One of the more prevalent buzzwords used in present debates and conversations around the ongoing and continuing change in culture and the broader church, especially in academic circles, is “liminal.”
The term comes from the Latin word for threshold (limen) and is used to describe the space one enters into when moving from one room to another, one space to another, one era to another. A simple threshold, like that in a doorframe, is passed through without much notice. Others, such as a skyway between office buildings in downtown Minneapolis or the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado, which passes through the heart of a mountain as you move from the Eastern Slope to the Western Slope along the Continental Divide, are much more noticeable.
However, as used in ongoing study and conversation about change in the church, “liminal” is often denotes that broader period of time between eras or seasons of the culture and church — a setting which is often marked by a clearly receding past and an uncertain, and often, undetectable future.
I believe that the church in all its forms (congregation, synod, national and international bodies) are squarely in the middle of a liminal phase. We don’t know how long it will take to pass through this particular threshold into the future church. We don’t know what the future church will look like. But for the most part, most people I study and talk with are pretty sure that the church that the Spirit brings forth will not be the church of our youth.
I also wonder if liminality is such a bad thing. What if liminality is the natural way of creation? What if human efforts to control and subdue the uncertainty in the world is actually the exception, and not the norm?
Genesis tells us that in the beginning, the Earth was a formless void — nothingness without form and only the Spirit Breath of God sweeping over the waters. From this uncertain, unformed, unrecognizable liminal space God created. And it was good until those whom God created broth the order. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden into a new and harsh and unfamiliar liminal space to start again.
If we are able to pull away and look at the Biblical narrative from a 30,000 foot view, we’ll see a theme that is repeated over and over and over: all human efforts to settle and organize and assert control over creation eventually fail, and humankind is thrust back into a liminal space.
When Jacob stole the birthright of Esau he had to flee to another land and people. Liminal.
When the people of the Exodus disobeyed God at Mount Sinai, they were punished with forty years of wandering through the liminal wilderness.
When the people of Jerusalem and Judah were carried off to captivity in Babylon. Liminal.
The early Christians were called to spread the Gospel throughout the known world. Liminal.
And the pattern continues on in the history of the church. Constantine mainstreamed the Church into the Roman Empire, bringing her across the threshold from persecution to public and state acceptance. Charlemagne essentially united church and state power, thrusting it into an expanded liminal space of power and prestige. The Thirty Years War between followers of Luther and the Roman Church was an extreme time of liminal disruption.
And so on, and so on, and to this very day, where the rise of unchecked social media, anti-intellectualism, economic and racial inequities, and so many other challenges have contributed to our current liminal era.
What is next? I don’t know.
But I trust in God who always creates out of uncertainty and chaos, who calls us and guides us and gently assists us so that we are able to move forward in faith and hope.