I pulled up to the church building last night. It was nearly 6 PM, just a few minutes before our small group was going to meet. Emily and the kids were already there, thanks to the Walker family. I got out of the car, feeling the weariness in my bones.
I’d been up since 4 AM, and spent nearly half of my waking hours in the car, driving to and from Knoxville. I was tired, though not particularly cranky (which is a good thing). My kids ran over and attached themselves to my legs, which put a smile on my face. A short while later, we were all sitting around on a couch in the office, sharing our high and low points of the week, discussing a book we’re all reading, and more. Lots of laughter, a bit of friendly ribbing, and some serious discussion ensued.
It was a good night.
On the drive back to Franklin, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to group. The roads were not too hot for a good chunk of the drive, and at one point the Google Map was telling me I wouldn’t get home until well after 6. But I got there, and I’m glad I did, because I needed to be there.
One of the things I think I took for granted in Canada. was having a number of friends always available. Emily and I both had people we could call up and vent to. And because we had that, sometimes small groups felt like an extra (though they weren’t).
But not here. They’re essential for us, in a different way than they were back home.
What’s important for me right now is not a profound or deep discussion or Bible study (though I like both). That’s not why I needed to be there tonight. I needed to be there. I needed to be there keep getting to know the people God has brought into our lives. To continue to let friendly relationships develop into real friendships.
I was there because, despite my comfort with being by myself for extended periods of time, I need community. I want community. And I’m looking forward to seeing how this new community God has brought us into will strengthen and shape me and my family.
Every so often, I’ll be reading a book by a pastor and see mention of a green room at the church. For those who don’t know, a green room is one in which in which performers can relax when they are not performing (typically, they’re found in a theaters, concert halls, and studios).
Which, of course, is one of the goofiest things ever.
Now, I get it: I am not a natural “crowd” person. My favorite time at a party is when it’s time to go home. Most pastors (at least, most of the pastors I know) tend to have a more introverted temperament.
And while I get that, I hope we all realize that the green room runs completely contrary to the gospel.
No matter how we over-spiritualize it—whether we say that area is used for pre-service prayer, or yet another review of our sermon notes—it represents more of a detriment to our spiritual well-being than we might realize, both those of us in the congregation and those who preach. The green room is about isolation, about creating barriers between the shepherd and the sheep.
The green room is a place to hide.
The gospel, however, refuses to let us remain isolated. It connects us to God through Christ; but it also connects us to others. That whole “body” metaphor Paul kept using? Yep. The vine and branches analogy Jesus used? Ditto.
If a pastor does not feel that he can be present with the congregation while waiting to preach, there is something dreadfully wrong, internally. And if there’s a lesson for all of us—both congregation members and pastors alike—it’s that. Pastors cannot be disconnected from congregations. When they cease to be connected, they cease to truly be pastors. They become something else entirely. And this should never be.
Brothers, abandon the green room. Do not hide from the congregation; do not perpetuate the leadership is lonely garbage. Worship with the congregation, seeing your place in the body so you might experience the ministry of the body.
There’s a new trend in the gospel-centered publishing world: recovering a sense of locality. The time and place in which we live and minister—the physical location God has placed us—this really, really matters. Or, at least it should. Sometimes we struggle to see why we live where we do, what God’s purposes might be in that when we’d much rather live in some far off “exotic” land. And so pastors are rising to the challenge, reminding us how the gospel affects our sense of purpose in the place we are and how we might benefit the world around us by being present.
Jeremy Writebol is the latest voice in the choir with his new book from Gospel-Centered Discipleship, everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in the Present. In this concise book, Writebol asks readers to reprioritize their sense of presence in light of God’s omnipresence—and because there is nowhere He is not, we should see everywhere as an opportunity for worship and missional living:
How would it change the way we see our neighborhoods? How would we live differently in God’s place? How would we work? How would we play? How would we worship? What would we do with the broken places within God’s place? What would we say to the broken people in God’s place? (25)
Being present in light of God’s omnipresence
The first half of everPresent contains its strongest material. Writebol does a terrific job connecting our disconnection with “place” and the gospel itself, pointing readers back to the Fall. We feel dislocated because our souls have been dislocated from the place where they were intended to reside: in proximity to God. And our dislocation is only solved by God relocating us in Christ.
Every religion in the world is constructing systems and paradigms to get us home. The reality, however, is that none of them work. None of them can adequately do the job of restoring the dislocating reality of our sin.… How do we get home? We get home by way of Jesus. He has done everything to bring his dislocated brothers and sisters back to the Father. (48)
A bit repetitive
As much as I appreciated the first half of the book—and again, it is really, really good—the second half is where it falls apart for me. This isn’t because what Writebol says is bad or wrong; it’s simply that there’s nothing I’ve not read in a Tim Keller book or any of the dozens of authors advocating a “missional” lifestyle. As a result, the second half comes across a bit repetitive, if only because it seems like that area has been more or less exhausted.
A strong portrayal of one side of being present, but more balance is needed
Now, that said, I do have one particular issue I feel is important to bring up: marriage and singleness. Much of what Writebol shares in chapter five, which deals with the subject of cultivating a households and families, is very good. In fact, there’s little I would disagree with. Here’s an example:
The goal of conceiving and cultivating children isn’t just to have well-adjusted adults who won’t make a larger mess when they enter the world. The goal of the gospel- shaped home is the sending of our children to live in their homes and bear witness to the relocating power of Jesus as King over all kings. This is often the reason the Scriptures describe the church as a household (Eph. 2:19). In the same way the church is called to make disciples, develop, and then deploy them, the home is a first place for the making of disciples, developing, and then deploying them. The missionary strategy of the church is first played out in the home itself. (79)
This is an example of a passage I wouldn’t have much to disagree with. As a parent, I strongly resonate with what Writebol advocates here. I want my home to have this kind of culture, where our children are discipled and deployed to reach others. And honestly, I can’t think of a Christian parent who would’t want that.
The concern for me arises not so much in the content as the seeming elevation of marriage as the ideal:
The home is the place where Kingdom citizens fulfill the mandate to cultivate a new generation of loyal followers of the King. By implication this means that, as God allows, every Christian should endeavor to get married and have children. Making a home for the Kingdom means, at the most basic level, fulfilling the mandate to make babies. This does not mean that every Christian will be married and have children, but again, as God allows, this should be the default intention of our home lives. (75)
While, again, I agree to a point—every married Christian should endeavor, as God allows, to have children, I’m not entirely sure I agree with the assertion that every Christian should endeavor to get married (even with the necessary caveat of “as God allows” in place). The Bible presents what seems to be an elevated view of singleness for the purpose of ministry. Single believers have a flexibility and freedom for the pursuit of mission that those of us who are married and have children simply don’t.
For example: as a parent and provider for four other people, I have to filter all the opportunities I receive through their needs: does this take away from my ability to emotionally and spiritually invest in my family, does it allow me to provide for their physical needs, and so on. But a single believer, ultimately, only has one serious question to answer: is this the place where I am best able to further the work of the gospel? There is much freedom there, something we would do well to remember in any discussion of locality and being present.
Now, in reading the book, it’s clear that Writebol is not intending to marginalize single Christians as second-class believers. It’s simply that he winds up showing only one side of a powerful witness from believers who are invested in the places they live. I would have loved to have seen the other side given as much attention for a more balanced perspective.
Overall, despite what I perceive as a few missteps and the repetitive feel of the latter half, there is much to be appreciated about everPresent. As an introduction to the conversation and a discussion starter, it is very good and well worth reading. Just don’t let it be the only book you read on the subject.
Maybe our question should really be: how do we fix the problem of “celebrity-ism” that’s seeped into the church?
I don’t think there’s anyone out there who would deny this is a problem—not just for pastors with a particularly large platform, but for laypeople, too. I think the solution really comes down to one thing:
Regaining a right view of oneself.
I know—totally revolutionary and world-changing, right? Bear with me a minute:
How does celebrity-ism start? It always—always—begins when we forget who we are. For pastors, maybe the congregation’s grown to a size when people are starting to take notice. More people show up. Podcasts downloads increase. Someone suggests writing a book. That book sells more than three copies.
For bloggers (yeah, it happens there, too), it’s more or less the same. Traffic increases, shares are up, comments are exploding. Sooner or later, the idea of writing a book comes up and it, again, sells a few copies.
Maybe you’re in sales and rocking your quotas. Maybe you’re a mom who’s kids actually clean their rooms and stay in bed at night. Maybe you’re a barista who makes a wicked-awesome latte. Whatever your thing is, if you’re nailing it and people are taking notice, it can make you think you’re a pretty big deal.