Experiencing Life at the Margins
If you want to ask the Rt. Rev. Dr. David Zac Niringiye what's new in his ministry, allow some extra time. As assistant bishop of Kampala in the Church of Uganda, Zac oversees churches that are enjoying tremendous growth and confronting pressing needs. He and his wife, Theodora, counsel Ugandans who have suffered the trauma of war, advise startup businesses throughout Africa, and nurture Christian student movements and evangelistic efforts. His contributions to spiritual and cultural renewal in Africa alone would make him a valuable respondent to our big question: How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? But Zac, a protégé of evangelical leader John Stott, also has cultivated deep relationships with Christians in the West, beginning with theological studies at Wheaton and Edinburgh. As a senior adviser to Geneva Globalanother product of Stott's far-flung network of students and friendsZac is creating international partnerships that model the candid challenge he offers to American Christians in this interview.
As a longtime friend and partner of North American Christians, what have you noticed about us?
One of the gravest threats to the North American church is the deception of powerthe deception of being at the center. Those at the center tend to think, "The future belongs to us. We are the shapers of tomorrow. The process of gospel transmission, the process of missionall of it is on our terms, because we are powerful, because we are established. We have a track record of success, after all."
Yet recently the Lord led me to an amazing passage, the encounter between Jesus and Nathaniel in John 1. Nathaniel has decided Jesus is a non-entity. Jesus comes from Nazareth, after all.
Nathaniel's skepticism comes from being in power, being at the center. Those at the center decide that anyone not with us isnot against us[but] just irrelevant. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" It doesn't warrant our time. But the Messiah is from Nazareth.
What's the problem with being at the center?
God very often is working most powerfully far from the center. Jesus is crucified outside Jerusalemoutsidewith the very cynical sign over his head, "The King of the Jews." Surprisehe is the King of the Jews. "We had hoped " say the disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he did not fulfill our criteria. In Acts, we read that the cross-cultural missionary thrust did not begin in Jerusalem. It began in Antioch, on the periphery, the margins. But Jerusalem is not ready for Antioch! In fact, even when they go to Antioch, it's just to check on what's happening.
I have come to the conclusion that the powerful, those at the center, must begin to realize that the future shape of things does not belong to them. The future shape of things is on the periphery. The future shape of things is not in Jerusalem, but outside. It is Nazareth. It is Antioch.
If you really want to understand the future of Christianity, go and see what is happening in Asia, Africa, Latin America. It's the peripherybut that's where the action is.
But many American churches are already deeply involved in missions overseas.
Of course. Yet it's so difficult to get American Christians, even those who profess to love missions and their brothers and sisters on the periphery, to actually come and see what is happening where we are. This is especially true of those in the positions of greatest power in the church. I have asked a friend, a pastor of a large church that gives half of its money to missions, to come and spend time on the fringes. But he won't. He wants to spend his study leave in Oxford, in Australia. How can American pastors be leaders if they haven't seen what God is doing elsewhere? Every search process for a senior pastor should ask, "Do you have experience in marginal places, economically deprived places, places with HIV/AIDS? Have you gone to be among them?"