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The absence of presence

The church is what the world is hurting for

The absence of presence

Christians who fled from Syria worship at an Assyrian church in Lebanon. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

The frankness of the Middle Eastern pastors is remarkable. They are learning, growing, reconciling, and repenting as their challenges deepen. The main reason? They can’t afford not to.

The assaults of the Syrian war—which enters its eighth year this month—and the ravages of Islamic State opened neighboring countries and their churches to new fears, new threats, and throngs of refugees at their doors.

Threats remain, they always do in this part of the world, but churches are finding new footing. In Lebanon, a nation of 4 million hosting 1.5 million mostly Syrian refugees, evangelical congregations of 50 have ballooned into churches of hundreds. Some have rows of Muslims in attendance. It started simply: churches giving out food packets and making home visits. Now years in, they are opening schools, counseling centers for deep trauma, and small business ventures.

‘We were living in a bubble. … We are trying to fix that.’

One pastor from Jordan (also with a refugee population exceeding 1 million) explained to me: “We were living in a bubble. The church became divided from the community. We are trying to fix that.”

We in America need to fix that, too. It may look different, but our churches too have retreated.

For centuries the churches of the Middle East survived under Islam by laying aside evangelism, backing into their cloisters. Besides not calling men to repent and believe, a practice outlawed in most Muslim countries, Christians retreated from public life, their God-infused presence a growing absence. Severed from essential functions, the Middle East churches shriveled.

In America our communities may seem increasingly hostile. Common ground seems rare. We form enclaves of church activity walled from the life of a lost and hurting world. We grow to fear others—refugees, Muslims, mass shooters, dope dealers, the homeless—because we don’t have a presence among them, therefore don’t evangelize, therefore forget what lives transformed by the gospel look like. Yet it’s that transformation the world is hurting for.

Overseas, mass shootings and violence are coming to define America. It’s what the taxi drivers and clerks want to talk about upon learning I’m an American. In the United States I find it rarely the center of conversation, even in the days and weeks following the Parkland shooting, even though three of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history have occurred in the last five months. Until the Florida shooting, who was talking anymore about the Las Vegas shooting? Only four months ago, with its 58 dead and 500 wounded, it rivaled the largest suicide bombings in the Middle East.

The high-school students won’t let us forget. Besides marching and backing laws to stop school violence, organizers like admirable Kyle Kashuv demand deeper engagement. Yet the sight of the 16-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School survivor bent over his phone, showing senators and the first lady the ReachOut App to create alert networks among students, leaves so much wanting. Americans hunched over their phones deep in their own world is a piece of the problem. The smartphone generation needs also human touch and the church to bring connectivity. It needs happy gospel-bearers entering dark places and dark lives.

“Presence” from the Hebrew penae or peneme means “face.” Technology is a wonderful aid but not a replacement for getting in someone’s face.

In the Old Testament, God’s presence appeared in the wilderness Tabernacle and later the Jerusalem Temple. In the New Testament, we have the physical presence of Jesus Christ, followed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for those who follow Him. These Christ-followers become the face, or presence, of God. As the Apostle Paul writes, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Corinthians 3:2).

Evangelism can begin with presence, and it can begin simply, as my Middle Eastern friends have learned. By churches coming together despite differences for the sake of a community. By moving toward the hurting, despite hostilities, in simple ways—a meal or a regular visit. Tapping into deeper needs, the work will be overwhelming, and there God will supply both means and miracles.