by Leighton Ford
Current attitudes to evangelism cluster around two poles: presence” and “proclamation.” “Christian presence” is a term in vogue in ecumenical circles. To date, however, there seems to be little formal exposition of its meaning. What is available must for the most part be gleaned from various periodicals.1
Current attitudes to evangelism cluster around two poles: presence" and "proclamation." "Christian presence is a term in vogue in ecumenical circles. To date, however, there seems to be little formal exposition of its meaning. What is available must for the most part be gleaned from various periodicals.1
The history and definition of "Christian presence" are not at all clear. As an "in" term it is fairly recent. I first recall hearing it used in any specific sense about four years ago in France, and it is apparently in French Roman Catholicism that it was minted. A book about Charles de Foucauld, founder o€ the Little Brothers of Jesus order, who was murdered in the Sahara in 1916, describes his vocation as "being present amongst people, with a presence willed and intended as a witness of the love of Christ."2 The term has been made current since World War II, particularly perhaps by the mission of the "worker priests" in France.3 For French Catholics "presence in the world" has meant a kind of evangelistic re-entry to renew contact with geographical and social sectors, such as the laboring world, from which the church has been found to be absent due to the de-Christianization and secularization of society.4 In western intellectual circles the term has been expanded to include involvement in the concrete political and cultural structures of society.’ Recent World Council of Churches5 evangelism studies have concentrated on the presence of Christians in the world. A recommendation has been made that major WCC evangelism and missions studies following Uppsala should be given to "structures of missionary presence."6
Definitions are as hard to come by as history. Eszard Roland candidly says that the slogan "Christian presence" is "so abstract, so vague that each of us can take it to mean something different."7 The most definite explanations of the current ecumenical understanding of the term that I have found are in the World Student Christian Federation statement, "The Christian Community in the Academic World."8 "Presence" is used here ". . . to express both the centre of Christian faith and our response to it." It is held to describe the "way of life" of those who have accepted and recognized God in the man Jesus and are following Him. "When we say `presence,’ we say that we have to get into the midst of things even when they frighten us . . . . `Presence’ for us means `engagement,’ involvement in the concrete structures of our society."
Colin Williams suggests that "presence" replaces the common view of mission, seen primarily in verbal terms, with a recognition that "mission is first a `being-there’-a servant presence in love on behalf of Christ-and that the opportunity to name the Name is one for which we must long, but which must know the right time.9 Max Warren interprets "presence" as living in the now, as identification, as "the attempt to be identified with the other person by being in the profoundest sense of the word available . . . it means `being present’ with people where they are. It is a state of being rather than a movement. We are not so much going to people or doing anything for them as being with them, being available, being, if you like it, part of the background . . . ."10
The WSCF statement ties presence closely to incarnational theology. "As an expression of our faith, it points to the incarnation: God became man like us and lived among us . . . His presence has shown God to us."11 No reference is made in this document to the death of Christ as opening to man the presence of God. His resurrection is omitted, although it is said that "even after his death he is present, we are told, and goes his quiet way through history."12 Strangely, the work of the Holy Spirit is ignored.
Philip Potter grounds the "presence" idea in such biblical material as God’s revelation of Himself to Moses as "I am," the present One; the God man cannot escape of Psalm 139; the Shekinah dwelling among men in John’s Gospel as Jesus the supreme "I am"; and the Emmanuel presence and promise of Matthew’s opening and closing chapters. Potter also points to the Pauline expression "in Christ," and to the apostle’s teaching on the Spirit, and the "parousia"-the final coming of the present Christ.13
Gilbert Rist has interpreted "presence" in a "theology of silence"-a "proclamation of the gospel without `religious’ vocabulary," although he admits having "no very clear idea of what this . . . might mean." He denies that this means "muteness." On the contrary, it means that we take seriously not our words about God, but God’s Word incarnate in the "incognito" in which Jesus lived, and the "silence of Golgotha!"14
C. F. Andrews’ dialogue and friendship with Hindus and men of other faiths in India is cited, along with his view that the atonement must be widened beyond the single representative act of Christ, and his "logos" conviction that wherever there is light it is Christ’s light.15
It seems to me that those who talk most about "presence" seem to have little to say about Christ as Savior, although there is much of Christ as Lord. The WSCF statement speaks of a belief that "in Christ Jesus God has reconciled the world to himself."16 Might we conclude that the dominating note is that of a world already reconciled and redeemed, which needs only to know of this fact, and that Jesus is already its Lord?
To sum up: theologically, this "presence" thought dwells on the omnipresence of God; or, in current terms, on God’s secularity. Revelation tends to be seen either in terms of the "hiddenness" of God, or of the universal light of the logos. Christology emphasizes the incarnation; has little definite to say of His atoning death and resurrection. Soteriology seems either to cut loose from the historical uniqueness of Christ’s work, or to appeal to its universal effects. Ecclesiology tends to speak one-sidedly of the church existing only in and for mission." The Holy Spirit receives much attention in some quarters; is ignored in others. I am quite sure that this summary would be a caricature of the theology of many who are dedicated to the priority of "Christian presence." But I am also impressed that these are obvious strands in the material I have read.
Something more is involved in the "presence" approach than simple reaction to a "word-centered" evangelism. Something more is also meant, it seems to me, than the seeking of a proper balance of word and deed.
The WSCF paper says that older terms -"evangelization," "witness," "mission"-suggest a posture of confrontation or aggressiveness that is no longer acceptable, a "Christian behaviour of speaking before listening, of calling people away from their natural communities into a Christian grouping . . ." These words "suggest a certainty of faith and purpose" and a putting of faith in terms that create difficulty. Either "mew words" or an "authentic silence" would be acceptable results of being "present." "Presence" without "proclamation" seemingly may be witness enough.18
Colin Williams and Max Warren seem to be saying instead that it is a question of priority. The witness of word is important. The priority lies not in what is said but in the "being present" by the one who says it."
We may expect that in the days ahead the weight of study and action in ecumenical evangelism will be in two areas: (1) As we have seen, "structures of missionary presence"; and (2) dialogue, a "genuine readiness to listen to the man with whom we desire to communicate . . . a readiness to be changed aswellas to influence others." Evangelism will be seen as a dialogue which "takes place not only through verbal communication, but through the dynamic contact of life with life . . ."20
It is obvious that those concerned for "Christian presence" are by no means unanimous in their theology or practice. For some, "presence" is the outgrowth of a radical secular theology that doubts the efficacy of the evangelical gospel. For others, "presence" means to take seriously the incarnation pattern that we may win the right to be heard. We must not judge too hastily or generally or harshly.
As evangelicals we have much to learn about "Christian presence." Too often we have evangelized in a mechanical, impersonal way. We have hoisted many "gospel blimps." "Identification" is a word that speaks to our condition. Our Lord did not broadcast the word from the sky but he spoke as one found in fashion as a man, in the form of a servant. Indeed, we must listen seriously to what such men as Max Warren and Kenneth Cragg are saying about "presence."21 We are called to identification not only by the example of Christ, but by a deep sense of humility that we who bear His gospel have often brought so much discredit upon it. We are indeed not supersaints, but "beggars telling others where to find bread."
But our yes to the truth of witness by presence stands alongside a no. We cannot be party to any downgrading of the Word. For our Lord has called us to be heralds of His grace. The word we preach is not a "mere" human word. It is the message of God Himself, in which He is present revealing Himself to man, and actually a powerful word by which God creates faith and life in those who hear (Romans 10:8, 14, 15; 1 Peter 1:23-25). Nor can we agree that "the old rigid distinction between the saved and the lost is giving way.22 We cannot accept that "presence" is merely a saved man who knows he is saved being with a saved man who doesn’t yet know of his salvation. The light that comes into the world brings both response and rejection, salvation and condemnation (John 3:17, 18). Evangelism does imply a separation of the believer from the world as well as an identification with the world. In this there is no credit to the believer, but all to God (John 15:16f).
So we say yes to presence; but no to presence without proclamation. We say yes to dialogue; but no to dialogue without decision.
The presence-proclamation tension may be weighted in another way: in terms of attitude rather than doctrine. A recent article in Church Growth Bulletin spoke of the "passive" and "active" poles in mission. "Passive" Christians believe in, obey, and serve Christ, but expect little response from nonChristians. Jews will remain Jews, Marxists will remain Marxists, etc. "Active" Christians believe that the followers of other religions will turn to the true God. Secularists will become Christians, and so will Jews and Muslims and Hindus! It may be that "ends" and "means" make the real tension: is our mission that men of all nations and faiths come to faith in Christ?
In terms of worldwide evangelism such questions must be faced as:
1. Is "presence" a more valid and necessary approach in some cultures than in others; e.g., the so-called "post-Christian" lands?
2. Can "Christian presence" be continued as a valid anonymous witness permanently in certain situations where open proclamation is not possible: Is there any such thing, really, as "authentic silence"?
3. Must all Christians bear verbal witness? Is witness broader than words?
4. What is the right balance of word and deed? Is there some clear order or priority that applies in all instances?
5. Do we indeed often look upon deeds only as a tool to pry open doors for the word? Does the witness of presence have a validity of its own apartfromproclamation?
6. To what extent does a lack of "structures of Christian presence" hinder the effectiveness of proclamation?
We must face all such questions as obedient witnesses to our Lord and Savior who has said to us both "You are the salt of the earth" and "Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of man shall also be ashamed of him."
1. For this article I have drawn largely on the quarterly Student World, Vol. LVIII, Number 3, published by the World Student Christian Federation, 13 rue Calvin, Geneva. This entire issue is given to articles on "Christian Presence."
2. R. Voillaume, Seeds of the Desert-the Legacy of Charles de Foucauld. Fides Publishers Association, Chicago, and Burns Oates and Washbourne Ltd., London, 1.955, p. 17.
3. Student World, op. cit. Editorial by Philip Potter, p. 209.
4. Ibid. Article, "Towards the Discovery of a Genuine Presence" by Jean Dimnet, pp. 223, 227..
5. Ibid. Potter editorial, p. 209.
6. Cf. Structures of Christian Presence, a tentative proposal for a theme of study after the Uppsala General Assembly. Presented by the North American Steering Committee to the combined Department of Studies in Missions and Evangelism of the WCC. November, 1966.
7. Student World, op. cit. Article, "Present Like Abraham" by Eszard Roland, p. 215.
8. The complete text of this statement is to be found in Student World, 4, 1964.
9. Colin Williams, Faith in a Secular Age. Fontana Books. London and Glasgow. 1966, p. 12, footnote.
10. Max Warren, Challenge and Response. Morehouse-Barlow Co., New York. 1959. p. 75. On the same page Warren quotes a young RAF officer who said to a Christian: "Don’t try to help me or preach to me, or tell me what I ought to think yet. Don’t work for my salvation, show me yours, show me that it is possible, and the knowledge that something works will give me courage and belief in mine."
11. Student World, op. cit., p. 233. Also in Student World, 4, 1964.
12. Ibid., p. 234.
13. Ibid., p. 212ff.
14. Ibid. Article, "The Silence of the Word" bY Gilbert ist, p. 247.
15. Ibid., Article, "Christian Presence amid en of Other Faiths: eenaan u C. F. Andrews" by Herbert Jai Singh, p. 279.
16. Ibid., p. 233.
17. Cf. J. C. I-Ioekendijk, The Church Inside Out. The Westminster Press. Philadelphia, 1.964. "Church-centric missionary thinking is bound to go astraY’ because it revolves around an illegitimate center" (p. 4) . "The nature of the church can be sufficiently defined by its function, i.e., its participation in Christ’s apostolic ministry" (p. 42) .
18. Student World, op. cit., p. 234.
19. Warren, op. cit., p. 76.
20. Study Encounter, Vol. III, No. 2, 1967. Division of Studies World Council of Churches, pp. 53, 54. This whole issue discusses "Dialogue with en of er Faiths." Cf. also p. 73 where tensions behind points in the statement issued from discussions at Kandy, Ceylon, on dialogue, February 20-March 5 1967, are noted. E.g., "We cannot place any formal precedence apon proclamation before dialogue, but we recognize that dialogue must include proclamation; we must reassure conservative evangelicals on this point, without assuming that dialogue is thereby debased to the level of an evangelistic task or preparation. For some of gas dialogue is proclamation." Note the assumption that the casting of dialogue into an evangelistic task would mean a debasement!
21. Warren, cep. cit., p. 59. "It is no good trying to shout at (men) from a distance separated from then by a language, a culture a complex of customs, a religious habit, a system of religion, all of which are alien to them." Cf. Study Encounter, op. cit. Article by Kenneth Cragg, "The Credibility of Christianity," p. 61. "It was not, after all, by a Word reverberating from high heaven that Cod redeemed us, but y the Word made flesh, housing its gforY in the common world and freely awaiting recognition as its only pledga of truth."
22. Study Encounter, op. cit., p. 65.
23. Church Growth. Bulletin, May, 196 7, Vol. 111, No. 5. Similar criticisms are leveled at the WSCF statement in Student World op. cit., in an article bY John Arthur, "Critical Questions about Christian Presence." Arthur says that the word "presence" generally has a rather passive or static sense and therefore any "kinetic" qualitys has to a injected into it. He notes that the WSCF statement tries to o this when it speaks of the need to "fight against all that dehumanizes"; i.e., in the context of social and political action in the world. But in speaking of explicit witness to Christ it only says that we "hope" men will recognize Jesus that we wall witness "if" occasion is given, etc. Arthur concludes that if words such as "mission" and "evangelism" and "witness" suffer from "tired blood," " presence" was born with it.
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