Practicing “Presence”… On Cultivating a Missional Posture

The British scholar David Bebbington in his work Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, defined evangelicalism in a way that I find particularly helpful.  He distinguished it by four convictions which have historically been the source of energy for the movement (on both sides of the “pond” as they say).  Those convictions later became known as “The Bebbington Quadrilateral.”  They are:

  • Biblicism – the belief that the Scriptures are authoritative for faith and life
  • Crucicentrism – that the atoning death of Jesus is the center of the biblical story
  • Activism – that faith needs to be expressed in public, tangible ways in society
  • Conversionism – that people need to repent and believe in Jesus, submitting the totality of their lives to him

I don’t think that very many of us have a quarrel with the quadrilateral.  (In fact, by the way, the quadrilateral is why I don’t have a problem identifying myself as an “evangelical”.)  Nevertheless, at times, one or several of the corners will suffer.  At our current moment in history, I think the last one is suffering (well, actually, probably the first two are suffering too, but that’s a topic for another day).  IMO, the rise of a new dogmatic agnosticism on the fate of those who don’t believe the gospel coupled with a “fuzzification” (very technical word, huh?) of our notion of the “kingdom” (that the kingdom is wherever nice stuff is happening) buttressed by a further confusion regarding the relationship between the Mission of God and the Mission of the Church (see my last post on that one) are probably much to blame.

But there are other reasons too.  And one of them, I think, is a desire to avoid the sort of “guilt by association” that comes with any attempt to influence people towards submission to Christ.  We don’t want to be identified with the sort of confrontational, arrogant, rigid, narrow-minded, Bible-thumping, dispassionate, one-off encounter evangelism that has been so popular among evangelicals for so long.  And that is right and good.  If our words and strategies don’t match the “ethos” of the good news we have to bring (“the kindness of God leads you to repentance…”), then we are right to feel the need to distance ourselves.

THE PROBLEM IS – many of us have made a wrong turn at exactly this juncture.  Instead of repenting and working hard to stoke a new missional imagination among our communities of faith, we simply back off altogether, redefining the “mission” in such a way that an actual concern to see lost people “found” is a side issue at best.  As long as “mission” means any good thing we wish to do, we are free to be unconcerned.

But the Scriptures won’t let us off the hook that easily.  At Bloom this past weekend, we noted in Ephesians 3:1-13 that after Paul gets done with his masterful depiction of the grand cosmic purposes of God, he turns on a dime and begins to express how he PARADIGMATICALLY engages those cosmic purposes by saying, “We go out by the grace of God and tell people this surprising, stunning, ridiculously amazing good news – that gates of the kingdom of God have been flung WIDE OPEN to all humanity!”  (Listen to the talk below).

\”Ephesians #5: All Things…On Earth\”

It would appear, on even a cursory glance at the New Testament, that when the early church (with Paul as a prime example) thought about what it LOOKED LIKE for them to engage in the “summing up of all things in heaven and on earth under one head – even Christ”, they thought, “We tell people.”  That is to say, we play a very specific role WITHIN God’s mission by working WITH HIM to “sum up” part of the “on earth” category, which most concretely is PEOPLE.  And Paul says that he was “given grace” (as all of us are) to “work out” that part of God’s cosmic plan.

What I’m saying is, seeing people “reconciled” and “restored” and “summed up” and “renewed” in Christ (which is a subset of the “reconciliation”, “restoration”, “summing up” and “renewing” of all things) is the centerpiece of the church’s task in the world.  This is part and parcel of how God gains glory for himself – by rescuing human beings from sin and death, restoring them “to the praise of his glory.”

But admittedly we have to do better at this than we have done.  We need to combine a deep sense of clarity on what our call is with a deep passion to see people restored to God with a sharp sensitivity to how “But God” (see Eph 2:4) moments actually occur in people’s lives…  With that in mind, I submit a short list of things that I’ve found to be immensely helpful in cultivating a missional posture in my own life.  So read, be encouraged, and feel free to feedback me on what’s worked for you… let’s learn together!

  1. Know your “sacred geography”.  Who are the people that God has uniquely positioned you to be able to connect with?  Paul, let us remember, was originally “Saul of Tarsus”, Tarsus being the sort of cosmopolitan city in which a young Saul would have wide exposure to a variety of cultures, making an adult Paul as much at home in Jewish Palestine as he was in the wider Roman world.  No wonder God used him the way he did.  I think our “sacred geography” includes that but much else also, including the people we work with, the coffee shop or bar we ALWAYS hang out at, and of course our street.  Let us assume that the “places” we’ve been put are not accidental.
  2. Practice “presence.”  One of the worst features of our modern technological age is that we are hardly ever “present” in the places we live and move and have our being.  We never hang out on the front porch (because we’re watching TV in the living room, which is likely in the back of our house, as far away from the neighbors as possible).  We never engage conversation with our neighbors (because we’re surfing the web in the friendly confines of our offices).  When we’re in public, we’re constantly checking that stupid mobile device to see what inanity has been written on our FB wall.  In short, we’re “there” (wherever we are) but not “present”.  Let us work hard to overcome the habits created by our modern technological age in order to be fully present in whatever place we are.
  3. Shift the balance of power away from yourself.  A huge part of what’s wrong with evangelistic strategies like this one is that’s fundamentally a power play designed to get the unbeliever to cry “uncle!”  It is inherently coercive, and if we know anything about Jesus, we know that power is not at all an apt instrument for seeing the kingdom come (see, for instance, Mt 4:8-10).  After all, it wasn’t until Jesus’ own weakness was completely consummated on the cross that people “saw” that he was all he said he was.  To that end, have you ever noticed how when Jesus sends his disciples out, he does so (1) with them being rookies AT BEST in even knowing what the heck they were talking about when they proclaimed the kingdom, and (2) with them in a fundamentally vulnerable position?  The logic is simple: shift the balance of power away.  If folks are kind and hospitable towards you, you’ll soon find a foothold for the gospel.  So with your neighbors… learn to borrow tools, learn to ask for help on your gardening deficiencies, learn to ask for sugar and butter when you run out, etc etc etc.  There’s a myriad of ways to do this.  JUST DO IT.  Trust me.  Walls will come crumbling down.
  4. Pray for people.  I think it goes without saying… but then again, maybe it doesn’t.  The thing I’m struck by in Ephesians is the “But God” nature of how people come to faith.  It is GOD who has to sneak in through the back door of people’s little kingdoms to open them up to all that he is… and without that, all of our efforts will be in vain.  So pray for your neighbors, folks within your “sacred geography” whom you sense God is readying to be reconciled…
  5. Bless and serve with no strings attached.  And when I say “no strings attached”, I really mean “no strings attached.”  I think that we need to BE the presence of the kingdom in such a way that we’re not getting bent out of shape when folks don’t reciprocate our kindness towards them with an openness to the gospel.  After all, Jesus fed and healed the crowds who would later crucify him, knowing full well that’s exactly what they would do.  But that didn’t change his posture one bit.  Grace and mercy all the way… so shovel sidewalks for your neighbors, bake Christmas cookies for them, help them with yard work, with no agenda other than to love.  And again, just watch what happens.
  6. Run towards pain.  If we’re doing 1-5, chances are we’re going to be in position to engage people at the moments when their lives are falling apart.  And it is right that we should be so engaged at such moments, for God most characteristically uses pain to get hold of human beings’ attention; as the great C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but SHOUTS to us in our pain; pain is God’s megaphone to arouse a deaf world.” (The Problem of Pain).  Live 1-5 well, and watch God go to work through you when people’s lives are crashing down all around them.
  7. Keep your eyes open for the kingdom breaking in.  Where is there openness?  Interest?  Where are these folks demonstrating an absence of hostility towards you and the way of life you live?  Where is God working in them?  Help them interpret their own experiences as “God events”.
  8. Use gracious speech at all times.  The writer of Proverbs claimed that “a soft tongue breaks the bone” (25:15).  Sometimes I think we use abrasive speech because we’re anxious that unless we “up the ante”, nothing will happen.  The question is whether you actually BELIEVE that God actually is capable of winning people over without our verbal coercion.  If you do, it will be far easier to be patient, coming alongside the process with gracious words, helping to midwife God’s rebirthing people into his kingdom.

And all of this is done with the goal of being drawn deeply into the orbit of people’s lives so that you’re positioned to spot God’s work and run with it.  It is an OUTRAGEOUS but highly common tragedy that the longer most people are Christians, the more distance there is between them and folks outside of faith, when precisely the opposite should be true, if Jesus was at all serious about that whole “as the Father has sent me, so am I sending you” bit.  So let’s get to work.

Okay… I’m out of breath.  What have you found?

(By the way, the reader will note how much I’ve been very helped by David Fitch over here on these matters.  Thanks Dave!)

4 thoughts on “Practicing “Presence”… On Cultivating a Missional Posture

  1. Brilliant. Fantastically good stuff. Strongly recommend Dynamics of spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace for more on this business you speak of.

  2. homes, this is encouraging. evangelism has been hard lately, but we’ve talked about that. the idea of vulnerability is especially helpful. one of the struggles i’ve had at this community in kc is figuring out how to be present and light and stuff without getting a ridiculous savior mentality while also not losing Hey-zuz in it all. ah, such a strange balance. shifting the balance of power makes sense to me then. love you bro. hope all is well in the bloomosphere.

    • Hey Nicolle! Good to hear from you… we miss your face! Humility and patience, and a keen eye for the Spirit’s softening of people are probably the biggest things where you’re at I’d imagine. Man, we’d love to have you give a little field report at house church next time you’re in D-town. Don’t be a stranger!

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