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What We’re Learning: The Power of Presence

By Dr. Nancy Going
Director of Research & Resource Development

In the emerging research spotlighting the impact of pandemic-induced social isolation, the outcomes are sobering. Writing in a Frontiers In Psychology report, authors Giada Pietrabissa and Susan G. Simpson report: “The most common psychological disorders emerging are anxiety and panic, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, insomnia, digestive problems, as well as depressive symptoms and post-traumatic stress. These are not only a direct consequence of the pandemic but also largely driven by the effects of prolonged social isolation—that is, the objective lack of interactions with others. The medical journal The Lancet recently published an article from which a clear and alarming picture emerges: periods of isolation, even less than 10 days, can have long-term effects, with the presence—up to three years later—of psychiatric symptoms.”

Our presence, or lack thereof, has a profound impact on others. And the social isolation that has been necessary to fight the spread of the Covid-19 virus has highlighted our fundamental need for in-person community. The nature of presence is, as a result, a burgeoning topic within the church… The conversations center around the importance of gathering with fellow believers, and our inability to consistently do so as the pandemic extends into its fifth wave. And as Vibrant Faith continues our work with the churches that are part of our Thriving Congregations project, we’ve been profoundly concerned about the power of presence.  

At the beginning of our project, we focused on the engines of thriving in the early church—with help from the book Thriving Communities, written by C. Kavin Rowe and L. Gregory Jones, we were challenged to explore what it looks like to increase our capacity to be present to God, others, and the world. Our ability to be relationally present in life is both the context and momentum of a thriving congregation. 

Thriving in the early church was marked by relationality. That relationality showed itself first and foremost in the ways that Christians loved Jesus, told the stories of Jesus, and sought to live in and with the Spirit of Jesus. Thriving in the early church was all about people who were determined to maintain their presence before God, through the enabling power of the Spirit. These young Christian communities stood out from their surrounding culture because of their willingness to be deeply engaged with Jesus, and with one another. Their focus on relational presence with God fueled a unique capacity to be more present to one another. The fruit was deep community—their care for the widows and poor and marginalized stood in stark contrast to the norms of their culture.  

Our path into thriving necessarily requires increasing our capacity to be present. There is much debate about the efficacy of screens and online connections as mediums for presence, and the truth is that these secondary (and necessary) mediums don’t deliver the same impact as in-person presence does. BUT that doesn’t mean we can’t explore and use them to discover new possibilities for increasing our capacity to be present to one another. While we long to be physically together, what we are really longing for is to know and be known. And that means our mission is to create more space for conversations and listening to one another. It means helping people deepen their relationships with one another, by any means possible.    

Yes, our physical presence matters. But if we maintain our focus on increasing our capacity to be relationally present to God and to one another, no matter what our challenges or restrictions, we will move our congregations deeper into a thriving culture. 

How are you using this extraordinary time in our history to increase your church’s capacity to be present—to God and others? 

Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.


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