You have a lot of conversations with a variety of people, some whom you question the sanity of and others whom undoubtedly question your sanity. Then you read a few heavy, thought provoking books with intimidating titles and no illustrations. One particular title, To Change the World by J.D. Hunter (he’s a Virginia guy) keeps you awake at night and interferes even with your daydreams, but not in an unpleasant way. You take lots of notes, wear out your highlighter, stand in front of people and tell them your thoughts, and write some blog posts. Then type up your family Christmas card letter. You pray a lot. One night, after you’ve stayed up too late, indulging in the guilty pleasure of watching grown men wrapped in plastic assault one another while chasing an oddly shaped ball across a manicured lawn, you sit in your living room. There, while everyone else is asleep, in the dim glow of the Christmas tree, listening to the dog snore, you think, “What have I done?”
It’s a perplexing annual exercise in insecurity, exacerbated this year by having received the title "Reverend." Unlike the other “kingdoms” in which we may operate, the kingdom of God doesn’t provide many benchmarks. I don’t receive a spreadsheet, report card, or a W-4 from Heaven. It’s better I don’t. Nonetheless, the question of accomplishment hangs in the air like mistletoe at a middle school dance, enchanting but frightening.
Collectively it’s fair to say Christians would hope to see their faith have a positive impact on the world. Whether or not that impact is quantifiable isn’t necessarily the issue for all Christians, though for some it certainly is. But it would definitely need to be identifiable as “positive” by the vast majority and in fact a real “impact” as opposed to a glancing blow or a dropped hint. The “John 3:16” golf ball you lost in the woods last August doesn’t qualify. The question then, the one that especially haunts us as individual Christians and collectively as the Church is in regard to the best means by which to achieve said positive impact. What tools, assuming the golf balls and a host of other tired attempts aren’t effective, are available for initiating positive effects in the world beyond our sanctuaries? Hunter isolates three typical approaches. One need not be an ivory-tower sociologist, or a reverend, to recognize them.
The perspective characteristic of those typically labeled conservative Christians relies mostly upon legislation as the means to create change. There is no question Christianity has lost ground in terms of biblical values in recent decades. The most obvious lightning rods include legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. Thus within this particular camp the answer to reversing the trend, and thus effecting positive cultural change, lies within the politics of our democracy. Creating more believers would create more voters who would presumably vote for certain candidates…and everything would fall into place as more and more political debates are won. According to the logic raising money in order to convince Christians and non-Christians alike to vote for particular candidates, normally Republicans, wouldn’t be a bad idea. The point is to fiercely guard what ground Christendom has left, even if it means supporting otherwise objectionable candidates, while simultaneously fighting to regain what’s been lost.
There is of course an opposite and almost equal reaction. Progressive Christians’ tendency is to view matters through the prism of social justice. Relevance is a twin concern. How, the progressive might ask, can anyone expect to have an impact if he or she is not in touch with the hot-button issues and opinions of the day? If one does not “get on board” one loses his or her platform. Consequently progressive Christians are at times misidentified, arguably, as something other than Christian. Their concerns vary but typically include gay rights, women’s rights, civil rights, environmentalism, poverty, and animal rights to name a few. Oddly this camp would still beseech government in its various manifestations local, state, and federal, to enact policy and law promoting what the progressive Christian perceives to be fair and just. Progressive Christians appear, in the political realm at least, to not be as well organized or funded and therefore they are less noticeable than their counterparts.
If you’re not particularly comfortable with either of the aforementioned there still may be a Christian stereotype for you. Many of us in regard to politics might perfunctorily say, “The hell with it.” But others really mean it, opting for withdrawal and resistance as a viable means of effecting cultural change. This includes withdrawal from government, politics, military service and the like. Before you write this strategy off as completely ludicrous, consider the profundity of the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Amish community’s response to the Nickel Mines School shooting in October, 2006. The Amish forgave the perpetrator and extended grace to his family, some even attending his funeral and inviting his mother to their victimized children’s funerals. Of course Christian separatism extends far beyond the Amish communities of southeastern and central Pennsylvania. They are just a small but easily recognizable slice of this particular pie.
All three of these impossibly broad, irresponsibly sweeping, and unfairly general classifications of Christian people in America have about the same collective impact upon American culture: they barely move the needle. In fact at times one or the other serves to move the needle, but in the opposite direction of that intended and desired.
If only there were an alternative for those of us who come to the end of a year of early mornings and late nights only to confront the question of what if anything has been done that is of lasting significance in the Kingdom of God. Hunter suggests one. He calls it being a “faithful presence.” He describes “faithful presence” in sophisticated language the likes of which one needs great patience in order to wade through. In my own simple terms being a faithful presence means being with people and for people even if, or precisely because they don’t believe what I do and do not think like I do. If you are a Christian of any stripe this may strike you as odd. On the other hand if you are not a Christian of any stripe it may strike you as suspicious.
It helps me to think of faithful presence this way: Most outside observers would assume that finishing seminary and being ordained were the crowning achievements of my past year. Do not misunderstand me. It was a tremendous amount of work testing the limits of my intellect…and patience. I do indeed praise God for having brought my family and me to that particular place in life and ministry. It is a profound privilege and responsibility to proclaim the gospel and administer sacraments. However those who know me best know, and in some cases are exceedingly frustrated by the fact that I would prefer to be called by my first name rather than “Reverend” or even “Pastor.” I’ll admit this preference is somewhat misguided, but it’s not without cause.
Ascending the ranks of the “professionally religious” does not a faithful presence guarantee. Oddly enough it often fosters the opposite, further removing the “Reverend” from the present. I could fill volumes with all the points I'd like to make to my deist friends, atheist friends, borderline Satanic friends, LGBTQ friends, and “I-just-don’t-care-about-that-BS” friends. But I won’t have any of those particular friends without going to tremendous efforts to be faithfully present among them. It would be a relatively simple matter to write about intimacy with God, rationale for the existence of God, choosing good over evil, human sexuality as it relates to faith, or even the difference that any of it makes. If you’re reading this you would likely read that because, to some extent, you already know me. Then you would realize that most everything I wrote has already been written by someone else…and in much better prose.
On the other hand if you didn’t know me it would take some time before you cared about my thoughts. You would have to trust me before you allowed yourself to enter into such intense dialogue. You would want some assurance that your own thoughts and concerns would be legitimately heard. Believe it or not being introduced as “Reverend” or “Pastor” does not expedite that process the way it may have in the past, especially not within the current post-Christian cultural climate.
So about my year… Like you, I did a lot of stuff. Some of the stuff I did was more important than other stuff I did. I think I probably did at least one significant thing that could potentially identify me as within each of Hunter’s three categories of Christian; conservative, progressive, and separatist. That alone is strangely satisfying. It’s not that I don’t enjoy or find fulfillment in my relationships with other Christians. I certainly do and am immensely blessed by them. I only hope that we could find it within ourselves to wade out a bit further into uncharted territory. When I think about what I have done over the past year I am most excited by the opportunities to be a faithful presence among those friends, and I do call them friends, who would otherwise never willingly expose themselves to the good news of Jesus Christ. There is an element of anticipation within the considerable risk of faithful presence that makes the next year worth looking forward to.