Presence and Proclamation (Part 1): Identity and Calling
Living as we do in an action-oriented society we are prone to continuously stay in motion. This is especially true of those in church planting and startup circles. Everyday becomes a routine of moving forward as we follow timelines, deadlines, checklists, to-do lists, goals, and objectives. We get frustrated if we are not seeing daily, let alone weekly, progress. Swept up in the tyranny of the urgent we become like programmed automatons lurching forward, feeling squeezed by the pressure to perform and make a difference.
For most of us our identity is framed by our performance; this is inescapable whether we are a skinny junior higher, church planter, business professional, urban ministry worker, or athlete. Performance is what we allow to define us. Our worth is relegated to what we do. As a result our self-worth, whether self-imposed or administered by others, is unequivocally derived from our movement forward and our results ... or lack thereof.
Os Guinness asserts that “nothing short of God’s call can ground and fulfill the truest human desire for purpose.” He goes on to do a masterful job of tying this sense of calling to our identity. Our identity becomes rooted in our calling which challenges the modern framework of identity which derives its worth from performance and appearance. “The notion of calling, or vocation, is vital to each of us because it touches on the modern search for a basis for individual identity and an understanding of humanness itself.”
Not only that, but the relationship between calling and identity is done in the deep recesses of our being. Greg Ogden picks up on this theme. “Much of the will of God for us is ‘written’ in us. God has created us to live lives that are complete only when directed by his purposes. Yet in our evangelical subculture, we are often programmed to seek God’s will in the outward circumstances of our lives. We tend to equate God’s will with the discovery of the right marriage partner or with a career. But the will of God is a far more dynamic, lifelong process of being a steward of our inner design in the context of the specific demands of the various spheres of our call.”
This conversation becomes a pivotal feature in the way we live out church planting and social entrepreneurship in overlooked neighborhoods. It takes a strong sense of identity (based upon our calling) and a grounding in knowing who we are in Christ as well as how he has formed and shaped us. To fail at this point most often means we run wildly in a myriad of directions. Oftentimes we notice and track what others, whether contemporaries or predecessors, are doing in living out the missio Dei. If they have found movement and some semblance of success we strive to emulate them all the while betraying our own inward callings and identities that God himself is carving out within us.
This was pointedly true for us while we served in church planting in the not-so-distant past. Knowing how God has wired and formed us we decided that taking the conventional route in church planting was not for us. Most often, the conventional approach in church planting entails gathering a core group of interested Christians, casting the vision of how a new church can and will impact a neighborhood, and plans are made towards the launching of public worship services. Almost everything is directed towards the public launch to the point that life and ministry begin revolving around that event and ensuing weekly events. While many may chafe at this assessment, there is also little the many church planters are doing to step away from this template. I’m not arguing the merits of whether that is a warranted approach or not because I am an advocate of more churches of various kinds.
As a family we decided to simply be missionaries ... and thus we began calling ourselves urban missionaries. We kept asking ourselves, “If we were missionaries in Dubai, Paris, Mumbai, or Moscow, what would we do?” It should come as no surprise that the default answer was not to focus on the launching of a public worship service immediately where we would attempt to entice unchurched people to become churched. Living then in one of the most multicultural neighborhoods in the world meant that many were unchurched not because of disinterest or apathy, but because they simply did not know much of anything about Jesus. Therefore, we had to distance ourselves from the conventional templates that circulated in the church-planting world and to head in a different direction.
I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that caused some tension, or that few people even understood it. But we knew who God had made us to be, we knew the dynamics of our neighborhood, and what we needed to attempt to do. As a result we jettisoned the notion of “starting with a core group of believers” because we honestly did not know of very many believers in our neighborhood. The very few we did know were already involved in a church. On a weekly and daily basis we humbly tried to live and act like missionaries which meant we started by laying a different foundation. The first thing we began to do was to simply establish a presence and daily rhythms in the neighborhood.
The daily activity of us trying to establish a presence leads into the conversation of holding together presence and proclamation in regards to living out the missio Dei in our neighborhoods. We all run in various circles and networks. Holding this tension of presence and proclamation in balance is daunting. We can rattle off groups who are skilled and bold about proclamation in terms of verbally presenting the gospel. Their Achilles’ heel is they have an underdeveloped theology of place and thus fail to be rooted. As a result their work is focused on out there rather than here. They do little to focus on establishing a presence where the rhythms of the gospel are lived out for all to see. On the other hand, we all know of groups who have the presence thing down. They create urban gardens, have a deep introspective spirituality, serve the needs of the broken, but seem to never get around to proclaiming (or presenting) the gospel. This is their Achilles’ heel. What if we simply did both?
Through the remainder of this series I will attempt to hold together the balance between gospel presence and gospel proclamation. I believe that by default we tend to lean to one side more than the other which is healthy and normative. Also, we recognize that individually we do not possess all of the skills, gifts, and capabilities to do both adequately. However, within a body of local believers lies the latent potential to do both, and do it well. I will try to flesh out what it means to embody and proclaim the good news in overlooked neighborhoods.
Written by Sean Benesh, Director of Intrepid
Guinness, The Call, 4.
Ogden, Unfinished Business, 260.
Note: this series was adapted from the book Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting by Sean Benesh.