I learn a lot from the people at my church, especially our seniors. It’s not that young people have nothing to teach me, but the well of wisdom is that much deeper with those who have lived life longer. (Side Note: Get to know the seniors in your community. They may just surprise you with the amount of experience and love they have to share.)
One of our seniors, Karoline Klaassen, passed away last January at the age of 80. Her loss was felt deeply in our church and especially by me. She wasn’t afraid to enter into hard conversations and challenge people on their beliefs. She wasn’t satisfied with the status quo and had maintained a missional mindset throughout her whole life.
I had many conversations with Karoline, most of them about faith. There were many times when she’d come into the church or call me to tell me the latest teaching or book that inspired her and how we all needed to do something about it. One of her most memorable lessons happened as we shared a meal together. She talked about two words: being and doing.
The difference between these two in light of Christian witness is huge. To Karoline, it seemed like we’ve been so consumed with doing mission, but what she felt called to do was to be missional. But if we are called to share God’s hope and healing with the world, how can we do that without actually doing something? And what does it mean to be?
Presence vs. Programs
When God showed up on this earth, He didn’t come in a program with a curriculum or manual. He came as a baby who grew up to be a man who was present to people in real life situations. One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that God, the perfect creator of the universe, would want to incarnate Himself to be present with us. He didn’t offer us a program, but Himself.
In a similar way, one of the biggest gifts we could offer someone else is ourselves. We do that by giving our presence - sharing space, time, conversation, food, etc. Especially in our day and age when it’s so easy to be pulled in every direction, giving someone your presence can sometimes feel like a huge sacrifice.
It’s not that programs are bad. They are important. In our church, we have programs for every age group and hold many intergenerational events in order to engage people in faith and community. But in many ways, the programs are just a way to get people in the same place, where they are able to share in each other’s presence.
When we share our presence with someone else, we say much more than a program ever could. It’s one thing to tell someone that they are loved by God. It’s another thing to show them God’s love by being present with them through the ups and downs of life, even when it doesn’t suite our program or schedules.
Relationships vs. Results
If we focus on presence rather than programs, we will learn to value relationships over results. I have personally had to make a big shift in my thinking in this regard. As a pastor, I’m always trying to evaluate how our church ministry is functioning, and it’s difficult not to worry about results.
Results in ministry and mission are great. Seeing people grow in faith, make decisions to follow Jesus, become more committed to their church, heal broken relationships, and welcome outsiders, is very rewarding. But when we are too focused on these in quantity, we can sometimes sacrifice the quality of the relationships we are in.
I know many people who have been hurt because they were on the wrong end of expected results. When they didn’t fit the mold anymore, they were turned aside or told to move on. These people have held (or still do) grudges against the church for this reason. They’ve felt like they weren’t valued as people and that no one cared to foster real, meaningful relationships with them.
When we focus on true relationships with each other, our concern becomes meeting each person where they’re at instead of trying to bring them to our desired end. We see each person as an individual, mutually giving and receiving into that relationship. Each person knows that they are known for who they are, not just because they check a box.
We will realize that by focusing on relationships instead of results, we will have to trust God to do the work that we never could. God works in people’s lives in ways we can’t even understand. When we don’t see results because of our efforts, it can seem like a failure. But we can’t forget that it’s God’s business to get results, and the truth is that we’ll often never see what comes out of our choice to live in genuine relationship with others.
Many of us understand this kind of presence and relationship. We already have this mindset for our close family and friends. But Jesus reached out to the lowest of the low - the marginalized and the outcast. Doing mission is putting on programs for the sake of results with people that we wouldn’t normally hang out with. Being missional is offering our presence and building relationships by genuinely welcoming people into our lives (programs sometimes being the method), even if we don’t like them, while trusting that God will take care of the doing in the end.
I learned a lot from Karoline while she was still with us. But one thing that won’t leave me is that if we want to be missional as people of faith, we need to learn to be instead of just do. This can often be uncomfortable, but it’s in the vulnerability of presence that relationships are built. And it’s in genuine, mutual, time-tested relationships that we can truly display the love of Christ to one another. Now what can be more missional than that?