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Marginal Christianity

Discipleship takes church to the edges of society, mission expert tells Evangelism and Church Growth conference

August 14, 2014

Juan Martínez

Juan Martínez —Paul Seebeck

ST. PETE BEACH, Fla.

Evangelism today requires Christians to leave the comfort of the traditional and go the margins of society, missiologist Juan Martínez, vice provost and professor of Hispanic studies and pastoral leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary, told the 2014 Evangelism and Church Growth Conference of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Aug. 13.

“How do we form disciples in the world we live in today, when all the rules seem to have changed?” Martínez asked the crowd of about 500 conferees here. “Those of us who are used to following Jesus in a certain way are finding that the rules have changed and we don’t quite know what to do.”

For answers, Martínez turned to Acts 13 and the story of the founding of the church at Antioch, which he described as “a church formed on the margin, which looked very different from Jerusalem, the cradle of Christendom.” Martínez urged the crowd to “look at ourselves like an Antioch — a religious marketplace with lots of options, but still looking for God.”

As the Christian community moved out of Jerusalem “in concentric circles,” Martínez said, “they began crossing all kinds of lines,” creating conflict between those in Jerusalem who believed the church needed to look like them and those like Paul and Barnabas who “felt called to radical transformation in some very different places.”

The church in Antioch, in turn, was willing to send out Paul (its spiritual leader) and Barnabas (its main financial backer) without fear of its own future without them but “because they were attentive and clear … that God had called out the best from among them” to carry the Christian message further.

“The spirit of God through Paul and Barnabas changed the face of the church,” Martínez said. “The new disciples are formed at the margins … and are able to break out of their boundaries because their experience was of a church formed and framed to work from the margins.”

This evangelism “didn’t seem to need a big budget — they never got the memo about how much it cost to start a new church, and I’m grateful to God they didn’t,” Martínez said. “They sent out their best because they believed in God’s future. They knew that mission was what they were all about so were open to newness. Not that the old ways were wrong, but that God is doing new things and Antioch is not only open, its enthusiastic about new ways of calling people to follow Jesus Christ.”

We live in a world that is always changing, Martínez said. “We’re in a place where people are interested in spiritual things, though maybe not in the way that we’re used to framing those things,” he said. “As we think about discipling today, it’s still about calling people to Jesus Christ. I invite us as the church in Antioch to the margins, to not be afraid of exile, to be willing to suffer for Jesus.

“We are not in charge but we can be agents of peace, agents of contrast … We believe, not because we know how to do it, but because we believe it is God’s world, God’s work, God’s mission.”

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