Why do video conferences–even those with the best internet connection–feel lacking despite reasonably approximating a table gathering? Why is texting amazingly helpful and frustratingly unsatisfying? The church has never had easier access to such an abundance of excellent teaching. But something is clearly lost in the medium of a podcast or live stream worship service. Why does presence matter?
This isn’t a new question. The apostle John was clearly a gifted writer. He knew that with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration the words from his pen would be effective in accomplishing heaven’s purposes. So why did he conclude two of his letters by saying, “I had much more to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 1:13—14; cf. 2 John 1:12)? There might be no better time in our lives for understanding the grace of presence.
Why Do We Crave Presence?
John’s words aren’t entirely mysterious or profound. In part he simply wanted to be comprehended. He knew that written words can be easily misunderstood, lacking reinforcement from additional cues such as tone of voice and facial expression. If I texted you, “Thanks a lot!” you wouldn’t know if I was being genuine or sarcastic. Face to face is almost always the best way to communicate. It allows for on-the-spot correction of misunderstandings. It can, when done well, lower our guard and invite deeper sharing.
But we can read in John’s words a deeper meaning. John desired better communion with his brothers and sisters than impersonal media could facilitate. His words are intimate; he literally desires a “mouth to mouth” meeting with his friends. He believed that “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”[i] Hear John in a parallel passage: “I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12).
John wasn’t just bored; he didn’t want to quit writing because his hand hurt. He felt incomplete without the presence of other Christians. This is a deep theological truth that gripped the 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As Hitler rose to power and Nazism threatened the church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was overseeing an illegal seminary. In this context of close but imperiled Christian community he wrote that “The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body … and in the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual-physical creatures.”[ii]
If our recent experience of isolation has taught us to desire and practice more and deeper fellowship we will be better for it.
How Do We Practice the Grace of Presence?
How should we respond to the apostle John’s subtle hint that face to face fellowship is essential to human flourishing?
Praise God for the Gift of Presence
John, distant from a church he loved, sensed the gift of presence. Listen to Bonhoeffer elaborate on John’s sentiment. “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world…Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”[iii]
Through the gift of human companionship we can come to better treasure God. Human gatherings illustrate the incarnation of Jesus as the gift of God’s presence. God spoke with Moses “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8). He desires no less intimacy with us today. In Christ God revealed his heart for intimate friendship. Jesus touched the sick. He placed loving hands on children. He embraced his disciples. He shared meals. The Christian religion is more–but not less–than affirming truth written on a page; it is about coming mouth to mouth with God through his incarnate Son.
Practice Presence with Other Believers
Let me make three concrete suggestions to help us do this.
First, use your presence well. Like John, Paul wanted desperately to see the faces of God’s children. Why? “That we may…perfect what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:10; cf. Rom. 1:11—12). We shouldn’t use physical presence simply to scratch an itch but to deliberately build each other up.
Second, pursue the lonely. The social isolation we have experienced is the unrelenting norm for many lonely people. Paul, in prison, wrote, “How greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:8). He was “greatly desiring to see” his friends that he might be filled with joy (2 Tim. 1:4). He wasn’t being poetic. He was lonely. Can you think of a few lonely people with whom you could become more present?
Third, be physical. The biblical greeting of a holy kiss can be contextualized; hugs and handshakes are fair approximations. But whatever our cultural norms for touch Scripture assumes that believers meeting each other will practice appropriate physical affirmation. The story of Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians is truncated without the report that, “they embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:37).
Preview Heavenly Fellowship
All communion is imperfect this side of glory. We are meant to groan, yearn for, desire, and imagine deeper fellowship. As God grants it he opens a window to glory. Let’s never again take for granted our need for personal contact. And let’s use our present longings for and experiences of restored fellowship with each other to whet our appetite for eternal togetherness with God and the saints.
[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1954), 19.
[ii] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 19—20.
[iii] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 18—19.