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Leading at the borders: How to enter a time when everything is about to start

To accept that we – and the church – have reached the metaphorical borderland, writes José R. Irizarry, is to be willing to imagine ourselves anew.

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Our perception of the world is unavoidably determined by the boundaries of our temporality. To make sense of our life circumstances, we respond to every event based on how we understand it in the unmediated experience of the now. This may be why we perceive our world is awash in “unprecedented” realities.

Commentators fill the airwaves with news of current events that have never been seen before, according to their reporting. Rapid climate change, global pandemics, institutional stagnation, political subversion of democratic values, religious apathy, technological control and the erosion of human community all appear as one-of-a-kind disruptions that threaten our accustomed ways of living.

But even the most judicious review of human history points to similar experiences in the past — instances that can remove us from this permanent mindset of eschatological interpretation. Every generation tells its own story of the “end-of-times.” In our generation, that story is sharply forging how we live and how we respond to challenges that upset our so-called normal ways of living.

Extremes vs. the in-between

In the face of this distinctive feature of the human condition – that is, the idea that humanity is being pushed to the edge of existence by cultural, social and natural forces – concerned people find ourselves becoming carriers of two main narratives. One narrative presents the world as destined for ruin. The other narrative stresses the role of hope in building human resilience to preserve that world. These two narratives are not mutually exclusive; they are just bookends on a continuum of possible responses.

One narrative presents the world as destined for ruin. The other narrative stresses the role of hope in building human resilience to preserve that world. These two narratives are not mutually exclusive; they are just bookends on a continuum of possible responses.

Yet if today’s corporate and social media represent where we place ourselves on this continuum, we clearly gravitate toward the extremes. In doing so, we create an abyssal “in-between” that we are finding more difficult to bridge through political, ideological, social and religious compromise.

When the church finds itself in one corner on this spectrum, the gospel’s message becomes culturally antagonistic. Rather than offering the gospel message through the openness of a parable, the church must attempt to render a conclusive truth that excludes or shames anyone who dares to differ. If the message the church offers the world says that its end-of-time is conditioned by a choice between doom or hope, the institution is destined to become less appealing to a secularized world.

If the message the church offers the world says that its end-of-time is conditioned by a choice between doom or hope, the institution is destined to become less appealing to a secularized world.

On one side, Christianity stands on the soapbox of apocalyptic hollering, so it is perceived to be manipulative and coercive. On the other side, it offers a soft discourse of unsubstantiated hope that at times seems both naive and inauthentic.

Yet the Christian tradition has never shied away from helping people maintain their faith during these watershed moments.

Understanding the church as borderland

So how can church leaders position ourselves in these generational end- of-times? Theological education must face this important question if we are to equip the faithful (leaders and laity alike) with rational frameworks to understand the ongoing power of religious and biblical imagination in restoring God’s creative order — in halting chaos so that life can emerge in places once considered to be infertile, tired and empty. Yes, including the challenges of reemerging as a vital and burgeoning church.

In its continuous search for divine speech that addresses today’s context, theological education forges metaphors intended to help us reengage the world with new interpretations and innovative practices of faith. In this we endeavor to follow Jesus’ pedagogy, in which he recognized the preeminence of metaphors to prompt renewed understandings of our relationship with God, others and the world.

Since my move to Austin, Texas, a year ago, I have become keenly aware of the idea of the “borderland.” The reality of the borderland defines daily life when the (real or imaginary) line between two distinctive cultures becomes porous enough that it resists the unsurpassable demarcations of “us and them.” In the borderland, a space is reconstituted through necessary exchanges that, as a result, dilute the strict separations of languages, values and worldviews.

The border thus becomes an illuminating metaphor to speak about the church in today’s world. Once the church was considered viable only as a house built on the stable foundation of a rock (whether that foundation is called “social establishment” or “national identity”). But today’s church finds itself to be a house standing in shifting sands, with few resources and insufficient border experience to make the best out of it.

We are certainly living a borderland existence in which more than one reality and multiple visions of the world collide. The church is forced to lead at the border of clearly demarcated political and ideological divides — at the border that separates old and young and creates a deep generational gap, at the border of contested domains between nature and technology, at the border of plural identities claiming their rightful space at the table, at the border co-inhabited by both locally embodied and virtually formed faith communities.

Facing these challenges, the church seems to react by trying to establish the boundaries of correctness.

Living in the in-betweenness of the borderland seems too lofty a call for those who are used to thriving in the safe spaces of steady structures, commonly accepted policies and dogmatic certainties.

Leading by learning multiple languages of faith

This anxious retreat to our respective geographies of belief has promoted radical responses to our current social divisions. The resurgences of White Christian nationalism, on one side, and diluted Christian secularism, on the other, are symptoms of how we retreat to our comfortable spaces when we confront the ambiguities of the borderland.

Our ability to lead at these borders requires understanding that one single leadership model may not be sufficient. Our leadership cannot be prescribed; it needs to be shaped by the ecology of human relations, and survival at the border necessitates the capacity to speak and understand two or more languages of faith — at times, simultaneously. In that sense, the leader of the borderland church will be necessarily “bilingual,” able to speak of limits and horizons as two sides of the same Christian message, not as opposite registers of faith.

I dare to suggest that churches today – and leaders who are more knowledgeable about the challenges – perceive the institutional church as one that has arrived, or is close to arriving, at the limit of its existence. The limit marks the end. That end is interpreted as closure, fragility, scarcity, aging and, for some, even death.

The unique role of theological institutions

Theological institutions are touched by the disruptive reality that produces such perceptions. Theological ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr once reminded theological institutions that their uncertainty about what purposes they serve reflected, in part, the confusions existing in contemporary Christianity and its churches. Nevertheless, theological institutions are in a unique place to generate – as they have done before – the proper questions to challenge the permanence and logic of such perceptions.

By encouraging what has been called a hermeneutics of suspicion (an interrogating posture toward religious certainties), theological institutions will always contend with any faith discourse or practice that purports to bring God’s speech to a final point. In the spirit of the theological directive to question such certainties, we could reawaken the conversation about the destiny of the church and its leadership with a single question: Is the church facing its limit, or is it just arriving at the borderland — that unfamiliar space of apparent contradictions where it needs to contemplate courageous ways to move forward?

Is the church facing its limit, or is it just arriving at the borderland?

Seminaries and theological institutions should walk this path ahead of the learners, to lead the way in exploring what knowledge and methods are more suitable to interpret, envision and guide a church that is facing a border experience.

Situated at the border of generational rifts, the Christian leader needs to learn how to sustain and celebrate the gifts of aging congregations, where a visible expression of the church continues to witness to the resilience of faith. At the same time, the leader should explore cultivating interest among a new generation of Christians, embracing whatever form of community emerges from their unique faith commitments and spiritual needs — even the possibility of leading in a post-institutional church.

Theological education that supports developing leadership for generational border crossing will be challenged to revisit the congregational model that centers ecclesiology — the model that informs how we research and interpret today’s church.

The role of the Christian leader at the borders

Situated at the border of political and ideological divides, the Christian leader should envision and promote faith communities’ authority to summon and gather people within a social space where relational healing is still possible. Such healing does not dissolve these differences, but it sustains peoples’ relationships across those differences by privileging the call to love, to solidarity, to peaceful coexistence — and when these high ideals are not possible, to toleration.

Social and cultural divisiveness within a faith community makes cooperation and mission difficult to obtain. Leaders will exhaust their spirits (and for sure their patience) trying to move people from one political or religious position to another as a condition required for living together as Christ’s church. Leaders should accept that people will not cross the border from one ideology to its opposite through external motivation or insistent urging.

Rather, people need to learn how to be faithful within a church where differences are recognized, worldly values are not mutually accepted, and opposite worldviews can coexist. In other words, leaders will need to adapt to, not resist, the inconvenient border experience in today’s church. Leadership in this church requires the capacity to manage deeply felt commitments in the context of a community that embodies a larger missional enterprise: the restorative work of God’s Spirit in the world. If the church cannot become the spiritual site of restoration, healing and redemption of the human condition, the core content of our faith might be replaced by the power of the trivial and mundane. Have the idols finally won the endless battle with the true God?

People need to learn how to be faithful within a church where differences are recognized, worldly values are not mutually accepted, and opposite worldviews can coexist.

Situated at the border of nature and technology, the Christian leader must recognize the proper value of these resources and critically engage with the ways both technological tools and natural resources are used either to build or to fragment human communities. To use social media as an example, this critical approach would consider whether this space of virtual interactions is producing strong social networks for democratic and civil society to flourish — or whether it becomes the source of corrosive disputes that will gradually weaken the social fabric. In exploring human invention and its benefits in bringing new vitality to ministry and mission, the leader must be trained to carefully assess the value of “innovation” and “expediency” as theologically sound groundings for ministry and mission.

As a result of the pandemic, congregations innovated by using technology during lockdowns to reach out to the community and to maintain connections with church members. In the process, unintended benefits of a virtual community were realized, namely, expanded participation and accessibility. Consequentially, many congregations continued their virtual presence even after they officially returned to the pews.

But technological innovation never conforms to stability. Due to its incessant mutation, technology will continue to press church leaders into more responsive and reactive uses. Besides, the technologically mediated formation of faith communities cannot escape sound ecclesiology. The time will come when the virtual community will claim its own identity as church. This evolution will necessitate its own forms of interaction, communication and networking beyond the members’ current role as spectators of a Sunday morning experience transmitted over a computer screen. If technological innovation is the basis for this assessment, this mode of being church will plateau sooner than later.

Due to its incessant mutation, technology will continue to press church leaders into more responsive and reactive uses.

The invitation to leaders at the border of these two forms of congregational life is to analyze how their respective senses of community and the sacred are embodied within the particularities of each worship environment. If we do not understand the uniqueness of each context and its needs, we may fail to know how to move forward when we face with their potential obsolescence.

The distinctiveness of ambiguous reality

Those who live a border experience are fully aware of their ambiguous reality and can accept that there are distinctive ways of living on the two sides of the borderland. Life on the other side always seems well-adjusted, unified, clearly structured. On the other side, the world makes sense; when it does not, anxiety ensues, and pessimism overtakes our thoughts and words.

At the border, we can have no expectation of certainties. Everything is in the process of emerging. It is a broad space where the mystery of God can be revealed in any language, at any time, in any form: unrestrained by our desires, our biases and our preferences. At the border, God refuses to be colonized. Learning to lead amidst that ambiguity, trusting God’s grace and direction for what comes next, is the test for today’s church.

The church of the border experience is moving toward a different form of being and ministering in the world — and that form still must be discovered. Faithfulness is its centering commitment. Openness is the key to its leadership. Belonging is its invitation.

We have clearly arrived at our end of times. To accept we have reached our limit is to give up possibilities. To accept we have reached the borderland, however, is to be willing to imagine ourselves anew. Let us consider where we stand, for we have reached either the end of the church or its best moment.

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