Current thought on evangelism is clustering around two poles: “presence” and “proclamation.” “Christian presence” is a current ecumenical “in” term, minted, apparently, in French Roman Catholicism. Charles de Foucauld, founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus order, who was murdered in the Sahara in 1916, described his vocation as “being present amongst people, with a presence willed and intended as a witness of the love of Christ.”

The term has been popularized since World War II, particularly, perhaps, through the mission of the “worker priests” in France. For French Catholics, “presence in the world” has meant a kind of evangelistic reentry to sectors such as the laboring world from which the church has been absent. In Western intellectual circles, the term has been expanded to include involvement in the political and cultural structures of society. Major WCC evangelism and missions studies have concentrated on “structures of missionary presence.”

Eszard Roland candidly says that the slogan “Christian presence” is “so abstract, so vague, that each of us can take it to mean something different.” The World Student Christian Federation statement entitled “The Christian Community in the Academic World” uses “presence” “to express both the center of Christian faith and our response to it.” “ ‘Presence’ for us means ‘engagement,’ involvement in the concrete structures of our society.” Colin Williams suggests that “presence” replaces the common view of mission, seen primarily in verbal terms, with a recognition that “mission is first a ‘being-there’—a servant presence in love on behalf of Christ—and that the opportunity to name the Name is one for which we must long, but which must know the right time.” Max Warren interprets “presence” as “the attempt to be identified with the other person by being in the profoundest sense of the word available.…”

The WSCF document ties presence closely to incarnational theology: “As an expression of our faith, it points to the incarnation: God became man like us and lived among us.… His presence has shown God to us. No reference is made to the death of Christ as opening to man the presence of God. His resurrection is overlooked, and the work of the Holy Spirit is ignored.

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Philip Potter grounds the “presence” idea in such biblical material as God’s revelation of himself to Moses as “I am”; the God whom man cannot escape, Psalm 139; the Shekinah dwelling among men in John’s Gospel as Jesus, the supreme “I am”; and the Emmanuel presence and promise of Matthew’s opening and closing chapters.

Gilbert Rist has interpreted “presence” in a “theology of silence”—the “incognito” in which Jesus lived, and the “silence of Golgotha.”

“Presence” theology dwells on the omnipresence of God or, in current terms, on God’s secularity. Revelation tends to be seen in terms either of the “hiddenness” of God or of the universal light of the Logos. In this theology, Christology emphasizes the incarnation, has little definite to say of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. The dominant note is that of a world already reconciled and redeemed, which needs only to learn that this is so and that Jesus is already its Lord.

Something more is involved in the “presence” approach than simple reaction to a “word-centered” evangelism, or the seeking of a proper balance of word and deed. The WSCF paper says that older terms—“evangelization,” “witness,” “mission”—suggest a posture of confrontation or aggressiveness that is no longer acceptable. These words “suggest a certainty of faith and purpose”; they express faith in terms that create difficulty. “Presence” without “proclamation” seemingly may be witness enough.

Colin Williams and Max Warren seem to be saying instead that it is a question of priority. The witness of word is important. What matters most, however, is not what is said but the “being present” of the one who says it.

Those concerned for “Christian presence” are by no means unanimous in their theology or practice. For some, “presence” is the outgrowth of a radical secular theology that doubts the efficacy of the evangelical Gospel. For others, “presence” means taking seriously the Incarnation pattern so that we may win the right to be heard. We must not judge too hastily or generally or harshly.

As evangelicals we have much to learn about “Christian presence.” Too often we have evangelized in a mechanical, impersonal way. We have hoisted many “gospel blimps.” “Identification” is a word that speaks to our condition. Our Lord did not broadcast the word from the sky, but he spoke as one found in fashion as a man, in the form of a servant. We are called to identification not only by the example of Christ but by a deep sense of humility that we who bear his Gospel have often brought so much discredit upon it. We are indeed not supersaints but “beggars telling others where to find bread.”

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But our “yes” to the truth of witness by presence stands alongside a “no.” We cannot be party to any downgrading of the Word. For our Lord has called us to be heralds of his grace. The Word we preach is not a mere human word. It is the message of God himself, in which he is present revealing himself to man, a powerful Word by which God creates faith and life in those who hear (Rom. 10:8, 14, 15; 1 Pet. 1:23–25). Nor can we accept the notion that “presence” is merely a saved man who knows he is a saved being with a saved man who doesn’t yet know of his salvation. The light that comes into the world brings both response and rejection, salvation and condemnation (John 3:17, 18). Evangelism does imply a separation of the believer from the world as well as an identification with the world.

So we say yes to presence but no to presence without proclamation. We say yes to dialogue but no to dialogue without decision.

The “presence-proclamation” tension still forces many questions before the Church. Is “presence” a more valid and necessary approach in some cultures that in others? Can “Christian presence” be continued as a valid witness permanently in situations where open proclamation is not possible? Must all Christians engage in verbal witness? How much does a lack of “structures of Christian presence” hinder the effectiveness of proclamation?

We must face all such questions as obedient witnesses to our Lord and Saviour, who has said to us, both, “You are the salt of the earth,” and, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man shall also be ashamed of him.”


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