I was serving in rural Kenya with a mission team building an aquaponics system that would benefit a local church. It was hard work, and we were behind schedule. One afternoon, with precious few hours of daylight left to work, a local woman came to visit and see the project. Our team leader asked me to visit with this woman under the shade of a mango tree. While my exhausted body was internally shouting “hallelujah” for the break, I was cringing at the thought of my team members continuing to sweat under the blazing sun while I sat and drank water in the shade. Every time one of them passed by our chairs, I explained that our team leader asked me to tend to our visitor.
I’m ashamed now as I reflect on how devalued I must have made my Kenyan friend feel. I was too busy trying to convince everyone that I wasn’t a slacker to see how she must have felt to repeatedly hear that I was told to sit with her. I valued the project more than I valued her. I saw her as a distraction to the work I was there to do instead of a sister in Christ worthy of my undivided attention. Being fully present with her under the mango tree was the ministry priority.
Perhaps my team leader picked me to sit under the mango tree because she knew I valued productivity over presence. God certainly did. I thought I was there to help her, but I learned how to be with her. I’m grateful for the lesson I learned that day.
Finding value in what we do
Like many people, I have bought into the ethic that my success is determined by my accomplishments. My day is described in terms of productivity. If I’ve gotten a lot done, it’s been a good day. My day feels wasted when I have nothing to show for it. We are tempted to find our value in what we do. Therefore, the more we do, the more we’re worth.
As narrow as this ethic is, it becomes dangerous when we apply it to ministry. Our success in ministry is determined by our faithfulness and our obedience. Followers of Christ can’t follow the logic of this world. We must live countercultural lives. The gospel declares our value in whose we are not in what we do. We are primarily called to someone, and secondarily to something. We are called to be before we are called to do.
As we go out into the world to make disciples, we get near people. We involve ourselves. Time is the currency that we spend and invest. As we converse and mutually share with others, the ministry of presence becomes evident. This ministry of presence creates opportunities for us to share the gospel, make disciples, and show Christ’s love to our brothers and sisters.
The ministry of presence begins vertically
The ministry of presence originates with Christ. He is Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). Our good Father knows the value of presence. He is our “very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). More importantly, we’ve got his presence through Christ with us always (Matt. 28:20).
Loving our neighbor begins with being present in our neighbor’s life.
Kingdom people value the ministry of presence. We have the privilege of our Father’s presence. We want to be with him because we love him. We seek his presence continually (Ps. 105:4). We find our joy in his presence (Ps. 16:11). We spend time with him in prayer, worship, and study.
Doing is good; we are to be doers of the Word (James 1:22). But all our doing comes from our knowing. We do what God says because we know and love him and want to make him more known and more loved. The more time we spend in his presence, the more we desire to do what pleases him and the better equipped we become to accomplish it. Jackie Hill Perry once tweeted, “I can be of no good to anyone if I have not met with God.”
The ministry of presence spreads horizontally
When we live coram Deo, in the presence of God, we begin to see like him. He is El Roi, the God who sees (Gen. 16:13). We see the people around us. We see the broken, the lost, and the wounded. Our response is love of our neighbor. The world may look away, but we lock eyes. When the world chooses distance, we draw near. The world often abandons, but we pursue. We are to put off indifference and put on compassion.
Loving our neighbor begins with being present in our neighbor’s life. God has strategically placed each of us in neighborhoods, offices, schools, gyms, and coffee shops. As we invest in the lives of the people around us, we form relationships. Spending Saturday afternoon with the neighbors isn’t an inconvenience; it’s an investment in the kingdom. We love our neighbors enough to share the gospel with them.
We don’t have to overcomplicate it. For example, my friend hosts a neighborhood book club. Ladies don’t come to her house to discuss Hezekiah; they come to spend time with their friends as they discuss the latest best-seller. Over time, they get to know each other well. The group begins to see the genuineness of my friend’s affection for them and her love for God. They see the gospel displayed in her life and her home as they hear it with her words.
Our presence in others’ lives creates space for us to share the gospel in our conversations and in our conduct. Who is better equipped to reach your neighbor than you?
The power of presence
Being with my friend in Kenya ministered to her. It wasn’t what I did for her. She wasn’t looking for my handouts; she was looking for my hands. Our hands joined, our eyes locked, our lips speaking praise for our God who is with us always.
The world needs our Father, and we are his image-bearers (Gen. 1:27). We can show them what he’s like. We can tell them what’s he’s done for us. But our showing and our telling happens best when we are physically present with them. We can’t retreat into our walls and disappear in front of screens each night. We must interact with the people God has placed in our lives. Rosaria Butterfield writes in her book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, “I know I can’t save anyone. Jesus alone saves, and all I do is show up.” We must show up and invest in the lives of others. We must practice the ministry of presence.
It starts with you. Who gets your physical presence? Where are you investing for the sake of the kingdom? Kingdom building requires us to be present with those closest to us, and when the body of Christ does this, our efforts multiply globally. The kingdom advances worldwide through God’s people investing in the lives of the lost around them.
The church is more than weekly corporate worship. It’s not limited to one language or skin color. It's not confined to a hemisphere. The church is everywhere you find God’s children. And wherever his children are, they are present in the people of the nations, tribes, and languages around them. As God’s people flourish in his presence, we joyfully work together to advance his kingdom on earth so that others might know the joy of his presence.