The following is the beginning of a series in which scholars address wide-ranging topics about the church. Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago.

“What will historians 10,000 years from now say that the church was up to in our day?”

This is the kind of question historians sometimes get, even though they know that no historian has anything to say until there is a past, since their specialty is exclusively the past. Still, it is fun to play games like this because the answers we give provide perspective on “what we are up to” today. What are we up to today?

Let me try to surprise you by saying that not everything that we are up to today is a betrayal of the mission of the church and of the Gospel itself. It is fashionable to be cynical about what and how we are doing, but a plaque on my wall says “No Whining.” No one is stirred or called to action by whining. So let’s note right off that some good things come out of “what we are up to today” with – obligatory reference which I gladly insert – “under the Holy Spirit.” Quoting a British historian, I explain that I am an historian because I find everything so odd, and I want to learn how it got that way.

There are roughly 2.3 billion people called Christian in a world of six-plus billion people. They got to be here because some Christians were called to live out their lives in response to God’s mandates and promises as they hear them. You would think that after several centuries of secular confusions and onslaughts before 2012, there would be few non-secularist people left. Franz Kafka’s word to anyone should resonate among Christians: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.” Still, despite odds, believers tell stories about faith and for faith, to encourage action and to act.

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The following is an introduction to Kairos Prison Ministry by The Rev. Canon William Barnwell. We will publish a series of interviews Barnwell conducted with prisoners about Kairos as part of our Christianity at Work project.


One out of every one hundred American adults is living in a prison—2.2 million altogether—the most per capita of any country in the world. The national average is 502 prisoners per 100,000 citizens.” Many of these men and women will spend much or all of their lives in prison. Stories abound—especially on television—of their violent lives inside as well as outside of prison.

The primary purpose of this series is to let some prisoners who are sentenced to be incarcerated for life tell their stories and, at the same time, let some of the determined volunteers who work with Kairos, an amazing national prison ministry, tell their stories. I begin with explaining something about Karios.

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In our vision statement we write:

The Christian faith is at a crossroads. It needs greater impact in modern life — and yet there is not enough expansive, creative or progressive thinking about how to do that. At the Threshold is a new organization dedicated to fostering this transformation.

We know the church needs to “transform.” Here are a few ways we suggest it should change:

  • become a truly global church by using information technology
  • put justice and peace back in the heart of our work (we are collecting links to progressive peace and justice organizations)
  • rediscover the egalitarian and communal early church, as opposed to what is prominent today – top-down, individualistic, and often fundamentalist
  • explore new ways of worshiping (among other things, our Effective Ministry section will highlight experiments in liturgy)
  • include all baptized people in the full life and ministry of the church, overcoming the marginalization of women, LGBT persons, and children

How do you think the church should change?