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 the presence of 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 the presence of God 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 the presence of God 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 the presence of God 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).