Two experiences from my childhood have, perhaps more than any others, shaped my view of relationships and ministry. Both of those experiences connect to relationships within the church and with the church and the unbelieving world.
The first experience grows from time spent with my great grandfather, the man I simply knew as granddad. As the son of two hard working, depression-born parents, I spent a lot of time with him while my parents were working. Granddad was a business man, outdoor sports enthusiast, reader, thinker and home-spun philosopher. And he generously invested his life and time in me, so much so that he often referred to me as his shadow.
It’s probably no surprise that I’m very much like him in many ways. Here’s the interesting thing . . . I can’t remember anything that he specifically told me. There are a lot of things I do that I’m sure he taught me, but I don’t remember how or when. Over the years I’ve tested this experience on other people, asking them to think of two or three of the greatest influences in their early lives. Once they’ve made the list, I then ask them to recall specifically something those people told them. To date, though I’ve run this test many times with hundreds of people, I’ve not encountered anyone who, with certainty, can come up with a specific quote from their influencers.
So what’s at work here? It’s the power of presence. Presence provides the most powerful teaching and learning context available. In fact, it’s difficult for us to thrive outside of the presence of influential others. In the spiritual context, that’s why the author of Hebrews instructs believers to not forsake the assembling together. Why? A healthy spiritual assembly provides presence. Within and from one another’s presence we find a powerful context for growth that nothing else can provide. That, by the way, is why healthy assemblies (churches) are so important.
My second experience builds on the first and reveals a key to the church’s effectiveness in the world. This experience involved a change brought to our family when my mother became a Christian. Up to that time – I was about 11 – we had little to do with church or spiritual things. However, as a family we had scores of friends in the little town of my youth, friends we spent many evenings and weekends with . . . friends who, from my young perspective, added real delight to our lives.
But an interesting thing happened within the first 6 – 8 months of my mother’s conversion. There came a point at which none of those “friends” were part of our lives any longer. Yes, we seemed to have some new friendships developing, but I deeply felt the loss of the old friends. And interestingly, none of those old friends ever joined us in the church community we had become a part of.
I’ve come to conclude that came about because of the absence of presence. Believers seem to mistakenly or perhaps inadvertently think that they need to separate from the world to follow Christ. Some churches even teach that. And, in fairness, often the world seeks separation as well. However, that separation takes away our most powerful tool of influence: presence.
Jesus told his disciples (John 17) that He was sending them into the world just as He was sent. They weren’t to be of the world (they were to be set apart by truth both in their words and their ways), but they were to be present so that the world might believe. (That’s why Jesus asked the Father to keep them from the evil one . . . they were going to be very present in spiritually testing territory.)
When we say, we’re “relationally committed” it’s crucial we understand the extent of that statement. Often, in the context of the church community, we immediately think it applies to the connections we have within that community . . . and it does. But it goes further than that; it also applies to our connections within the world . . . a world in which we must be present – in the world, but not of it – to rightly engage the mission for which we’re called. It’s a mission we will completely fulfill only when we understand and faithfully – consciously – courageously live out the power of presence.