“The future is already here, it is just on the margins.”
-Dave Gibbons, author and pastor of Newsong Church, Santa Ana, California
On February 11, 1805, a sound rang out through Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery that they had never expected to hear. Not the roar of a grizzly bear, not the thunder of waterfalls, not the call of an unknown bird.
A baby’s cry.
The military corps charged by Thomas Jefferson with finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean had a new recruit because his mother would someday become — next to Lewis and Clark themselves — the most famous member of this fable crew who would find their way across the Rocky Mountains to the far side of the continent.
The baby’s mother, Sacagawea, had been born Shoshone. Kidnapped by the Hidatsa when she was 11 or 12, she was now at 16 or 17 years of age, one of the wives of a French-Canadian trapper named Toussant Charbonneau. The captains had hired Charbonneau as a guide through the mountains, but they very quickly realized that Sacagawea’s interpreting was far more valuable. So, when the captains needed to drop their canoes and find horses to cross the Rockies, it was to Sacagawea they turned.
She led them to the Shoshone, navigated the tense relationship at the first encounter, and helped broker the deal that brought the corps the critical horses they needed. When her tribe begged Sacagawea to stay, she instead insisted in going with the corps and continuing the journey. Later, Clark would praise her as the “pilot” that took them through the country.
Their journals don’t reveal any of their thinking about why they invited along a nursing mother, but this much was sure: the only member of the Corps of Discovery who was not in uncharted, off-the-map, territory when these river runners came to the edge of the Missouri river and headed over the Rocky Mountains was the teenage mother with her nursing baby. She was not venturing into unexplored territory, she was going home.
As the church has lost power and influence within the larger culture, there is a tendency to bemoan and even battle to regain that place of dominance. For those who were trained for a Christendom world, this experience of feeling as if you are in uncharted territory can be disorienting. Therefore, the vast experience of women, racial-ethnic minority persons, and leaders from majority world contexts is as critical to the transitioning western church as was Sacagawea’s to Lewis and Clark.
The problem, of course, is that even the very reality of being trained for Christendom means that most of us won’t recognize the value of a Sacagawea when she is sitting in front of us. Fuller Seminary Chaplain Steve Yamaguchi reminds his students, “Our immigrant churches, have generations of experience living on the edges, displaced from the center, as more than survivors.” But do we even know that we need them?
Like the Corps of Discovery captains who figured out that all of their “on the map” education was less valuable than the life experience of a Shoshone teenage girl, many church leaders of particular prominence and position today are only now beginning realize that as the Christendom narrative is being rejected, they are in great need to collaborate with and learn from leaders who because of their gender, social status, ethnicity and less-privileged life actually makes them more equipped for the world today than they are. As Theresa Cho, a 2nd generation Korean-American pastor, told a group of church leaders in 2012:
My husband and I have been working in small congregations our whole ministry career. Every day, every week, and every year, we are faced with the challenge of how to make church relevant in the community; how to make church healthier; and how to move the church to change with the changing demographics. This is reality. This is ministry. For smaller congregations, there isn’t a sense of perishing because the hey day left over 50 years ago. You have to HAVE something to feel like you are LOSING something.
While many of us who can remember when our churches had full pews and overflowing offering plates feel so disoriented in this new day, Cho reminds us that there are many church leaders who have known nothing else and that they – not the successful pulpiteers of the Christendom past — are the true missional experts.
The demise of Christendom in the west offers us an opportunity for a different kind of leadership, more equality of roles, more valuing of previously ignored voices, and more opportunities for shared witness to a world that is more profoundly in need of the gospel. In other words, the deep disorientation for those trained in Christendom can be helped by learning to look to and partner with those who have been living in the post-Christendom marginality already.
Be sure to check out Tod Bolsinger’s book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.