Presence and Proclamation (Part 3): Slowing Down and Establishing a Presence
In his book Thin Places: 6 Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community, Jon Huckins writes, “As a missional community seeking to engage our local contexts with the good news of Jesus, we choose to view our neighborhoods and our cities as our classrooms. If we are to be good news, we need to listen to the needs and dreams of our surrounding contexts.” Huckins also says, “Listening requires humility and trust in the Spirit, but it is also an act of honoring those we come alongside with the good news of Jesus. The missio Dei requires us to ask, Where is God at work, and how can I be part of what he is already doing?”
Practicing establishing a presence means embodying the gospel in all of society’s cracks and crevices. It is easy to simply hang out with other Christians and not ever really venture “out there” emotionally and experientially. Sure, we may meet friends at coffee shops or pubs but that doesn’t mean we’re establishing a presence. Huckins lays out six postures for embodying the gospel that form the backbone of the covenant community of NieuCommunities.
Listening: We desire to be attuned to God, to self, and to our neighborhood.
Submerging: We desire to embody Jesus in our neighborhood while participating in an apprenticing program.
Inviting: We desire to grasp the depth of God’s invitation to kingdom life and to become more inviting and invited people while welcoming our neighbors into God’s redemptive story.
Contending: We desire to confront the things that hinder the full expression of the kingdom of God, both spiritual and natural, in our community, among our friends and neighbors, and in our city.
Imagining: We desire to discern God’s intent on our lives and help shape transformational faith communities.
Entrusting: We desire to entrust people to God and to others, celebrate our deeper understanding of God’s call on our lives, and lean confidently into our future.
As I alluded to in this series, this concept of localism is something the church is rediscovering, based upon the prevailing winds of our North American culture. To say we are late to the conversation also suggests that the church continues to be adaptable. As a result, my goal is not to deride the church but to humbly affirm our desire to be indigenous. In his groundbreaking book Indigenous Church Planting, Charles Brock asserts, “Excess baggage can be a major problem in church planting. It may include concepts and programs, as well as the use of material things. To carry things beyond the essentials will tend to be excess baggage.” We do indeed carry a lot of baggage into our work in ministering and church planting. Much of it revolves around our preoccupation with techniques, forms, and functions. As a result we do not give ourselves permission to theologize and push the envelope in search of new approaches as well as adapt to the changing landscape of the urban frontier.
From the first century onward the church has adapted to culture. We continue to do so which results in a good deal of tension within the church today as it has throughout history. How much adapting to the culture is too much? How will we know if we’ve gone too far? Or not enough? Many of our theological formulas and creeds were the result of the church responding and reacting to the cultural milieu and heresies of the day. For example, the postures that Huckins details are derived from the truths and concepts in the church practices of yesteryear, in this case the Celtic Christian lifestyle and missional posture of Patrick in Ireland nearly 1,600 years ago.
George Hunter in his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism writes, “There is no shortcut to understanding the people. When you understand the people, you often know what to say and do and how. When the people know that Christians understand them, they infer that maybe Christianity’s High God understands them too.” Hunter goes on to explain how Patrick’s approach to proclamation (of the Gospel) first entailed establishing a presence:
Patrick’s apostolic band would have included a dozen or so people, including priests, seminarians, laymen, and laywomen. Upon arrival at a tribal settlement, Patrick would engage the king and other opinion leaders, hoping for their conversion or at least their clearance to camp near the people and form into a community of faith adjacent to the tribal settlement. The apostolic team would meet the people, engage them in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared receptive. They would pray for sick people and for possessed people, and they would counsel people and mediate conflicts. On at least one occasion, Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish. They would engage in some open-air speaking, probably employing parable, story, poetry, song, visual symbols, visual arts, and perhaps drama to engage the Celtic people’s remarkable imaginations.
First, in significant contrast to contemporary church planting techniques or ministry ventures, Patrick’s posture was one of listening and establishing a presence. This is foundational in proclamation. Presence does not negate proclamation, instead it empowers it. Presence gives proclamation legs to stand on. By becoming rooted and established in place we earn the right and the credibility to be heard.
Again, tension ensued on all fronts as Patrick’s approach was a decisive and strategic shift from the conventional Roman Church paradigm for starting new missions or churches. It was a radical break from the norm. Social entrepreneurs or church planters may feel this tension as well because of their propensity to run hard and try to move fast. If that is you, I implore you to slow down, rest in God, trust the Spirit’s movement in the neighborhood and people’s lives, and move forward in patient listening and trust. God is the One who transforms hearts and lives, not us.
What was once normative for the church in Patrick’s time eventually faded away only to be rediscovered again and again and again. Usually what has taken place throughout history is some massive cultural change that creates dissonance and forces us again to theologize. Not only theologize, but to live out the rhythms of the gospel in new (but old) creative and culturally indigenous ways. As our globalized culture refocuses on the concept of localism this has implications for the church today.
Localism is not only about recalibrating our economy; it has drastically altered the way the church in North America approaches the city and establishes a presence. Localism is bringing much attention back to the neighborhood level whether in public art, shared space, businesses, or overall culture. As the twenty-first century moves forward the church is continuing to rediscover its role in place, especially after it had abandoned many church buildings and neighborhoods over the past forty to fifty years. Will we make the same mistake again? Or will we again truly become rooted and established in place?
Tim Keller does a remarkable job in balancing this notion of gospel presence with gospel proclamation when he writes:
We evangelize, telling people about the gospel and preparing them for the judgment. We also help the poor and work for justice, because we know that this is God’s will and [this] that? he will ultimately overcome all oppression. We teach Christians to integrate their faith and their work so they can be culture makers, working for human flourishing––the common good. The “already but not yet” of the kingdom keeps us from utopian, triumphalistic visions of cultural takeover on the one hand, and from pessimism or withdrawal from society on the other.
Written by Sean Benesh, Director of Intrepid
Huckins, Thin Places, 32.
Brock, Indigenous Church Planting, 29.
Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, 8.
Keller, Center Church, 47.
Note: this series was adapted from the book Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters: Gentrification, Urban Mission, and Church Planting by Sean Benesh.