By: Rev. Brandon Dirks
I am discontent with Christian small groups. I don’t have a small group. I am an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and I don’t have a small group. I have excuses like…I just moved to Kentucky. I am a church staff and a clergy person so I have to be real careful whom I can trust. And, oh, I lead groups. I am in lots of spiritual meetings. But there is not one place, one small group of people with whom I can be “fully” present in such a way that it shapes me to be more like Jesus.
This week the Discover the Path Personal Workbook that Christ Church is asking everyone to work through as a part of our re-visioned stewardship campaign (see my previous blog), is examining our presence—our presence before the Lord, our presence during worship, our presence in a small group.
The term “presence” really pushed me this week.
The workbook defines presence as more than attendance, but as “going with” another in the fullest possible sense—radical hospitality, caring vulnerability, loving accountability, and holy intimacy.
The reason Alcoholics Anonymous and other “Anonymous” groups work so well in transforming lives is because they are able to create just such an environment. Imagine what impact the church could make in this world if we expected similar results from our small groups? Ooops…we already do! The purpose of Christian small groups is transformation! That’s how Jesus transformed twelve knuckleheads into apostles whose transforming impact on the world would be felt throughout eternity!
By the definition above, though, something else welled up inside me. Somehow, we have reduced presence to only mean “attendance.” Churches have become too focused on getting more and more people to “attend” programs—worship, Sunday School, Bible Studies, choirs, children’s activities, etc. We measure our success with our churches by how many members we have, or how many attend worship, or how many attend my Sunday School class.
Jesus seemed to never care about making bigger and bigger crowds…only connecting with the few who wanted to be ‘present’ with him. “Where two or three gather…” He chose only twelve disciples. Took only three on top of the Mount of Transfiguration. Let little children sit on his lap. Sat with the woman at the well. Forgave the adulterous woman. Jesus gave us the example of what his presence meant—radical hospitality, caring vulnerability, loving accountability, and holy intimacy in relationship—when he washed his disciples’ feet. This is presence!
Has the church given up the presence of Jesus in order to peddle Jesus?
I have come to a horrifying conclusion this week—have I contributed to the problem? If I am honest, I have to say, yes. For over 20 years I too have tried to peddle Jesus as if he is some sort of commodity that can be acquired by simply attending a Bible study, or a mission trip, or a worship service. I got angry, and only mildly hid my frustration, when people would allow football and soccer games to conflict with their commitment to the church. I kept pressing volunteers and leaders to spend less time being present to their families and spiritual disciplines in order to “serve” at the church. I created more and more activities and programs for people to do, and secretly measured how well I did by the numbers of people who attended them. If I am honest, the more “great sermon” comments I received meant more to me than one “that sermon really made me think.” I fear I am part of the problem that Henri Nouwen refers to when he says, “The greatest spiritual danger of our times is the separation of Jesus from the church.” I have peddled Jesus too.
This week has caused me to ask God for forgiveness. To redirect me. To help me be truly present to Jesus in worship and find a small group so that Jesus can shape me and mold me into His disciple so that I can be HIS PRESENCE…to each person I meet.
Forgive me, Lord, for missing the point on being present. It is not simply about my attendance, but about my connection to you…and your connection to me…and your connection to others through me. I commit to finding a small group in 2015 that will exhibit all the qualities of the kind of group that will never let me forget that, nor let me off the hook.