Ministry in the Margins

by Anthony A. Cook

The View from Here

Editor’s Note: With this online column, we offer occasional essays on topics that appear in The Lutheran Witness or that have broad interest among our readers.


Every social group has a story–a narrative that gives the group meaning, defines values, articulates goals, identifies enemies, and records group history. And like all narratives, there is material deemed worthy of inclusion in the “center of the page,” where the main story is told, and material deemed less important, which is included at the fringes of the story–“in the margins.”

In most group narratives, its heroes are lauded, its achievements recorded, and its traditions explained prominently within the “center of the page.” Anything that doesn’t fit the story’s flow or contradicts its theme is relegated to the margins, ignored, or even forgotten.

The determination of what material will be included in the center of the page and what is moved to the margins is ultimately decided by the one privileged to serve as the group’s narrator. While at first the activity of differentiating between what is worthy of inclusion in the center and what will reside in the margins seems obvious, necessary, and benign; upon reflection, however, one realizes that what is being marginalized is more than words, but also the people to whom the words refer.

The Dictionary of Sociology (John Scott and Gordon Marshall, Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 2007) calls this process of “writing people into the margins” of a society’s narrative marginalization. It defines marginalization as “a process by which a group or individual is denied access to important positions and symbols of economic, religious, or political power within any society.” Scott and Marshall explain that “Anthropologists, in particular, have tended to study marginal groups. This stems in part from the idea that, by looking at what happens on the margins of society, one can see how that society defines itself and is defined in terms of other societies, and what constitute its key cultural values.”

If this is true, if you were to assume the position of an armchair anthropologist, whom would you find in the margins of your societal narrative? Are your margins filled with drug addicts; gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people; the working poor; the aged and infirm; the homeless; prostitutes; gang members; prisoners; AIDS patients; the physically and/or mentally challenged; or people of a different skin color? What is it that they are denied by you through your marginalizing process? What is it that we as the Church need to take to the fringes of our society? How can we as ambassadors of the Gospel bridge the gap through a ministry of compassion and inclusion? How can those at the margins become part of our narrative, the narrative of salvation?

While the answers to these questions will depend on your context and the specific “marginalized” groups that are in your midst, here are three steps that might help.

The first step is identification. Only when we have identified the marginalized groups within our unique context can we begin to understand their situation and how best to connect their individual stories to God’s story. Identifying those who are marginalized, however, can be a painful process. For when we look to the margins, we expose the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of both the marginalized and the mainstream that encouraged the marginalization process. As we identify the characteristics that resulted in the marginalization, we also identify characteristics within ourselves, some of which might be difficult to accept. It is at this point that we must rely on the promises of God’s grace through Jesus Christ to forgive our sins and show us His will for our lives.

Identifying those in the margins will also bring to light our fears and reservations about associating with those on the fringe. While thoughts of ministering to the marginalized might create fear and apprehension, it is for people just like these that Jesus died and it is through His power and by His grace that we take this first step.

The second step is interaction. In order to understand what the marginalized are being denied, we must meet them where they are and be open to hearing their story. It is then that prejudice begins to melt and fear begins to subside. Through interaction, those on the margins are transformed from stereotypes to actual people for whom Jesus died. Building the bridges necessary to make this interaction take place will take time, effort, and a clear vision of our goal. There will most likely be skepticism on both sides, but in time, trust will grow. In the same way that those around Jesus expressed their concern with His interactions with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and Samaritans, those same concerns will undoubtedly arise in our mind as we contemplate reaching out to those on society’s edges. Without interaction, however, we find ourselves cast into the role of the ones who passed by the wounded man on the road, fearing the result of contact instead of binding his wounds and providing him a place to stay. Interaction allows us to understand those considered Samaritans, so that like the Good Samaritan, we might stop, bind wounds, provide aid, give direction, and deliver them to a place of security.

The third step is inclusion. Inclusion does not mean we overlook sin or pretend that someone is something that he or she is not. It is instead an acknowledgement that we are all God’s creations and that each of us is in need of both the societal and spiritual blessings that God provides. Inclusion is the sharing of these societal and spiritual blessings with those who are ignored, rejected, and left out of society’s narrative, God’s story of grace, or both. Through inclusion, the transforming narrative of Jesus Christ is shared with the marginalized in such a way that a hearing is gained for the Gospel narrative and a door is opened for the working of the Holy Spirit. For ultimately, inclusion is achieved by the work of the Holy Spirit through Water and the Word, and at that moment, when the gift of faith is given, the marginalized are moved to the center of the page in God’s story of grace–no longer on the fringe, but at the center of a new story. A story narrated by God.

About the Author: Rev. Anthony A. Cook is director of distance curricula and assistant professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.


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