Reviewed by Harold Jantz.
A friend recommended this book by the evangelical church leader Mark Sayers to me and I picked it up soon after. I was happy I did. Sayers is the senior leader of the Red Church of Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Ueber Ministries, a resourcing ministry for church leaders.
Sayers is concerned about the impact of the culture on the church and how Christians might be better equipped to live out their faith in a world of high anxiety. Hence the title, a non-anxious presence (it is all lower case). He has done a great deal of helpful reading and shares perspectives that many will find helpful.
One of his observations comes out of the work of the Jewish rabbi and scholar, Edwin Friedmann, who writes about the loss of legitimacy for institutions. He writes that institutions and structures in society “are there to absorb anxiety.” But if persons no longer trust schools, the medical system, the police, local governments, perhaps national governments, where do they go with their concerns? Compound that with concerns about global warming, vexatious social issues, war in Ukraine, etc., anxiety can become acute indeed.
In Christian church settings, Sayers says that many leaders and pastors have embraced an approach to church leadership that goes something like this: determine your goal, study the most efficient path to reach it, break it into tasks, delegate the tasks to persons with the right skills, set up good supervision, and work with expectation of reaching the goal. It is an approach used by the military, business, government and even by many in their personal lives. There is nothing especially Christian or spiritual about it and, indeed, it often works. But writes Sayers, “Yet these things work against the practice of faith.”
In fact, we are learning that while we may have planned and organized to the last detail, the solutions of the past and the assumptions that were stable earlier, suddenly may not work. Covid strikes, a war breaks out, a hurricane devastates our region, the government no longer feels like an ally.
Sayers says that “Christian leadership [means] leading people into growth so they can grow into Christlikeness. Growth, moreover, involves understanding that discomfort and pain are part of life and can be used by God to grow us.” One of the images Sayers uses in his book is the story of the aftermath of the enormous volcanic explosion of Mount Krakatoa in 1883, which destroyed the larger part of an Indonesian island and affected the climate of the entire globe. The island became a grey zone. Yet four years later, scientists found “rampant growth” there. We too often find ourselves in grey zones, perhaps increasingly, but growth can follow.
Sayers purpose with a non-anxious presence is to help churches and their leaders respond to such situations from a vantage point of faith in a God who is there to accompany and guide us. This involves a keen awareness of the environment in which we find ourselves, choosing reality over ideology, orienting ourselves by what he terms “a heavenly reality,” and embracing humility. His approach places high value on the small. “In a complex world, small things can have a significant impact,” he writes. It’s the story of David and Goliath repeated. “David in his earthly weakness, held a decisive asymmetry,” writes Sayers, and won his battle. Today’s Christians can possess it too and be “a non-anxious presence” in their world.