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Learning from the Margins

Friday, 18 November 2022  | Matthew Ventura

Since Australia’s recent census data were released on the 28th of June, I’ve observed a wide range of public responses to the fact that for the first time the number of Australians identifying as Christians has officially dropped below 50 per cent.

At a friend’s church, I was struck by the words of a young man leading prayer: ‘God, as we look at our world, we see that even now within Australia, Christianity is increasingly a minority of the population. Help us to know how to live for you in this atheistic age’. Now, whether we really are entering a new ‘atheistic age’, and how we understand the precise nature of Christianity’s minority status, are matters for smarter people than me to discuss.

Instead, what struck me in this prayer was the felt experience of this man, and probably many others like him. What I sensed in that room was uncertainty about what it might look like to remain Christian in a changing world where we’ve fallen out of favour. For those who haven’t yet experienced living in a social minority, this would represent a dramatic shift in how they experience the world.

I imagine a lot of people hearing the prayer in that service felt a mix of emotions: apprehension, anxiety and fear of isolation, as well as trust and hope in God’s provision. But for me, that moment sparked a burning excitement. This feels like an invigorating opportunity for the Australian church to strengthen our character and clarify our core, and if church history and the contemporary experiences of the persecuted church in other nations are anything to go by, perhaps this could be a time of spiritual rejuvenation. As a tree puts down deeper roots in times of drought, maybe the church’s integrity and vitality will deepen as we experience reduced social power.

For some of us in the church, life as a minority is a reality we’ve navigated our entire lives, and we’ve already seen first-hand that there’s a certain robustness in minority experiences that has the power to mature and enrich the church – if we let it. Minority peoples have accrued a wealth of intergenerational wisdom over the years: insights into how not only to survive but to thrive under pressure.

My vision is to see the Australian church learn from these experiences, honouring the intersectionality of those in our midst who have walked these lonely roads before and inviting those marginal voices to lead the church through the uncharted terrain that lies ahead.

As a step towards that vision, I want to explore three key insights from minority experiences that can help us form a positive vision of flourishing on the margins.

1. Stronger kinship

A few years ago, I travelled overseas for the first time. Despite some beginner German classes, my comprehension of the language remained abysmally low, and I experienced for the first time being a total outsider. While many Germans spoke excellent English, I had a constant sense of my foreignness everywhere I went.

I remember one evening, at a youth hostel in Dresden, hearing the sound of an Aussie accent. What a beautifully familiar cadence! I followed the voice into a shared kitchen area and excitedly introduced myself to my fellow Aussie traveller. We ended up chatting for several hours, cooking dinner together and exchanging life stories. It felt like a deep connection to find someone who spoke with my own accent and shared my heritage — I felt a profound kinship.

But as soon as I boarded the plane back to Australia, something changed. Being surrounded by Aussies no longer felt like a bonding experience. I felt no inclination to talk to the person sitting next to me. What we had in common felt relatively insignificant when I was part of the majority again.

Minority experiences heighten our sense of kinship. Commonalities feel more meaningful when they’re not the default experience.

This sense of kinship isn’t just limited to those people who are like each other; it even extends to those who are unlike in similar ways. That’s why an immigrant like my dad — a Filipino — could connect so deeply with other ethnic minorities: Lebanese, Chinese, Koreans. Even if they didn’t share a language, they shared an outsider experience that formed a tight-knit immigrant community.

I experience this regularly in LGBTQIA+ communities, too. As Rosaria Butterfield notes in The Gospel Comes with a House Key (2018), our communities have become known for being ‘hospitals and incubators’ for the marginalised. She credits her time in lesbian communities with teaching her true hospitality from the margins:

I learned a lot in that community about how to shore up a distinctive culture within and to live as a despised but hospitable and compassionate outsider in a transparent and visible way. I learned how to create a habitus that reflected my values to a world that despised me.

Within the ‘Side B’ world of celibate gay Christians committed to a traditional Christian sexual ethic (a minority within a minority!), there’s such a strong kinship across our community that we have an international network of hospitality. We call it the ‘Side BnB’ — I could travel to half a dozen different countries and not pay a cent for accommodation, because these people open their homes to those in our community, even those we’ve yet to meet in person.

Becoming a minority is an opportunity for the Australian church to take our spiritual communion seriously and to embody shared rhythms of family life together. Our local church gatherings can become relational oases for thirsty travellers who feel like nomads in an increasingly foreign world.

Perhaps we might feel a stronger kinship with the global church, too, with geographic and cultural differences feeling less significant than the profound unity we experience as one body, and maybe this will stoke the flame of missional fervour for taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.

2. Double perceptual insights

Another opportunity unique to minority experiences is the possibility of gaining double perceptual insights. Those of us who have grown up in a world where we embody at least one minority identity have learned to see the world two ways: we can see it through the lens of the majority perspective that surrounds us, and we also see it from our own perspective.

Imagine, for example, an Aboriginal person living in a city like Meanjin (Brisbane). She might go about her life surrounded by white people and white perspectives everywhere: school, workplace, media, books, movies, government, church. Even if she doesn’t personally embody an experience of whiteness (though she may, and such intersectionality multiplies her perspectives), she still has an intimate understanding of white perspectives. Yet she might also have a deep understanding of her own Aboriginal perspectives: the stories, language, culture, faith and paradigms of her own heritage.

In the essay ‘Of our Spiritual Strivings’ from the 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, William Du Bois coined the term ‘double consciousness’ to describe a similar phenomenon he observed among African Americans:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world … It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

Sociologist Gurminder Bhambra elaborates on the positive implications of Du Bois’ double consciousness, especially the capacity for deeper social engagement:

As such, they have knowledge about their own lives, about the functioning of the veil, and about the activities of those who live on the other side of the veil as well. The double-consciousness that ensues from being both an African American and an American provides the basis for deeper insights into the social realm and the possibility for more effective actions against the systems of domination in place.

This dual perspective can be taxing (hence ‘translation exhaustion’ in minority experiences), but it’s also a privilege for us to steward well. As Christians, then, we should welcome the opportunity to embrace the greater perceptual insights that will come with becoming a minority. As a minority, we may become more adept at translating across worldview divides than our non-religious friends, better able to see their world and speak their language, while previous generations of Christianity merely expected the world to learn our language.

Double consciousness heightens our capacity for empathy, especially for marginalised people whose realities are so often invisible to majority perspectives. It’s not hard to imagine how Christians becoming a minority could be an opportunity to revitalise our mission among the poor, the prisoner, the disabled and the oppressed — those demographics for whom Jesus specifically came to declare good news (Luke 4:18).

Those without power are often the ones who see most clearly how power is abused and then advocate for justice. Christians in our country have held power for a long time, and it’s likely that power has affected our vision. As we Christians lose power, we may gain the ability to see more clearly ‘behind the veil’ and speak God’s truth. Would it be too bold to start praying for such a loss of power?

We can also expect a robust crystallisation of our own distinctive values as they no longer benefit those who would appropriate them to get ahead in worldly empires. Being surrounded by a society that no longer looks like us might deepen the integrity of our values and even trigger a spiritual growth spurt, as we keep seeing in persecuted churches around the world. Being a minority can be liberating — it gives us the freedom to embrace distinctiveness.

3. Flourishing as resistance

Finally, minority experiences can give the church a vision of what it looks like to thrive under pressure.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture has an art display titled ‘Pleasure as Resistance’. Beneath the artwork is this description:

Despite restrictions, enslaved people gathered and found spaces of escape and expression in dance and music. Through movement, they expressed traditions from their homelands and claimed their bodies for themselves. Arranging secret dances, they put on their best clothes and displayed a spirit free from bondage.

This represents a rich history in black liberation movements (and also women’s rights movements) of insisting on one’s human dignity by engaging in ‘pleasure as resistance’. These physically embodied and communal celebrations of beauty displayed their full humanity in the face of injustice — they declared that no dehumanising oppression could truly de-humanise people made in God’s image. We lessen the world’s grip over us when we joyfully exclaim that we are no longer defined by how the world sees us — or even how it treats us.

While Australian Christians haven’t experienced anything remotely like the oppression of enslaved African Americans, we can learn a lot from their stories. Adapting ‘pleasure as resistance’ to a Christian framework, we acknowledge that our highest aspiration may not be pleasure alone, but true flourishing as we experience life to the full in the life-giving kingdom of God (John 10:10). Pursuing flourishing, even within broken systems, dismantles the grip of evil powers over us and disrupts worldly systems as we live in joyful defiance of them.

Liberation theologian Jürgen Moltmann believes the church’s flourishing is connected with rediscovering play as resurrection humour: participating in the new creational realities of Jesus’ resurrection by laughing, playing, dancing and feasting in ways that visibly show our freedom to live as though there’s nothing more we need to contribute to the redemption of the world. While those without Christ feel heavy-hearted and serious, desperate to make themselves a better world, we laugh and play carefree in the radiance of the resurrection dawn.

Our play and communal celebrations have an eschatological flavour as they are infused with the joy of the world to come. Maybe we can revive the practice of marking the year with feast days that offer a countercultural witness to a cynical world. Maybe we can shift our focus away from reactive forms of resistance, such as the culture wars, and reclaim spiritual and holistic flourishing as our goal.

As we look to the future of the Australian church with joyful uncertainty, I’m reminded of Paul’s letter from prison to the church in Philippi. I’m struck by Paul’s joy at how nothing can halt the progress of the gospel. It’s unlikely we’ll ever experience that level of persecution here, but we can rejoice with Paul that God has begun a work in the world that no human power can ever impede:

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear... And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice. (Philippians 1:12-14, 18)


Matthew Ventura is a ministry worker and freelance musician based in Brisbane. After pursuing a career as a bassoonist for some years, he decided to devote his time to paid ministry and is completing a Master of Divinity.


Image credit: Lynchburg negro dance, August 18th 1853 by Lewis Miller. Image is in the public domain.


This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of Equip on ‘Coming to our Census: Stats and stories of growth and decline’. Subscribe here to receive your copy.

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