Throughout the Bible we read of how time and time again God’s people felt the closest to God, the safest, the most secure, loved, and unshakable when God’s presence was tangible:
In the garden with Adam and Eve.
With Noah on the ark.
With Abraham and Sarah bearing a son and birthing a nation
With Moses freeing his people and crossing the sea.
These Old Testament accounts tell us that God’s people are not God’s people apart from God’s presence. In Exodus 33, Moses responds to God saying, “Is it not by Your going with us, your presence with us, that we, Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16 NASB).
It is through God’s presence that God works among them and through them. On and on it goes through the Old Testament - through the wilderness, into the promised land, until once again God’s people turn their backs on God and turn away from the practices that ground them in their faith. Turn away from creating space for God in their midst.
And then, in God’s greatest act of love and restoration, God’s promise is made whole in the birth of Jesus - the one the prophets foretold with the words, “...and he shall be named Immanuel,” which means, what??? God with us! God’s very presence came and lived among us - showed us the way to live and how to treat one another.
So when we ask, “why does the church exist?” Why does a body of believers matter? The answer is because “presence is the way God works. Therefore, for God to work, requires a people for God to be present to, and to make space for God to be made known in the world” (38).
Presence and programs. Once we grab hold of just how significant this understanding of presence is, then we build the programs and we ask ourselves, “what is more important, to organize the church as a set of programs, for individuals to access, or as a whole way of life to be lived together in the world? (30).
I think you know my answer to that one. Practicing the presence of God individually and as a gathered body of believers must be understood as a way of life, not something insignificant and immediate, but something transforming and eternal. Not something once a week but something everyday in everyday life.
Presence is how God works, therefore God’s presence needs our presence. Out of such awareness the needs, interests, values, struggles, and questions of the people are made known and the programs then, are a response to God’s presence and leading. Programs that equip, teach, build, empower, and direct others into an awareness and lifelong pursuit of God’s presence.
What are we to be, church? A place of program upon program upon program or a place where the evidence of God’s abiding presence is known, programs emerge, and transformation occurs?
Why church? Because God’s presence needs our presence to work in and through; we are vessels of God’s presence. Why church? Because we need the presence of one another to show our world there is a place and a people of hope and that ultimately God’s love prevails. Why church? Because it is bigger than us.
Pastor Jenothy Irvine