I was reading a chapter, entitled “Embedding Chaplaincy: Integrity and Presence” by Margaret Whipp, in the book “”A Christian Theology of Chaplaincy,” edited by Caperon, Todd, and Walters. There is a sizable quote that, although speaking of Chaplaincy could just as easily be applied to Missions:
Presence counts. In one of the more radical twentieth-century experiments in workplace ministry, the ‘Mission de France’ embedded worker-priests amid the sweat and grime of northern industrial docklands. Stripped of all their priestly trappings, their mission was simply to belong: to live and move and have their being among the other heavy manual workers. ‘But what did they actually do?’ asked the curious English bishop when he interviewed the worker-priests’ superior. Abbe’ Godin’s emphatic reply caught the entire spirit of the movement: ‘C’est la presence. C’est la presence!’
Presence matters. Woody Allen famously quipped that 80 per cent of life consists of showing up. This is what we cherish as one of the keenest principles of incarnational theology — that presence precedes function. The real human presence of Christ — ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands’ (I John 1:1) — reveals the transformative power of God’s own being, and dwelling among us.
The chaplain’s <and missionary’s> presence, however, is scarcely navigated without problems. Paul Ballard rehearses the challenge of steering between the twin perils of an over-identification with management objectives which threaten to blunt our prophetic edge and a ministry on the margins of institutional or industrial life which is too irrelevant to cut any ice. “This is, of course, precisely the tension of the incarnation — of being in the world so entirely that there is identity and yet being ‘not of this world’ so as to be free to serve it.’ In Niebuhrian terms, chaplains <and missionaries> must negotiate a subtle course between the twin poles of cosy assimilation and crude opposition in order to find their true missional integrity.
Whipp’s analysis points to the vital importance of presence, but also its challenges to avoid being ineffective and/or irrelevant. Conciliar Missions, back in the 1960s began to redefine Missions in terms of Presence. I may be wrong here, but it seemed to me that often Missions and Presence were seen to be the same thing. The role as intentional transformer seemed to get lost (again, as I understand it). Perhaps the issue there is a failure to see Missions in terms of both Presence AND Function. As Whipp noted above, in Chaplaincy (and I would add Missions), Presence precedes Function, in line with Incarnational Theology. As such, Missions is not Presence alone, and Presence is not of itself Function. Incarnational presence empowers function.
On the flip side, there are groups that believe that incarnational long-term foreign missions are unnecessary, or too financially inefficient to be utilized. For them, the goal is to just send money to local ministers. I have talked about this issue before. It is true that local ministers are typically more effective, and are more financially frugal. Still, it is missions in which function is given such high priority that presence is discounted. Presence has a certain power that should not be discounted. It is entirely possible that God could have carried out His mission for mankind without the Incarnation, but the presence of God With Us, is symbolically powerful, even without the atonement.