Presence and Servanthood

A recurrent theme which came up in the discussions surrounding my previous postings on John Howard Yoder’s Theology of Mission was the integral connection in Yoder’s thought between the medium and the message. This connection is made explicit in a couple of chapters where Yoder explores under the heading “Message and Medium” what could be described as the fundamental stance or posture of the missionary community. Yoder’s thoughts at this point are not simply for “professional missionaries” in faraway places, but for the people of God who are always in mission wherever they find themselves.

He describes the community’s orientation to the world under the headings of presence and servanthood. Both presence and servanthood are categories emerging from the reality of the Incarnation. We could say that for Yoder, presence is the formal principle of missionary engagement. In other words, because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the missionary community must also profoundly identify with the place to which they are called and truly enter into the joys and struggles of their neighbors. There are strong resonances here with the ministry of John Perkins and his emphasis upon “relocation” and also that of the “Move In” movement. Interestingly, Yoder suggests that a proper understanding of and commitment to presence could free the church from metrics-oriented anxiety that always threatens to lead to salesmanship. Yoder writes:

“One more dimension of the possible strength of presence as a conscious self-understanding is the concept of reverse pressure. If we are concerned for a tangible, measurable, affirmative response, that concern will put a bind on relationships. It will tend to make us impatient and feel threatened. It will tend to make us sales people, and it will be perceivable that we want people to respond in a certain way. The hard sell, or any kind of sell in certain circumstances, produces resistance. It might be that precisely the patient renunciation of any selling concept, any caring deeply about immediate response or any dependence on response in order to feel affirmed would undercut certain resistances. Maybe this approach would be the ultimate testimony of confidence in the product, the gospel message: ‘I do not have to try to win you if I am really sure of the truth of what I am saying. Maybe my needing to win you and my need for your affirmative response communicates to you that I am not really sure of my message. Perhaps if I were more sure, I could be more authentic as your neighbor, more present. Maybe that kind of presence would communicate a confidence in the message that my salesmanship does not’” (319).

If presence is for Yoder the formal principle of the posture of missionary engagement, it is servanthood which supplies the material content. It is not enough for the missionary community simply to be present, the way that the community is present to its neighbors is of great importance. This also emerges from the reality of the Incarnation; the Truth and Life of Jesus cannot be divorced from the way that He is the Way. An upshot of this commitment is the understanding that servanthood is not merely instrumental to achieving some other end, like making converts, rather it is intrinsic to the church’s identity and missional calling itself.

“What if we said that while being a servant is not the whole message, it is integrally the message? It is not a buildup to the message as in ‘I will be your servant for a while so you will listen to me.’ Nor is it an epilogue to the message as in ‘We have fellowship so now we help another.’ It is the message ‘We are here for your sake.’ Similar to our earlier point that the message of the church was the being of the church, that the church itself is the message of reconciliation, so here I am suggesting that being a servant is much more than a way to get the job done, a way to get some other message across or a way to get a foot in the door to preach the gospel. Being a servant is what we are and why we are. It is one of the ways that Jesus interpreted his presence, most dramatically at the Lord’s Supper. He said, ‘I am among you as one who serves,’ which does not refer to the actual washing of feet but to servitude as the alternative to lordship (Lk 22:25-27)” (329).

It seems to me that Yoder is not discounting the importance of the proclamation of the Gospel and the necessity for people to respond to that proclamation, but rather he is encouraging the church to enter more fully into the saving mystery of Christ, so that the witness of the missionary community may more closely conform to the truth of the One whose love it has experienced as a reality in its midst. This is perhaps a timely word of encouragement and challenge for a church facing the bewilderment brought on by the ruins of Christendom.

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