The Power of Presence
In the 21st century, it is easier than ever to give up meeting together. Not only are our lives crowded with things to do (yes, I know we have far more labour-saving devices now, but how many members of the early church spent their lives ferrying the kids from ballet to band and Scouts to soccer practice?), but we are more easily able to ‘catch up’ electronically on what we’ve missed. A worship CD in the car and a podcast on while cooking the dinner and – hey presto! – church comes to me and fits in with my lifestyle.
Of course, these things are a God-send (literally) for those who are housebound either temporarily or permanently, and are a wonderful way for the isolated to still be able to access great teaching and raise their voices in song with other – albeit pre-recorded – ones.
This is helpful for those in need, and efficient and effective for the times when circumstances mean we miss the odd Sunday here and there, but efficiency isn’t everything.
I was on a train with a friend this weekend, winding slowly through the countryside, and she was getting increasingly frustrated by the inefficiency of all these small towns and villages spread so far apart, necessitating multiple stops for the train. Wouldn’t it be much more efficient, she argued, to group them all together so the train only had to stop once or twice? Yes, it would. It would be efficient for the trains, for schooling, for shops, for hospitals… but human beings aren’t designed for maximum efficiency. The reason people live in small villages is because they like the slower pace of life, the greater availability of space, the easier access to greenery and countryside, and the stronger sense of community. Human beings have needs wider and deeper than the efficient disposal of business.
Ironically, the reason I was on a train with this friend was that we had just been on a weekend away with our small group from church, the primary purpose of which had been to share fellowship and build community together. There was little agenda, and what there was got derailed by rugby games, extended conversations, glorious weather, and a really good pub. It was a very inefficient use of our time, but an immeasurably valuable one.
A friend of mine, Jake Belder, blogged recently about the new initiative his church leadership team has adopted this year of visiting every family in the congregation “so that we might better be able to pray for them, disciple them, and encourage them on in their faith”. He says:
The response we have received so far from our parishioners as they’ve welcomed us into their homes has been overwhelmingly positive, and we have been greatly encouraged by their openness, honesty, and desire for spiritual guidance. I find this particularly interesting because I recall having a conversation whilst in seminary with some fellow students who thought [the] practice outdated and unhelpful. They felt reticent about the idea of engaging in home visitation because it would infringe on the privacy of the members of the church and would implicitly communicate that the leadership of the church was seeking some sort of totalitarian dominance over the lives of their parishioners.
I can see how that would be a concern. As a culture we are growing ever more wary of the concept of authority – not least because of the way it has so often and so devastatingly been abused and misused in modern history – on both large and small scales.
Our understanding of what it is to be human, and what ‘the good life’ looks like also play a part. Jake continues:
Part of the reason some might hesitate to engage in such a practice is simply because they are living in a culture that incessantly bombards them with the message that they are autonomous individuals, subject only to their own authority and responsible only for themselves… The individual is the primary unit… [with] full responsibility over their life and spirituality, and the church is there to serve them and meet their felt needs.
The ultimate goal of a Westerner is autonomy and self-actualization, the freedom to pursue your own goals in your own way at your own pace. And this is one way in which Christianity is totally and utterly counter-cultural. I love that Jake and the other leaders of his church are doing this. It can’t be easy, and it must be incredibly time-consuming, but I’m willing to bet that – if it’s done well – it will turn out to be one of the most significant things those pastors invest their time in this year – If not in their lifetimes! I would love it if my church leaders did the same – especially now our congregation is growing/has grown beyond the stage where any one person can know everybody – there’s an increasing danger of any given individual never having an actual conversation with any of the leaders.
We’re the body of Christ, and we’re meant to be family. Family members – when the family is working well – are open and vulnerable with each other. They see each other’s faults and weaknesses. They challenge each other in dysfunction, support each other in trouble, and encourage each other in success. They earn this right through their love and care, and they gain the relevant knowledge through proximity and communication.
We in the ‘pews’ need to do our bit - showing up, getting there on time (ie early enough to greet a few people on the way in, not just in time to sneak into your seat while the opening worship song is under way), staying around afterwards for a cup of tea, making a point of speaking to our leaders rather than avoiding them, joining (and regularly attending) a small group, joining a serving team and generally participating in the community.
Pastoral visits may initially sound intrusive and paternalistic to a sceptical and independent culture, and may be time-consuming and intimidating for leaders, but they are a powerful way of building community and strengthening discipleship. Sharing a meal, or even a cup of coffee, together breaks down barriers and opens hearts and lives to one another in miraculous ways. And it is a wonderful witness to that sceptical world. I was talking recently to one of the leaders of the Alpha course in a church in Manhattan, and she said many people come to their church because they are hungry for community; they are drawn in by the love they see in the congregation, and over time start to want to get to know the God who binds together these disparate hearts, and that’s when they join the Alpha course.
What greater results could you want? Let us not give up meeting (and eating) together.