When someone joins the United Methodist Church, they pledge to support it with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Anyone can procure a copy of The United Methodist Book of Discipline and read for themselves the official stance of the Church on the elements of the pledge, but I thought it might be helpful to see what a clergy perspective is as shaped by years of ministerial experience, formal training, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We don’t think much about presence, being present in a particular place, but God calls us to be in specific places. One of those places is in the House of God, the modern-day church. It is a foundational requirement from the Bible. God makes it clear in the commandment of the Israelites to build the Tabernacle that the people of God are to regularly and intentionally come into the presence of God. They came to pray. They came to worship, even when worship consisted of nothing more than offerings and animal sacrifice for the atonement of sin. They came to have Moses adjudicate their problems with wisdom and guidance coming directly from God. But no matter how you slice it, they came. They were present.
Fast forward thousands of years and one Messiah later, are we the disciples of Jesus Christ and spiritual descendants of the Israelites still present? We are no less called into the presence of God in the House of God. Whether it is called the Tabernacle, the Temple, or the church, it is where God commands our presence. We go to be with God. We go to be with one another, to manifest the Body of Christ. We go because we do need more than to be alone in our faith. I work in a church. I have open and free access to the building and its sanctified worship spaces at all times. Yet no matter how many times I walk into the chapel or sanctuary alone, it will never be the same as when the congregation gathers there on the Lord’s Day for worship. There is an energy when people come into the presence of God to worship. I have been to large gatherings, been in mobs of people, concerts blasting music that reverberates in your bones, but none of them can replicate the electrical charge of being in the presence of the Living God in the House of God in the midst of God’s people. Something happens when we do, and the only thing we can use to describe that phenomenon is holy.
As clergy tasked with being a Minister of the Word on Sunday morning, I can tell you that I put in over twenty hours a week on my sermons. That is without additional worship prep. I pray, read, study, write, compose, and practice just to be ready for one hour with you. I spend all week looking forward to that time together when we all unite with God in worship. I do all this because God calls me to it, but also because it is important to me: my presence and yours. When you put all this effort and energy into your prayers and sermons, and then no one comes, it can be depressing to say the least. I feel like what is going on in worship is unimportant to others, when it is so vital to me. I feel like there has been a fundamental failure to convey the importance of our presence. Clergy need laity, and vice versa. The prophetic word I am called to bring to God’s people is meaningless if I cannot bring it to God’s people, and that will not happen if they are not present. I cannot be challenged, pushed, and deepened in my vocation and faith without you present either. I need you, and I want to be in a relationship that involves physical proximity rather than just denominational affiliation. What is the point of being part of a Church that demands scholarly education, rigorous training, and years of mentored experience before clergy can be ordained, if you are not going to be present to benefit from it?
Now I am a realist, an optimistic realist, but a realist nonetheless. I know that there are some Sundays when worship just doesn’t happen for some people. But if you’re honest with me, then you will have to admit that you miss more than just those times when it’s practically impossible. People miss worship because they’re tired, they were out too late the night before, they have someone unrelated to God scheduled at the same time, and because they just don’t have the motivation. But we need to find and keep the motivation. We have to make being present a top priority, because we claim to worship and have faith in a God who has been present for us in more ways than we can fathom. Presence is important to God. It is important to clergy who work so hard in the name of God to serve and lead God’s people. It is also important to the other people who pledged before God to be faithful in their presence for one another. If you don’t want to have your presence accounted for, then you had better carefully consider your resignation letter to the Lord.
Every believer is asking to one day inherit the heavenly reward: eternity with God in the Kingdom to come, but what does our presence here and now have to say to God who will ultimately decide if we can receive this gracious gift? Are we putting in our presence now, revealing our desire and commitment to eternal life? I do know this: I would joyously stand before the throne of the Risen Christ and vouch for those who did all in their power to be present with me in worship, on this path of discipleship. I would declare my gratitude for those who stood beside me in ministry and sat before me in worship. I would petition Christ for his grace for them, and give thanks for the blessing they were to me and my ministry. But I cannot do that if I am not present with you here, because I cannot honest attest that I know you, your heart, and your desire to grow in your faith. So come and be present. Come and be with God, and others who serve God, people like me, who want more than anything to be with you and experience God with and through you.