A Follow Up Post: “Faithful Presence Is Not Enough”

Greg Strand – October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

When I was in seminary I would stay after class to listen to the questions of students and the responses from the professors. Sometimes I was the one asking the questions. At other times, I was the one listening in. In both instances though, I learned a great deal about the Bible, theology, history, pastoral ministry, the professor, and many additional matters.

For this reason, I sometimes include follow up conversations I have had with one who interacts with a post. Although I don’t do this with all of the off-line conversations generated by the posts, I do with some that I believe would be helpful beyond the individual. Even though my dialogue-partner remains anonymous, I seek permission before including the exchange. Because this is a personal email conversation, I delete the personal aspects, slightly edit to fit this format, and include the pertinent content.

I trust this can and will be a learning process, sort of a listening in. Maybe it will generate your own follow up questions. If so, please let me know. Now to the follow up post.

The post on “Faithful Presence Is Not Enough” raised an important question from one of our EFCA pastors. He writes,

Thanks for your post… a very insightful article. I also read the excellent article by Tish Harrison Warren.

In your article, how are you/Guinness defining “faithful presence”?  Warren mentions “a winsome faith.”  But these terms are not really defined.  I’m not certain what exactly is meant.

 Is “faithful presence” something like being a moral Christian?  What does it mean to be “merely present in the world”?  I’m trying to get clarity on what sort of person is being described.  What sort of life is envisioned that is “insufficient”?

 Here is my response to his question.

 Thank you for your reply. I agree that it is a very important matter. Guinness is, I believe, responding to and taking issue with the notion of “faithful presence” as espoused by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.

 In the Christianity Today response/review of Hunter’s book, Faithful Presence, the author begins in this way, highlighting the two ways of cultural engagement against which Hunter demurs, followed by what he affirms, that which he refers to as “faithful presence.”

To Change the World comprises three essays. The first examines the common view of “culture as ideas,” espoused by thinkers like Chuck Colson, and the corrective view of “culture as artifacts,” as recently argued by Andy Crouch in Culture Making. Both views, argues Hunter, are characterized by idealism, individualism, and pietism.

Hunter develops an alternative view of culture, one that assigns roles not only to ideas and artifacts but also to “elites, networks, technology, and new institutions.” American Christians—mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical—will not and cannot change the world through evangelism, political action, and social reform because of the working theory that undergirds their strategies. This theory says that “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called ‘values.’ ” According to Hunter, social science and history prove that many popular ideas, such as “transformed people transform cultures” (Colson) and “in one generation, you change the whole culture” (James Dobson), are “deeply flawed.”

 The second essay argues that “the public witness of the church today has become a political witness.” Hunter critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, showing that unlikely bedfellows—James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas—are all “functional Nietzscheans” insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals “the dark nihilisms of the modern age.”

 The third essay offers a different paradigm for cultural engagement, one Hunter calls “faithful presence.” Faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” Hunter writes, “it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”

 Often these expressions are ways to capture something that is much deeper, broader and much more profound. It is often in response to an overstatement, overcorrection, overemphasis, which is often, in turn, overstated in the other direction. There are many of these expressions. So is it winsome faith, faithful presence, convictional kindness, etc.? And then one needs to ask which is receiving the emphasis, the noun or the adjective? This raises many more questions.

 The statement of insufficiency is that presence is not sufficient in and of itself. Even faithful presence. Certainly Christians are to do “good works” (Matt. 5:13-16; Eph. 2:10; Tit. 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14). As necessary and important as it is for Christians to be faithful and to do “good works,” what is it that distinguishes the Christian and his message and life from the moral Mormon? This gets back to the expression (wrongly!) attributed to Francis of Assisi: “preach the gospel always, and if you have to, use words.” You well know that Christianity cannot be preached without words. That is the nature of the gospel. Presence is insufficient. Although not the normal means God uses, presence is not even necessary. Many have been saved without the presence of any other person. One has read the Scripture while being alone and God the Holy Spirit moves and creates new life through the Word. The necessary presence is the Presence of the Holy Spirit. So though presence is important, one must be careful not to overstate it. By stating that presence is not necessary is not to say that it is wrong or ought to be avoided. God uses means and one of those is the person preaching the gospel (Rom. 10:8-15). Probably the right way to say this is that presence is necessary but insufficient. That further explains Guinness’ statement.

 This generated a further response from the pastor.

 Good summary.  That helps me to know from what direction it’s coming.  I agree!  The wrongly attributed St Francis quote has never made sense to me.  I think it’s trying to state the importance of good works, but then over-reaches and calls good works the good news.

I read the Warren article with interest.  I had mixed feelings about it.  I actually would never have assumed that having a “winsome faith” would ever get you a seat at the Vanderbilt table.  It never got Paul a seat at Athens, but he did get a hearing once. I guess that’s her point.  But I’m surprised that it was a surprise to her.

 Probably the most influential passage to on this topic has been 1 Peter 2:9-12. The last phrase – “they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” – is particularly powerful in that I do believe that although there will be many who will always hate us, there will be some chosen who “glorify God” on the day when he visits.  I don’t understand this as Second Coming language (“every knee will bow”), but rather as a visitation of the Spirit of God on certain unbelievers who (influenced by our good works in the face of mistreatment) are convicted, receive the gospel, and glorify God.  The good works are not the good news, but they do have a powerful impact. The thought is similar to Matthew 5:13-16.

 Here is the conclusion to my dialogue with this pastor on the notion of “faithful presence.”

 We see this matter similarly.

 In the last generation+, Evangelicals have swung from being separatists and marginalized, to being engaged in culture and respected, to some degree. Some, e.g. those in the emergent movement of 10-20 years ago, swung too far and accommodated far too much such that they became liberal. I find the new iteration of this movement, the progressive, evangelical millennial, e.g. Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, etc., has done the same thing with some new issues. Seeking the respect of culture (which has an intoxicating effect) has come at a cost. This gets to the notion of Warren’s naiveté, which is shared by many, viz. if I am just kind, winsome and nice, then I will have a hearing and “reasonable” people will understand. I hear it often, even among those who ought to know better.

 Added to this commitment to engage in culture and become a culture shaper, there are various responses: Lutheran, Reformed, Two Kingdom, Anabaptist, etc. These are all historical responses. Many approach this issue with no awareness of this history, which consists of both strengths and weaknesses.

 I could go on, but I refrain. We both recognize this is an important issue!

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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