*Ryan J. Pelton is a writer and pastor in the Kansas City area. Follow his blog here.
In 2009, my family moved to urban Kansas City to plant a church. We came with a handful of money, big faith, and no contacts. Not the dream scenario for planting gospel roots in the soils of the Show Me State.
But despite no cash, no people, and living in a strange new city, we knew God was calling us to this adventure of church planting, and nothing would stop us.
Well, after the excitement wore off, money got tight, and only a trickle of people found our vision appealing… you ask bigger questions.
How does a handful of Christians living in a Midwest urban center make a difference for the sake of the gospel and the cause of Christ? Is a big church the only way our city will ever experience transformation spiritually, socially, and in every sphere of society? Does the Christian Church have any hope of influencing future generations of people in our cities for Jesus?
These questions haunted me as our young church plant limped along. I didn’t want to be just another church on another corner living in a spiritual cocoon. I knew the gospel had power to save and transform lives but wasn’t sure how to lead our people toward a compelling vision for impact in our city.
Not until a friend recommended a book by James Davison Hunter called To Change the World would I have language and biblical roots to set a course for impact. Hunter believed the future influence of the Christian church on culture would require faithful presence. He argued politics, revivals, events, individual conversions to Christ, mega-churches, and Christian media, would not turn the tide of spiritual anemia plaguing our country.
So what is faithful presence?
Hunter never offers one precise definition, but if we cobble together his ideas, you’ll see what Christian engagement might look like in our cities. Hunter says:
“A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. A theology of commitment, a theology of promise…” (243).
He later says:
“At root, a theology of faithful presence begins with an acknowledgment of God’s faithful presence to us and that his call upon us is that we be faithfully present to him in return” (243).
Faithful presence is about incarnation. Jesus came in the flesh and embodied the Kingdom and Truth by becoming a man. He put on flesh to show us what God is like. Jesus lived as a servant, worshipper, and missionary, to show us how to live as his people now empowered by the Spirit.
Hunter would say faithful presence requires being present to God, each other, our tasks, and social area of influence. Let’s break these down in more detail:
Present to God in a Worshipping Community
Disciples of Jesus are redeemed and brought into a family, the church. We are not spiritual free agents disconnected from the community Jesus laid his life down for (Eph. 2:11-22).
We participate in fellowship, pray, hear the Word preached, sing, and celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We submit ourselves to spiritual leaders and covenant with brother and sisters to grow together in Jesus.
Any impact on our culture begins with living before the face of God with our church family as we enjoy him together. Only as we root ourselves in Word and Spirit, sacrament, and relationship, will we relate and serve our world in healthy ways.
Present to Each Other
As we are present with God, we are not to be present with our church families and those outside the community of faith. Jesus came to us in sacrificial love to serve us with his life (Phil 2:1-11). To bring us back into a right relationship with the Father.
In the same posture, it calls the church to sacrificial love toward our church family, neighbors, and world. We were outsiders that Jesus brought into the family (Eph. 2:19). We now invite other outsiders into the family.
The same love and grace Jesus has show his people is the same grace we extend to those outside our communities. Our mission individually and collectively is to work for the flourishing of all people.
Present to Our Tasks
Hunter argues transformation of our cities requires a renewed vision of work. Work is a sacred thing given to us as a creation mandate (Gen. 1:28-30). Despite the fall, work is still good and part of seeing the world flourish.
Work and tasks are vast. From the mother taking care of children, engineers designing new bridges, or the artist making music. Each of our tasks and work is an opportunity to do “as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23).
These tasks are to be done with skill, care, integrity, and for the benefit of others. Too often we over spiritualize Christian disciplines like prayer, Bible study, and fasting, while downplaying the spiritual and sacred importance of daily work and tasks.
Present Within Our Areas of Influence
Lastly, the Christian is called to faithful presence in their area of social influence. This includes family, neighbors, work, civic duties, and other community responsibilities.
The question becomes: how we will use our influence and opportunity? We can use it like the world to manipulate, harm, and abuse. Or, in the way of Jesus, we can serve, and help them flourish through sacrificial love.
The future impact of the gospel on our cities doesn’t require large budgets and extraordinary gifts. Hunter believes, and I agree, the true transformation of our cities will require faithful presence of ordinary disciples of Jesus walking in sacrificial love.
Disciples present before God in their church communities, with others, their tasks and work, and in their area of social influence.
All done by and with grace.
*Source: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, (pp. 242-47).