The Ministry of Presence: A Cure for Spiritual Indigestion

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) recently held their bi-annual conference here in Orlando.  It was an amazing event featuring many of the best speakers and scholars known today.  Reformed Theological Seminary (where I work) was a key sponsor and offered two panel discussions.  One on the Reliability of Scripture, the other Christ in the Old Testament featuring professors from several of our campuses who are specialists in their respective fields.  I have been told that there were some 5,500 in attendance from around the world.  Personally, I enjoyed the time and didn't meet anyone who was not enthusiastic about what they learned during those three speaker packed days.  Several commented that they were actually overwhelmed by the amount of “great stuff.”  One student of mine used the common cliché that “it was like drinking from a fire hose.”

I am truly encouraged by the availability of Gospel centered, Biblically solid, gifted communicators that God has raised up here in the United States.  In fact, what is accessible to us is quite simply impossible to describe to most of the world.  It is mind boggling and beyond their comprehension!  It would be like trying to describe a Super Walmart store to a starving mother on the Kenya Somalia border.  In my opinion TGC offers a far superior product line and does not derive their profit off the back of part-time workers, but it is definitely a gospel information super store.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my father over 20 years ago.  At that time he and mom had started serving in Mozambique as one of the first missionaries to go into the country after the collapse of its Marxist régime.  The country was devastated in every way, and classified by the United Nations as the worst place to live in the world.  His comment to me was that he believed Christians in the United States were suffering from “spiritual indigestion.”  As he lived in an environment of physical starvation and malnutrition, he was struck by the contrast of the amount of knowledge available and consumed by most American Christians, and yet how little of the information results in significant change or response.  Remember physical indigestion can result from eating too much food that is good for you! 

My point is not to be a critic of anyone who teaches or presents knowledge – remember, I do this for a living - but to warn of the dangers of “spiritual indigestion.”  In my opinion an early sign of “spiritual indigestion” is a neglecting of a ministry of presence.  Being present in other’s lives is not easy or convenient.  Just as it is easier to learn about God than it is to intimately know God and spend time in personal reflective worship to Him, in the same way it is easier to study people and their behaviors than it is to immerse oneself in the lives of those God brings into your life.  Many of us follow a particular sport and have great head knowledge of the game.  However, our physical and coordination deficiencies prohibit us from ever playing up to the level of our knowledge. 

Ministry requires that we be lifelong students of Scripture, but that knowledge must be lived out in the context of community.  Living spiritually, physically, psychologically and emotionally present in community IS the ministry of presence.  Pastors are not solely called to be disseminators of information, but to faithfully serve as shepherds of the flock God has given them.  Presence is more than being physically present at a social function or the corner of a coffee shop, but being there psychologically and emotionally as well.        
 I am not going to take the time to fully develop this, but please understand that “presence” is at the very heart of the Gospel as Jesus did not simply come to teach, but ". . . became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).   Jesus came and was present in the lives of real people and we see this throughout the Gospels.  The norm was to have people surrounding Him and the exception were the times that He pulled away. 

Central to a ministry of presence is humility.  Jesus instructed prestige wrangling disciples that He did not even come to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45).  Paul builds on the same theme when he wrote to the church in Philippi,though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thingto be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).

We see the same pattern when he writes to the church in Corinth, “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, (1 Corinthians 2:3).  Paul ministered by coming alongside and serving, He was actually very purposeful in not using “lofty speech or wisdom” so he could minister to them more effectivelyBasically, Paul made a purposeful decision to come alongside the Corinthians and be a part of their lives “so that their [your] faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God”(1 Corinthians 2:5).   

Pastors please never stop being a student.  I encourage my students to make it a goal to read a book a month that has nothing to do with their sermon preparation.  Read a broad assortment of books that will expand your knowledge and assist your ministry in an ever changing world.  If you can afford it, go to conferences, whether it is The Gospel Coalition, Ligonier, Together for the Gospel, or Desiring God.  Go, learn, fellowship and be refreshed!  But please, please do not let that keep you from being the “chief servant” in your church who delights in living in the present, deeply immersed in community.  Make it your goal to connect with those around you and model “Bear[ing] one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Also, don’t forget to create enough space in your life to have a ministry of presence with some non-believers.  I never cease to be amazed at the number of Christians, specifically pastors, who have no friends who are not Christians.  Being present in a lost person’s life, loving them deeply and sincerely, and bearing their burdens, will provide many opportunities to tell of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

As I conclude my thoughts on “spiritual indigestion,” I am reminded of the many times I over indulged on varied culinary delights.  As a result Pepto-Bismol, the “pink pill” became a good friend.  Once I hit the age of 40, overeating did more to my body then cause indigestion, so I work hard to watch my diet and therefore suffer less from indigestion.  But for those times, when I do, I keep some tablets close by.  In the same way, if you are feeling the effects of “spiritual indigestion” take advantage of the “presence pill” which is always readily available, and by the grace of God a sure cure. 

No comments: