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.