One Saturday morning in this recent lockdown Caroline and I decided to pay a visit to a small country church. Reading up on the church before our visit, I discovered the building is small in size – its maximum capacity is only fifty. The congregation is also small in numbers – at its monthly Sunday morning service there is normally a congregation of between six and eight people. It is also a very old church: mentioned in the Doomsday Book, it is over 900 years old! By comparison it makes any Baptist church seem a young upstart.
Alas, when we arrived, the church was closed. There was, however, a bright yellow notice on the locked door with the heading: “This church is shut because of lockdown, but our hearts are open”. I thought that was a wonderfully creative way of putting things – it made me want to return and experience the welcome the church claims to give.
I was struck too by a description of the church’s mission:
We are a small faith community and are committed to maintaining a Christian presence in the village, with a special focus of preserving this very special building for generations to come.
This set me thinking. What does it mean for a church to be a Christian presence in the local community? It seemed to me to be a very low-key term and immediately brought to mind the specialist ministry of chaplaincy.
So on my return home I did some research on Google and quickly discovered that “Ministry for a Christian presence in every community” is the Church of England’s present “vision for ministry”. In an official document produced in 2019 by the Church of England’s Ministry Council, I read:
The whole people of God, by our baptism, share in bearing Christian presence through worship, witness and service, being the Body of Christ in every and any place and context….
The foundational calling of the whole people of God is underlining in the opening paragraphs of the introduction to every ordination service, starting with the words from 1 Peter [2.9] God calls his people to follow Christ, and forms us into a royal priesthood, a holy nation, to declare (my high-lighting) the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness [my high-lighting} to God’s love and to work for the coming kingdom.
A little more research revealed that mission conceived as ‘presence’ has taken over from mission conceived as ‘proclamation’. For instance, at the 1961 gathering of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi, the purpose of the Commission of World Mission and Evangelism was “to further the proclamation to the whole world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the end that all men [sic] may believe in Him and be saved”. However, today the buzzword is ‘presence’. I am told that the inspiration for this ‘incarnational’ approach to mission came from Charles de Foucauld, a Roman Catholic working in North Africa, who defined a missionary as “one who is there with a presence willed and determined as a witness to the loved of God in Christ”. As the American missiologist Donald McGavran, commented: this is “a very good definition of mission, too, in Algeria where your throat will be cut before morning if you preach effectively for conversion”!
Clearly ‘presence’ has a vital to play in Christian witness to the world. Indeed, it is the basis for what has been termed ‘ministry in the workplace’’; indeed, I am happy to accept that it is the basis for Christian mission in general. Mission has to be incarnational. In the words of the Great Mission as we find it in John 21.21: “As the Father sent me, so send I you”. Proclamation, and I would add ‘persuasion’ (in the best of senses of appealing to people’s minds) must always be part of a larger task of mission – but so too surely must be ‘presence’. As John Stott wrote of the old debate between ‘words’ and ‘works’: “Words remain abstract until they are made concrete in deeds of love, while works remain ambiguous until they are interpreted by the proclamation of the gospel. Words without works lack credibility; works without works lack clarity. So Jesus’ so works made his words visible, his words made his works intelligible.” The truth is that in our increasingly secular world people will not listen to the Good News of Jesus unless they have seen the Good News lived out in lives of compassion and service.
Presence expressed through ‘worship, witness and service’ is an appealing concept. However, I wonder whether term ‘presence’ as shorthand for mission can at times be a little vague? Much as I admire the small faithful congregation of six to eight people who are committed to maintaining a Christian presence in their village, I wonder whether their understandable focus on preserving their very special building may skew their understanding of Gospel-centred mission? That may well be an unfair question – not least because I have not had an opportunity to experience their welcome. One thing for sure, within the context of Christian presence there must be a place for God’s people to “declare the wonderful deeds” of God in Christ.