where they are, where they feel comfortable, on their territory. We cannot assume people will come to us. We must go to them.
We need to do church and mission in the context of everyday life. We can no longer think of church as a meeting on a Sunday morning. We must think of church as a community of people who share life, ordinary life. And we cannot think of mission as an event that takes place in an ecclesiastical building. Of course, there will continue to be a role for special events, but the bedrock of mission will be ordinary life. Mission must be done primarily in the context of everyday life.
An everyday church with an everyday mission.
STRANGERS AND EXILES
It is still unusual to receive personal hostility because we are Christians, but we operate in a culture that is hostile to Christianity. Only last week a member of one of our gospel communities told how friends in his sports club are vitriolic about the Christian faith on their Facebook pages, apparently without sensing any incongruity with their friendship toward him. We may not often be persecuted, but we are marginalized. Faith in our culture is allowed to be privately engaging but is excluded from public life.
We need to wake up to the fact that Christians live at the margins. Our society has no time for the message of Jesus, and our allegiance to Jesus as Lord puts us on a collision course with the priorities of the culture. “Being on the margins rather than in the center will require a change of perspective, a very different mindset." 44
in a crucified Savior was being ridiculed. Christians were being slandered, excluded, and marginalized. In other words, it is much like our experience today.
Peter opens his first letter by describing his readers as "God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia." The idea that Christians are strangers in the world is a key motif in the letter. Peter calls his readers "strangers" or "foreigners" in 1:1 and 1:17 and "aliens and strangers" in 2:11.
Christians are like immigrants, foreigners, temporary residents, refugees. We do not belong. We do not have the rights of citizens. We are outsiders. We are living on the edge of the culture.
John Elliott argued that "strangers" in 1 Peter refers to the social status of Christians before their conversion. They were already outcasts who then found a home among God's people. Elliott's thesis, however, has not persuaded most commentators. "It underestimates," argues Miroslav Volf, "a new estrangement which a Christian way of life creates."45 It also ignores the way the terms "strangers" and "aliens" were used to describe God's people in the Old Testament (Gen. 23:4; Lev. 19:34; Ps. 39:12).
In contrast to Elliott, Karen Jobes argues that "strangers" was a reference to social alienation after conversion.46 She asks how Christians came to be in Asia Minor, a vast, relatively remote area for which we have no evidence of missionary activity in the first century other than the existence of churches in the locations described in 1 Peter 1:1. People have speculated that Peter himself evangelized these regions; hence the association that leads him to write this letter. But again there is no evidence for this. Jobes instead suggests that the Christians were converted elsewhere and then moved to Asia Minor where, no doubt, they continued to spread the message and gain new converts.
Jobes cites the Roman policy of colonizing conquered regions by moving people to new locations. The emperor Claudius is known to have colonized Asia Minor in this way, establishing formal Roman colonies in all the fives areas mentioned in 1 Peter 1:1. Noncitizens were sent to such regions, sometimes because they were perceived to be troublemakers in Rome. The main qualification for such deportation was that one lacked Roman citizenship, and the Latin equivalent of "foreigner" in verse 1 was a legal term referring to a free person who was not a Roman citizen. So such people were perceived as foreigners in the Roman areas from which they were sent and in the colonized areas to which they were sent. The most famous Roman expulsion occurred during the reign of Claudius when he expelled the Jews from Rome, including Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:2). Among these Jews were Christian converts, perhaps disproportionately so. Many might well have found themselves in Asia Minor where they continued to proclaim the gospel and establish churches. Moreover there is a long tradition of Peter's being based in Rome long before his later death under Nero. Peter, then, would have had personal contact with the Christians who were then deported in this way, and this would explain why he later writes to them in Asia Minor. Peter may have escaped the expulsion of Jews or, like Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3), returned after the death of Claudius. His cryptic reference to Babylon in 5:13 might be because he did not want to reveal his current location in Rome.
Jobes does not claim that this sociopolitical background negates a metaphorical understanding of the term. Rather, the two interrelate. "Peter uses the socio-historical situation of his readers to explain their socio-political situation."47 Peter is not saying it is as if his readers are on the margins of society. His readers really are on the margins of society.
Whatever the merits of Jobes's historical reconstruction, the important point to highlight is that the terms "aliens" and "strangers" describe real social realities. Rather than understanding "strangers" as "describing the believer's transitory life on this earth as a journey toward their heavenly home, it should be understood primarily as defining the relationship between the Christian and unbelieving society."48 In other words, Peter uses their experience of social marginalization to describe their experience as those in Christ. The church in Asia Minor is socially and culturally on the margins. Miroslav Volf concludes: "That the members of the Petrine community might have become Christians because many of them were socially marginalized seems an intelligent hypothesis. That they became alienated from their social environment in a new way when they became Christians is what the epistle explicitly states."49
Ask the government how to become a citizen, and they will tell you that you have to live in the country for a certain number of years, be of good character, and pass a citizenship test. Except, of course, that there is an easier way to become a citizen, which is to be born there. That's the way most people become citizens. It was the same in Rome. Some people could earn citizenship, but most were born as citizens.
It is the same for Christians. We are foreigners and exiles because we have been born anew into a new homeland. "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you" (1 Pet. 1:3–4). Peter emphasizes that we have been born into something: a living hope and a new inheritance. We have become citizens of a new homeland. It is not something we earned through good character or by passing a citizenship test. It happened to us by being born again.
Peter is not saying heaven is our new home. Our home is the new creation, which is "kept" in heaven for us. Our inheritance is kept for us (1 Pet. 1:4) and we are kept for our inheritance (v. 5). Many of the refugees with whom we work in Sheffield have no certainty of returning to their homeland. Indeed most of them have no reason to suppose they will ever go home and every reason to think they will not. But Christians are certain of going home to receive their inheritance. How can we be certain? Through the resurrection. Jesus has returned home ahead of us, opening up the way (v. 3). So we may be strangers now on earth, but we are not strangers in God's kingdom.
The reverse is also true: being members of another kingdom makes us outsiders here on earth. Peter says that your former friends "think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you" (1 Pet. 4:4). We have become strangers because we have become strange! Our values, lifestyle, and priorities are radically different from the surrounding culture. Our faith makes us strangers in our own land. We do not fit in. We are on the margins.
In his opening description of his readers Peter not only refers to them as "strangers," but literally as "strangers of the Diaspora." "Foreigners in exile," we might say. As a noun, Diaspora was a technical term for Jews scattered beyond Palestine after the Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Peter's readers almost certainly include Gentile Christians, but he likens them to Jews in Babylonian exile. We are exiles.
Peter seems to be writing in the style of a Jewish Diaspora letter written from Jerusalem to Jewish exiles.50 Indeed there are good reasons to think that his letter is modeled on a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote back in the sixth century BC to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29). Jeremiah's letter is introduced: "This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon" (Jer. 29:1). First Peter 2:11–12 and Peter's quote from Psalm 34 in 1 Peter 3:11 seem to echo Jeremiah's call to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile" (Jer. 29:7). Psalm 34 is itself a psalm of exile. The Greek version of the Old Testament, which Peter uses, describes God in verse 4 as delivering David from all "his sojournings," which is related to the word "aliens" that Peter uses to describe Christians.
But here is the key thing. At the end of the letter Peter sends greetings "from Babylon" (1 Pet. 5:13)—almost certainly a cryptic reference to Rome. This is not a letter from home in Jerusalem to exiles in Babylon. This is a letter from exile to exile. Exile is not geographically defined. Christians are not strangers because they have moved from their homeland to a new country. They are exiles because their identity has so radically changed that they are no longer at home in their country of birth. The reference to Babylon reminds us of Daniel, who rose to the top of the Babylonian political system, fulfilling Jeremiah's call to seek the prosperity of the city. We are called to get involved in the world and to bless our cities, but we cannot do so on the basis that our nation is a Christian nation. This is not our home.
Peter says his readers "may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials" (1 Pet. 1:6). Commentators agree that the suffering Peter's readers were undergoing was not at this point state-sponsored imprisonment or martyrdom (though that would come later). Instead it was the suspicion and censure of their neighbors. Karen Jobes says, "Because of their Christian faith, they were being marginalized by their society, alienated in their relationships, and threatened with—if not experiencing—a loss of honor and socioeconomic standing (and possibly worse)."51 Howard Marshall says, "At this stage it seems that state action was rare . . . and that what Christians had to fear was more in the nature of social ostracism, unfriendly acts by neighbors, pressure on Christian wives from pagan husbands, masters taking it out on Christian slaves and other actions of that kind. It was sufficient, in any case, to make life uncomfortable."52
The hostility described throughout the letter is verbal slander and malicious accusations: "They accuse you of doing wrong" (1 Pet. 2:12); "the ignorant talk of foolish men" (v. 15); "insult" (3:9); "those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ"; "slander" (3:16). "It was precisely the precarious legal status of foreigners that provided the closest analogy to the kind of treatment Christians could expect from the hostile culture in which they lived."53 We cannot know what people said to Christians in the marketplace and street. Day to day insults are rarely written down in the historical records. But there is a famous piece of graffiti surviving from the first century that depicts a donkey on a cross with the words "Alexander worships his God." Alexander, it seems, was a Christian whose faith
AN UNSEEN LORD
Peter says of Jesus, "Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy" (1 Pet. 1:8). We love what we have not seen. We believe in what we cannot see.
Peter recognizes this will be received with incredulity by our unbelieving neighbors. The Roman Empire knew how to do propaganda. It knew how to project its glory and power on its subjects. Its symbols of power were everywhere: Roman standards, eagles, magnificent civic buildings. Everywhere the eye turned in the cities of Asia Minor there were signs of the triumph of Roman imperialism. The eternal city was setting itself up for an eternal reign.
It is not so very different today. We still use Romanesque architecture and symbols to express imperial power. Eagles or lions adorn our currency. Civic buildings are built with Roman columns and domes. But the power that projects itself with the greatest ubiquity is that of consumerism. Everywhere the eye turns in Western cities we see advertising, brands, logos, hoardings. It is impossible to avoid. So it is hardly surprising that its values are implanted in our lives.
All the time Christians orient their lives to a Lord they cannot see. Peter knows that is a hard thing to explain to people. We shape our lives around something we cannot see and have never seen. Peter recognizes that it makes us sound weird.
A REJECTED LORD
Peter says: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Pet. 1:10–11). The message of the Old Testament is the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. Jesus sets the pattern: suffering followed by glory. We suffer hostility and marginalization just as he did. Indeed Jesus suffered the ultimate marginalization: he was pushed out of the world onto the cross. As Jesus said, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:18–20). Or consider the words of Hebrews:
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Heb. 13:11–14)
We have become outsiders just as Jesus was an outsider. We are marginal in our culture because Jesus is marginal. The cross is the ultimate expression of marginalization and to follow him is to take up our cross daily. It is daily to experience marginalization and hostility. Being on the margins is normal Christian experience. Christendom was the aberration. Rather than assume we should have a voice in the media or on Main Street, we need to regain the sense that anything other than persecution is an unexpected bonus.
But Peter also says we "have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father" (1 Pet. 1:2). The world has "unchosen" us so that we have become the rejected and marginalized, but God has chosen us. Just as we share in Christ's suffering, so we will share in "the glories that would follow" (v. 11; 4:12–13). And God has chosen us for a purpose: "Out of all nations you will be my treasured possession," he says to his people. "Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5–6). The doctrine of election, God's choice of us, is never intended as an indulgence. Its purpose is always mission.
We cannot only survive on the margins; we can thrive on the margins. From the margins we point to God's coming world. We offer an alternative lifestyle, values, relationships—a community that proves incredibly attractive. First Peter equips us to go back into the world—into our classrooms, boardrooms, factories, playgrounds, and changing rooms—as men and women who, like our Savior before us, are those who are marginal yet world changing.