A couple years ago, I was on a weekend church retreat at a Michigan City, Indiana, beach house, when an unusual conversation broke out. About 20 people were gathered on the back porch to discuss the direction of their church, and I was acting as their consultant. They had moved to a specific suburb of Chicago about two years earlier to plant this church. They had engaged with many hurting people in the neighborhood. They had made inroads into community activities and were involved in bringing healing to some of the town’s basic needs. But they were frustrated.
“What are we doing here? We’ve been here two years and nothing is happening!” said one of the men, Matt. “We haven’t seen any more people come to our Sunday gathering. We haven’t seen any conversions.” Matt wasn’t seeing a connection between what they did on Sundays and the rest of the week.
Then, a woman named Sylvia jumped in, “I don’t know what I’m doing with Joan in the neighborhood. She’s so broken. I thought I was helping her, but now you’re all telling me I’m enabling her. I thought this is what we were doing here as a church. Now I’m so confused as to whether I’m supposed to be doing anything.”
Sylvia, it seems, saw the helping of hurting people as the work of the church. But she was not clear as to how what they did as the church extended into her relationship with her neighbor.
Both Matt and Sylvia illustrated a disconnect between their organized church life with God in worship and discipleship, and the life they led with God in their neighborhoods.
This disconnect, I suggest, is common in today’s missional churches. Churches that emphasize God’s mission in the world and urge Christians to participate in it often find many Matts or Sylvias among them. We struggle to connect what happens “in here” as a committed people of God gathered on Sunday to what happens “out there,” where Christians minister daily among the struggles and injustices of the world.
This all changes when we understand that God is always present and at work in the world, and the church—as a people—is called to be faithful to his presence through Jesus Christ. We not only gather in his presence on Sundays, we live in his presence, discern his presence and witness to his presence in the world the other six days of the week. What we do on Sunday, tending to the presence of Christ as we gather together, enables us to discern that same presence at work in the rest of our lives and in our neighborhoods. Discipleship and mission are inextricably linked. And the church is neither Matt’s emphasis nor Sylvia’s emphasis alone—but both are intricately intertwined.
Being Faithful to His Presence
The theme of God’s presence runs through the entire Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, to the tabernacle and the temple among the people of Israel, to God coming to us as “Emmanuel—God with us,” all the way to the new heaven and the new earth where God dwells fully present among his people (Rev. 21:3-4,22).
The Old Testament speaks regularly of God’s presence in the world. Yet God was still especially present with his chosen people Israel via the tabernacle and then the temple. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” Through Jesus, God came to dwell with humanity through his people, the body of Christ, the church, which the apostle labels “the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). The entire story of the Bible leads toward God restoring creation to his presence through Jesus Christ and his people.
It is amazing the ways that Jesus promises to be present among us. To name just a few, Jesus tells his disciples that when you have a conflict, and two or three come together and agree, “I am there among you” (Matt. 18:20). When Jesus inaugurated the Lord’s Table, he said, “Whenever you eat this meal, be present to my presence” [my translation of the Greek word anamnesis, which is typically translated as "remember me”] (Luke 22:19). And so the church has long recognized Jesus’ special presence at the Lord’s Table.
In Luke Chapter 10, Jesus tells his disciples who proclaim the gospel that “those who listened to you heard me, and those who rejected you reject me” (Luke 10:16). Jesus is saying he is present in the proclaiming of the gospel. In Matt. 25:34-46, in a parable, Jesus tells his disciples that when they are with “the least of these,” ministering among the poor, he is there present with them. In each of these disciplines—I contend in my book Faithful Presence that there are seven of these disciplines—Jesus promises to be present among us.
When we gather as Christians on Sunday, we gather to encounter his presence. We encounter his presence in all the ways described above: at the hearing of the gospel proclaimed, as we eat around the Table, as we tend to each other’s needs, as we discern conflicts together, as we submit our lives to God’s reign in prayer. Yet this experiencing of God’s presence does not stop when we leave church and go home. Because God is present and at work in the world, these disciplines help us discern his presence at work in the world, as well.
Discerning His Presence in House Groups
And so, when Christians gather in homes to eat together, we do just what we did on Sunday. We tend to his presence around the table. We give thanks and open our lives to whatever God would do here among us. We submit all things to Christ. We quiet our egos and tend to the people around the table. On Sunday, the bread and the cup taught us how God works in Christ. So we look for God bringing people to his forgiveness—reconciliation and renewal of all things. A space is opened up for God to work as Christians gather to eat in their neighborhoods.
One night, my “house group” was sitting around the table sharing a meal together as was our custom every Friday night. We were eating together, talking, listening and tending to one another. We had grown in trust. We had learned to recognize how Jesus was present among us. A few of us, including myself, shared about family struggles. People listened as we shared the conflicts we were struggling through.
As I listened to my friend share about how he and his wife were walking through the darkness, seeing little signs that God was taking them somewhere with their oldest child, I felt encouraged. I also saw some signs of hope in my own marriage. In conversation that night, I was challenged to look at my anger and control. Someone recalled a text from the previous Sunday’s sermon (one I had preached). I received all this because I was able to submit to Christ’s real presence at work around this table. That same night, Hillary, one of our friends, was with us. As she listened, her eyes widened. She said nothing. But God was speaking. She was seeing new possibilities for healing in her own family relationships.
As we prayed that night, we put all these things before God, asking him to be present. As I looked back weeks later, I recognized how that night had opened up space for Christ’s presence to work in all of our lives and disciple us into the ways of Jesus in our families.
His Presence Always Takes Us Into the World
But of course God is at work among those who do not yet recognize him as Lord. And so the things we practice on Sunday and live around our tables at home must extend into the places where he is not yet recognized.
As we go to the various third places of our lives—the YMCAs, the PTA meetings, the coffee houses, the local bars, the parks where children and parents play, the town hall meetings, the places where we work, wherever we share a meal or a beverage—we go in the confidence that God is already present there, as well. The only difference between these places and our homes is that we are guests in these places. We come to sit, listen and tend to what God is doing among others, and when the space is opened, we offer reconciliation, pray for healing and proclaim the gospel. We know Christ is there, but we cannot assume he will be welcomed. This is all under his lordship and yet to be seen.
For years, I spent the first three hours of my day at a McDonald’s, grading papers and doing communications and other work I had to get done. The coffee was cheap and the Wi-Fi was free. Over time, I began to be open to discerning Christ’s presence in that place. I saw an amazing cacophony of people flowing through there, many seeking to be known and to know others. They were seeking presence. As I made myself available, as I listened and tended to people, a space opened for Jesus to be present. The booth in McDonald’s would be transformed into an extension of the Lord’s Table.
Picture, if you can, me sitting across from John, a man who had been homeless for three years. I am anxious. I am busy with my work. I am preoccupied. John is talking about a conspiracy theory about Mars and President Obama (I am not exaggerating). But the Spirit is telling me to tend to what God is doing in John’s life, to believe that God is at work around this table. And so I cast my eyes on John. I quiet my ego and stop my fidgeting. I put aside all of my own agendas and make space to discern God’s presence at this table. John senses something. I ask him what evidence he has for the Obama conspiracy with Mars, but we move on to much more interesting discussions.
Several conversations later, around Christmas, John tells me he hasn’t seen his kids in 10 years. We unravel some of the pain together. I tell him I believe Jesus is Lord and is at work reconciling all things. I tell him some of my own testimony. I tell him I believe God is working to reconcile John with his kids. In other words, I share the gospel. He tells me all the reasons why this cannot happen. I say I believe Jesus is Lord, and invite John to trust him. John says yes, and so we write a letter to his children, asking for forgiveness. This sets off a string of events in which God works to restore and heal. John and I both experience being forgiven and forgiving others in ways that transform both our lives. A year later, John is with his family at Christmas. Two years later, John has a job. And people in McDonald’s are asking, “What has happened to John?” John and I were both discipled during that experience.
There are many more episodes like this that illustrate not only how God changes a person, but also how he changes situations and unjust systems. In each case, it is amazing how the dynamics change when I, as a Christian, open up space to discern Christ’s presence around a table with people who do not yet know him as Lord. I am no longer a person who knows something that the other person doesn’t. I am no longer that person trying to get someone else to do something I think he or she should do. Instead, I am transported into this arena where God is already at work in Christ, and I am privileged to witness what God is doing. In the process, I, the Christian, learn and grow as much, if not more, than the one I am spending time with.
Discipleship as a Way of Life
That evening on the back porch in Michigan City, I asked the group to count the number of significant relationships they had with people in their neighborhoods. It could be the neighbor next door, the zoning committee chairman of the village, the town hall policeman or woman they met with to discuss race issues in the community, or a hurting widow they had met at the coffee shop. We counted about 75 people who they were involved with in long-term, real-life relationships in various kinds of situations. I then asked if their church attendance was 50 people (the total who showed up on Sunday) or 125, the total number of relationships with whom they were discerning the presence of Christ at work among them. I argued it was the latter.
Often, churches separate discipleship and worship from evangelism. We mistakenly make discipleship about personal growth with Jesus and make evangelism about explicitly telling others about Jesus. But when discipleship means discerning Christ’s presence in my life, in the people around me and in all my encounters with others—whether at work, in third places, schools or neighborhoods—discipleship is inseparable from mission. As such, discipleship can no longer be a program at the local church. Evangelism cannot be something we do exclusively on a weeknight outreach event. Instead, both are joined as a whole way life, given to his church, called to be his faithful presence in the world.
Some of this article was adapted from excerpts from Faithful Presence: 7 Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission (IVP, 2016).