Presence is the Program

"The church is so much more than a building, but it is also so much more than a program."

What do you think of when you think of “the church”?  Some people think of a building.  They equate the church with the classic stained glass and pews.  Others know that the “right answer” is that the church is the people, the body of Christ, and they love to correct anyone who gets this question wrong.  But when most Christians think of what it means to be involved in the church, I’m afraid that the first thing that comes to mind is the programs that the church organization puts on, not the relationships they have with other Christians.

             To be involved in the church, people assume, is to volunteer to teach Sunday School, or to be a part of the welcome team, or to attend a Community Group, or to show up at a Sunday Service, a class, a bible study, or some other church event.  But with all the work that can go into these various programs, it begs the question: is this what Jesus created his church to be about?

             I recently spent some time reading through the gospel of Matthew and observing how Jesus went about his ministry.  Of course there are many things about Jesus’ life and ministry that were unique to him.  But when Jesus told his followers “go and make disciples,” they must have assumed that he was asking them to do with others whatever it was he had done with them.  And Jesus seldom, if ever, made disciples by putting people into programs.
Given who he was, Jesus could have set up a very strict program and schedule.  He could have mapped out every moment of every day, and utilized his many followers to facilitate any formal program that he designed (and I’m sure he could have designed quite a program!).  After all, if he was on earth to announce the coming of God’s kingdom, then a carefully curated schedule of events, communication strategies, and development of organizational structures seem like they would have been very appropriate.
But that is not the style of ministry Jesus modeled for us.  While the revelation of God’s kingdom set the ultimate agenda for Jesus’ ministry, the needs of people set his daily schedule.  When the crowds needed teaching, Jesus taught publicly (Matt 5-7).  When the crowds needed healing, Jesus healed (Matt 12:15).  When individuals needed teaching, Jesus taught privately (Matt 8:18-22). When individuals needed healing, Jesus stopped and met their need (Matt 9:18-34).  For Jesus, his presence was the program.
Jesus never wasted his time trying to get people to attend or engage with a program.  His program was always a response to the needs and longings of the people.  And when there weren’t any people to minister to, Jesus didn’t create a program to draw them, he simply went to them and gave them the revolutionary gift of his presence.  Make no mistake, Jesus’ ministry was not passive in any sense.  He was unceasingly intentional and wisely strategic.  But his strategic intentionality seemed to almost always have direct, personal ministry with people as its goal.                                                                                                                                                                    
             When he wanted to invest deeply into a few of his followers, he didn’t develop a program to put them through, he simply told them to come and follow him.
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
 (Matthew 9:9)

 Similarly, after calling Matthew, Jesus didn’t plan an event to try and attract all of Matthew’s friends to come and learn about the kingdom of God, he simply went with Matthew and joined his friends where they’d most naturally be.

 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

 Now, this isn’t to argue against all organizational programs.  Inevitably someone had to prepare the meal that Jesus and the tax collectors and sinners ate.  And the table they reclined at had to be in some location.  It makes sense to facilitate ministry opportunities through organization and in particular locations.                                                                                                          
             However, the impactful aspect of the moment was not the meal and it was not the table that was being reclined at.  To follow Christ’s example is not to necessarily prepare a meal or recline after the meal.  Jesus’ presence was the program.                                                                          
             In the same way, our call to make disciples is the call to faithful presence.  To be involved in the church is not a box that is checked by simply volunteering as a part of a program the church organization puts on.  To be involved, as we have been called to be involved, is to be present, in whatever you’re doing, as an intentional disciple-maker.  Whether you’re setting up chairs, teaching small children, conversing at Community Group, or having a drink with friends, your presence is God’s program.  God wants to use you in each and every moment to be an intentional disciple maker and proclaimer of his kingdom.
That is what it means to be involved with the church.  Yes, the church is so much more than a building, but it is also so much more than a program.  The church is God’s people and your faithful involvement simply requires your intentional presence with people.  During his earthly ministry Jesus was announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God, and now that he has ascended to heaven, he has left us here as his ambassadors to a watching world and his body to one another.  But the model of ministry hasn’t changed.  Today, just as then, God’s program for his church is the ongoing interpersonal ministry of people faithfully and intentionally spending time with other people.  Presence is the program.