I believe that the central part of our identity as Christ followers is that we belong to a local expression of the body of Christ. It is an image that we gain from the writings of the Apostle Paul that shows how we are linked or connected to one another and that we cannot deny or do without one another. Thus our presence is vital to the health and well-being of the body of Christ globally and locally.
My church experience growing up was different from today’s norms. From late grade school through my first year after high school I attended a Baptist church in south Kansas City. Attendance looked like this: Sunday School at 10am, church at 11am, Sunday evening service at 6:30pm, Wednesday night prayer service at 6:30pm and visitation at 7pm on Thursday. This was my routine week in and week out for several years. Over the years that I spent at this church I surmise that I was present at the church well over 1,000 different times between Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
At one time in our society we thought differently about our social and religious participation. I’ve been told that when you moved to a new area you did three things:
1) You found a place for you and your family to live
2) You found a bank to do business with
3) You found a church and you attended 50 Sundays a year, Ash Wednesday and Christmas Eve (if your tradition worshipped on these two days)
George Barna who is a researcher on all things church and culture related recently a survey of Protestant Christians asking them to quantify what it meant to be a “faithful” attender in a local church. The category most widely chosen to answer this was 14-17 Sundays per year – the majority of respondents believe that attending worship a little over once per month is faithful participation.
I don’t believe that God is concerned about our numerical attendance record. I’m not really sure that a perfect attendance record will count for righteousness in God’s kingdom now or to come. Rather I would like to propose a different concept about presence and hope that you might agree with it. Here is what I believe presence is:
“If you are in town, healthy and the weather permits it, there is nowhere else you could be on a Sunday morning than participating in the body of Christ as a worship community. It is the place that you are drawn to by the leading of the Holy Spirit; it is the place you belong; the place where everyone – well at least someone knows your name! It is the place to get away from the distractions of the world so that you might focus on being present with Christ and his people.”
So let’s think about this question for a moment and try to answer it – why is it important for us to be present week in and week out?
First response – people are searching for a place to connect and belong. If we are inconsistent in our presence then it will be difficult for seekers to connect and belong and it will be difficult for us to connect and belong. Author Elton Trueblood in his 1971 work titled The Future of the Christian said “individual Christianity is a self-contradiction! Unless there is a sense of ‘one another’ there is no sense of the Living Christ.” In order to feel the real presence of Christ we must find ourselves in the real presence of one another. In order for seekers to find the presence of Christ they must experience our presence.
Second response – when the community is gathered together then the vision of God is expressed and the body of Christ set in motion to accomplish it. United Methodist pastor James Harnish wrote in his book Journey to the Center that “Being ‘saved’ does not mean holding a solitary ticket for a solo flight to heaven. It means becoming a part of the Body of Christ, living on earth in ways that are consistent with the rule of God that is already fulfilled in heaven.” The gathered community is meant to be sent forth to express God’s will and ways in the rest of creation, but if we do not gather we cannot be sent forth.
I know that some are skeptical about the need to be consistently present in a worship community. There is a perception that there is little of value to be gained by spending time in church. I would agree – I’ve been to churches where I’ve wondered if it was worth my time. Beyond just physical presence, here is what I believe is truly at the heart of being together – our emotional and spiritual presence with one another. This is what speaks volumes to our guests and the world beyond – how we are present with one another. How we encourage, exhort, heal and help to liberate as a community gathered in the name of Christ.
In the New Testament one of its writers confronted a post-ascension community of believers in an attempt to correct and encourage them regarding their practice of presence with one another and in the world. This gathered community of Christians had fallen into some unhealthy habits. The author says that they were telling lies about each other, angry with one another, stealing from each other, cursing and verbally abusing each other and had become bitter. (Take a moment and read Ephesians 4:25 to 5:2) This was how this ancient church community was acting toward one another – a church all of us would want to join!
The writer encourages them to act differently than the rest of the world; to live into a vision of a community whose presence with one another was marked by characteristics like kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness, and love. These are the characteristics God had shown to them and they should imitate God by fulfilling the image of Christ’s living example. What I take away from the words of this first century writer is that quantity and quality of presence with one another matters greatly: it matters to God, it matters to the body of Christ, and it matters to seekers and guests. Thus I believe that we should take seriously the instruction to consider our presence – that we should make physical presence a priority and the way we are present should imitate Jesus’ living example.
So will you make presence a priority? The priority of presence is critical to the vitality of the body of Christ we call St. John’s. It is important for us to be physically present so that we might welcome one another and connect with our guests. It is important for us to be emotionally and spiritually present imitating the attitudes and behaviors of our Savior, Jesus the Christ (especially for people who are seeking a safe haven from a hostile world.)
Ultimately you have to be convinced of the priority of presence – that it will make a difference in your life and that it matters to others.
Blessings for the journey.