OST is closed for business but its spirit survives on my blog.

Towards a theology of public presence

This paper is largely drawn from a discussion of public presence on this website.

The contours of a metro-spirituality

People use the term ‘metro-sexuality’ to define the distinctive blend of sexual choices that are being made as part of an urban lifestyle. Analogous to that we see a distinctive blend of spiritual options emerging – if you like, a ‘metro-spirituality’. Metro-spirituality is not an exclusively Christian spirituality: it is simply the way of being ‘spiritual’ that becomes possible within a complex, creative, pluralistic, postmodern urban environment. But there must be a set of pathways – spiritual practices – that will take us out as followers of Jesus into that spiritual landscape and allow us to journey alongside others there.

I want first to set out in very general terms the sort of commitments that I think would shape an authentic and effective Christian engagement in a metro-spiritual culture.

Creational: we take our eschatological bearings not from the prospect of heaven and the abandonment of creation but from the conviction that God intends to renew creation; this will entail a commitment to justice, to personal and communal well-being, and so on.

Relational: we consistently prioritize relationships and relational values over institutional and organizational requirements.

Inclusive: metro-spirituality is cosmopolitan and eclectic. A clear sense of covenantal identity and missional purpose on the part of the community of believers should allow for a radical openness towards all others: the one must learn to merge with the other without losing itself.

Contextual: a metro-spirituality should be developed and applied locally, taking into account the immediate social and spiritual environment.

Integrative: we seek to integrate the various aspects of our personal and communal lives for the sake of integrity; with this goes a commitment to transparency and openness but also a willingness to articulate core spiritual and moral convictions.

Reflective: we would need to develop and encourage habits of reflection upon ourselves and upon our social context, particularly through formal and informal conversations.

Creative: creativity in all forms (not only artistic creativity) is at the core of an agenda that is aimed towards the renewal of creation.

Celebrative: in a metro-spirituality grace and gratitude show up as celebration. To quote Dwight Seletzky:

A person who is metro-spiritual enjoys people and parties in fact they feels just at home in a pub as in a church. Moreover, she or he discovers, enjoys, and even celebrates community wherever it is found. For a Christ follower who is metro-spiritual there is recognition that real community in some way reflects God’s three in oneness, so can be celebrated, embraced, and encouraged when it is found.

There is, however, a more fundamental commitment that needs to be made if these undertakings are to have any lasting value, which is simply to be there.

Being there

What I want to suggest is that at the heart of a missional metro-spirituality there should be something like a theology (more precisely a missiology) of ‘public presence’. For me this line of thought has developed over the last year less as a matter of abstract theological reflection than as a response to a practical necessity. We have been meeting each week in a local pub, and we’ve had to ask ourselves: What are we doing here? What’s the point of being here rather than somewhere else? In the last few weeks, with the departure of the Seletzkys and a couple of other frustrations, I have been forced to reassess the rationale behind what we are doing.

Behind this immediate practical concern are some more general questions about mission: On what basis can the church, which in many respects has found itself to be persona non grata in the brave, new post-Christian world, expect to reconnect with society, make friends again, win respect, gain a hearing? How should we exist, where do we position ourselves, what mode of being community should we adopt in order to be effective as the people of God in the world? And as we dig through these issues, we come to another layer: What do we mean by ‘salvation’? What is it for the world to be ‘blessed’ through us?

These are some preliminary thoughts…

1. We have tended to understand the metaphor of the church as ‘temple’ or ‘priesthood’ either as a statement about the community’s relation to God or as a figure for certain aspects of inward behaviour (worship, for example). But the temple was the place of God’s dwelling not for its own sake or for the sake of the priests, but for the benefit of those on the outside. If we accept Tom Wright’s dictum, ‘As Jesus to Israel, so the church to the world’, we are bound to regard the believing community as the dwelling place of the Spirit of God for the sake of those who are not part of the community.

2. A theology of public presence inverts the conventional missionary objective of getting unbelievers to be present in church. The operative principle is not invitation but infiltration – the word carries overtones of subversion that are not inappropriate, but it must be a subversion that aims to recreate, restore, heal, bless.

3. Whereas evangelistic activity has tended to be spasmodic (bursts of frantic and often fruitless zeal in the run-up to a mission or an alpha course), presence is slow, patient, continuous, persistent. Presence is a matter of taking up residence in the midst of the world; it is simply our way of being; it is a garden which we painstakingly and lovingly cultivate in the hope that understanding and trust will take root and grow there.

4. Presence is relational rather than programmatic; it is communal rather than institutional; it is conversational rather than presentational. The church, in attempting to engage with the world, has usually put on ‘events’ in the hope that they will generate relationships. This should be turned around: whatever events we put on should arise out of being already community; they should be integral to the life of the community; they should be motivated by internal needs and ambitions.

5. The sort of presence in the world that I have in mind needs to be differentiated both from the presence of a believing individual in a secular environment, who struggles to ‘witness’ to his friends and colleagues, and the beleaguered presence of a group of believers who feel threatened by the world around them. We are looking for the presence of an active community, a relational nucleus, that is confident that it has in itself the resources of spirit, wisdom, and love to be able to contribute something of enormous value to the lives of people in its vicinity. A community of the Spirit generates a community of blessing around itself.

6. A properly embedded presence will provide a more credible, more honest, and more sustainable basis for a prophetic, priestly or pastoral function. There may even be a sense in which the world may come to relate to God vicariously through the life of these priestly communities in its midst. Whereas some traditional theologies have, in different ways, made the individual priest a mediator between God and the church, a theology of public presence may make the believing community, as priesthood, a mediating body between God and the world. Should the church perhaps take the view that it has been entrusted with a responsibility for the spiritual well-being (understood quite holistically) of the world?

7. This perhaps points in the direction of a relativized and contextualized notion of ‘salvation’ as the process of being ‘healed’, of being made whole – creation being renewed – as a result of living in proximity to the ‘temple of God’, where the Spirit of God is active. This process may arrive at the critical juncture of baptism in the name of Jesus, at which point a person exchanges the spirit of the world for the Spirit of God in order to become not only a receiver but also a giver of grace – but this is not the sole object of the exercise.

8. If you pour a bottle of red ink into the sea, it will become ‘present’ but it will also very quickly lose its distinctiveness as red ink. A theology of public presence will also need to establish some boundaries. What is poured out into the world must be gelatinous enough, viscose enough, gooey enough not to lose all shape and identity. The nature of any priestly ‘mediation’ will need to be defined. Presence, for all its slowness, still needs a sense of direction.

The ‘B’ word

If that was all largely theoretical, here are some more practical suggestions for how we live out a theology of public presence.

Be there: it may simply be that we have had to learn the hard way by going right back to square one, but I think that we must get it into our heads that being there is far more important than doing things; we have tried to arrange ‘events’ that haven’t come off and as a result we were simply left there with nothing to do – except buy a few drinks and talk to people.

Be consistent: I don’t think we will get very far if we regard this as a means to an end; it may be that church-like gatherings will emerge out of this sort of public presence, but I would suggest that the long-term objective is still just to be there, a puzzling, godly presence in people’s lives. In my view, the overriding need at this point is for the church to regain trust (relationally, ethically, intellectually) – which means that the church must become trustworthy (relationally, ethically, intellectually), and this takes time.

Be accessible, open, friendly: again, we have sometimes felt torn between doing something that we had planned and responding to whatever happens relationally on the night.

Be honest: this is hard – Christians can get very secretive and underhand in their relations with the world. We are looking for a ‘discourse of faith’ that works both amongst believers and between believers and non-believers. We don’t want to be perceived as having ulterior motives, a hidden agenda. As it is, I feel uncomfortable writing even in such very general and vague terms about what we have been doing: I don’t really want to treat these friendships as an experiment in mission, create a meta-dialogue around them from which the people themselves are excluded.

Be underwhelming: we have rarely had more than ten or twelve of us round a table: I would like to see it grow, and there may also be ways of bringing a larger group (from an established church, for example) into this sort of environment on a regular basis, but for now I suspect a larger group would disturb the fine balance between inward and outward relationships: either the group would close in upon itself and become a clique (get too many Christians together and they will stop talking normally and start speaking their own peculiar religious language) or it would become a rather overbearing, disruptive Christian presence. Perhaps we just need fragments of Christian community that will feel incomplete until they have connected with people around them.

Be creative: we are always on the look out for creative ways of stimulating thought, engaging people in conversations, discussions: for example, we passed round some questionnaires on personal happiness that elicited some interesting responses, opened some windows into people’s lives; we’re thinking about planning an evening of short entertainment items with some of the regulars. This will be a big part of the challenge – finding the paths that will get people walking across a spiritual landscape.

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