It was an off-handed comment made by my college professor of Old Testament, Dr. Song Nai Rhee at Northwest Christian College. We were looking at the book of Job, specifically at the “pastoral malpractice” of Job’s three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite (Job 2:11). Dr. Rhee contrasted the power of their initial silence (Job 2:13) with the foolishness of their subsequent “lectures” throughout the rest of the book.
Dr. Rhee related a story about a time that he went to visit the parents of a student who had tragically died in an accident. A modest man, Dr. Rhee had arrived at the house of sadness without great fanfare, and sat quietly with the grieving parents for a while. He didn’t say much. He simply sat with them in their grief, and then he took his leave. Weeks later he told us that he received a thank-you note from those parents saying that of all the visits that they had received in their time of loss and sadness, that none had meant more to them, or done more to actually help them, than had Dr. Rhee’s. And then he told us, budding ministers one and all, don’t worry about what you are going to say, just go. The words you speak are far less important than the fact that you are there.
Later I would hear this idea discussed as the ministry of presence. At the School of World Mission at Fuller where I started Seminary, they often talked about the three levels of ministry – Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion – the “3P’s.” And they argued that most of us begin thinking that ministry is going to consist mostly of Proclamation – telling people what’s true about God in Christ – and Persuasion – trying to convince them to believe it. But the fact of the matter is, they said, most of our ministry was going to consist of Presence.
We live in a word-resistant age, the late great John Claypool used to say. Before people are going to listen to what we have to say, they first have to see it credibly matter in our own lives. “Becoming” precedes “Broadcasting” in effective ministry. If people can’t see the difference that Jesus Christ makes in our lives, then they are never going to consider it as a viable option for their own lives no matter how intelligent and persuasive we have made the case for it.
This was driven home to me last week. Flying out to California to be with my sick sister for a couple of days, I finished reading David Well’s God in the Whirlwind (Crossway – 2014) on the plane. I think this is an important book, a timely corrective to so much of the mush that I hear and read from so many these days. It is a timely call to take the Biblical God of “holy-love” seriously once again. Not an easy read, Dr. Wells (the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston) pushes his audience past the culturally soft and sentimental ways that we have popularly come to think about and relate to God (this book is the follow-up to his series of critical books – No Place for Truth , God in the Wasteland , Losing our Virtue , and Above all Earthly Powers ) about what culture has done to contemporary Christianity), and carefully reconstructed the traditional Biblical portrait of a holy God whom we have alienated by our choices and actions, who nevertheless reaches out to us in grace through Jesus Christ. And in the final chapter, after carefully arguing his case, Dr. Wells challenged those who found it convincing to embrace it by consciously and consistently choosing to become servants of this living God.
It is Christian service – in all its many varieties – that provides the context that lends a human authenticity to the word of the Gospel. …The reason, quite simply, is that authentic Christian practice signals the presence of another world, a different world, one that is making itself known in our own. This other world, though, does not intrude loudly. It does not raise its voice. It is as gentle as an evening breeze. This is the remarkable thing about God. Though he holds all things together, though he is the very center of reality, though he is the very measure of all that is right and true, and though he sovereignly rules over all of life, he nevertheless stoops and makes himself known through others.
…Truth that is practiced is the way in which Christ is often glimpsed for the first time. It is in his people. It is here that he takes to himself hands and voices, hearts and feet in the cities of our world, on its corporations, its industry, its hospitals, and its places of suffering. It is in those who serve, who serve in a thousand different ways, that glimmers of the holy-love of God are often seen for the first time by our skeptical world. (241-242)
We’ve talked about this before.
The “question-posing lives” that Christians live are the “secret” to effectiveness in the church’s ministry according to the Mennonite theologian Alan Kreider. He has researched and written extensively about the early church. And it is his conclusion that the early church gathered in worship to shape Christians with Christ-like virtues and values so that when they scattered back into the world to minister they would live “question-posing lives.” Here is the gist of what he said –
If our lives are to speak, they must somehow be question-posing…
How distinctive are we? Does God want us to live differently? Is God calling us to live more oddly, more interestingly? Does God want us to live in such a way that others can see that we are odd, individually odd, corporately odd?
I have learned a lot from Anna Geyer, a student of mine at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Iowa extension. Anna is a 30-year-old mother who lives with her husband and children north of the Black Diamond road, in an area where few Mennonites live. Anna tends a large garden, “The Cutting Garden,” to which people can come and cut flowers. They may pay if they wish. A wide variety of women gather at her kitchen table. Anna reports that people look at her and ask questions: “Anna, you’re living in a way that I’m not used to. Why are you and your husband so kind to each other? Why do your kids talk politely? …Why do you live like you do?” And at the right moment, which may take years in coming, Anna will say, “Because of Jesus.” Anna is a radical, who lives simply, who is committed to a peacemaking lifestyle, who is a good friend and an excellent listener. She has built up a remarkable network of women who don’t go to church but who want to talk about life — and about God. Anna is odd and interesting.
The New Testament writers don’t tell their readers to “evangelize” others. They tell them to live with hope. And if we have hope, and express that hope in deviant behavior (“odd” and “interesting”), people will ask questions that lead to testimony. Peters puts this in classic form in his first letter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It is hopeful incarnation of the way of Christ that leads people to ask questions and demand explanation. If we are hopeful, people will want to know why. [www.mennonitemission.net]
Presence before Proclamation and Persuasion. First, you have to show up… DBS +
Someone along the way – it might have been Eugene Peterson – suggested that every minister he knew could benefit mightily from reading Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days (1882), his diary from the days that he served the wounded and dying in Washington D.C. during the Civil War. He went to Washington to look for his brother who had been reported missing at the battle of Bull Run, and then he stayed to do what he could for the men and boys from both sides of the conflict who crowded the hospitals there. It is an extraordinary account of the importance of the ministry of presence and the power of simple acts of kindness in the healing of the body and soul of people broken by the tragedies of life.
If I were teaching men and women who were becoming ministers, I would make sure that every one of them had a copy of this book, and that they had read it. And for any Christian who is thinking about taking up the ministry of visitation – and every Christian should be (Matthew 25:31-46) – I can think of few better places to begin preparation than this beautiful and deeply moving narrative.