Face-to-Face: The Importance of Personal Presence in Ministry and Life

Gregory E. Reynolds

Efficiency rules. Advocates of electronic centralization can point to vast benefits such as the availability of medical records to physicians. For members of our own church it is a great benefit to disseminate prayer requests and other important information to the whole church through electronic means. But the downside of electronic centralization is usually framed in terms of concerns about privacy. As legitimate as this concern is, I would like to address what to my mind is even more important—the diminishment of local face to face relationships in our churches.

J. Gresham Machen was concerned in the early twentieth century with the tendency toward a vast expansion of federal power through bureaucratic centralization and its concomitant, the tyranny of experts. In the conclusion of his essay “Mountains and Why We Love Them” Machen wrote:

What will be the end of European civilization, of which I had a survey from my mountain vantage ground—of that European civilization and its daughter America? What does the future hold in store? Will Luther prove to have lived in vain? Will all the dreams of liberty issue into some vast industrial machine? Will even nature be reduced to standard, as in our country the sweetness of the woods and hills is being destroyed, as I have seen them destroyed in Maine, by the uniformities and artificialities and officialdom of our national parks? ... Will some dreadful second law of thermodynamics apply in the spiritual as well as in the material realm? Will all things in church and state be reduced to one dead level, coming at last to an equilibrium in which all liberty and all high aspirations will be gone? Will that be the end of all humanity's hopes? I can see no escape from that conclusion in the signs of the times; too inexorable seems to me to be the march of events. No, I can see only one alternative. The alternative is that there is a God—a God who in His own good time will bring forward great men again to do His will, great men to resist the tyranny of experts and lead humanity out again into the realms of light and freedom, great men, who above all, will be the messengers of His grace. There is, far above any mountain peak of vision, a God high and lifted up who, though He is infinitely exalted, yet cares for His children among men.[1]

Just as Machen warned of the tendency in a our technological civilization for centralized tyranny to diminish the human spirit by undermining liberty, so ought we to be concerned with the increased power of our technologies to centralize and thus diminish human liberty and local face to face relationships in a similar fashion, especially in the church.

The Apostle John had a similar concern about the rudimentary communication technology of his day when he wrote: “Though I have much to communicate to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12). “I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 14).


On May 24, 1844, the first electric communication was transmitted by telegraph thirty-seven miles between Baltimore & Washington, DC. Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872) sent the famous message “What Hath God Wrought!” His daughter had chosen the quote from Numbers 23:23 in the KJV, “God brings them out of Egypt and is for them like the horns of the wild ox.... ‘What has God wrought!’ Behold, a people!” Morse used the statement as an exclamation, not a question. He was proclaiming this revolutionary form of communication to be a wonder of God’s providence. What we now take for granted had the appearance of a miracle to mid-nineteenth-century perceptions.

In our day the magic continues apace. Our electronic connectedness has grown exponentially. Facebook users are a prime example, growing from over twelve million in late 2006, to over one billion today. Fifty percent of Americans use Facebook. Immersion in electronic technology seems inevitable. So it seems that we should all join or we’ll be relegated to irrelevance. But, while it is second nature to recite the benefits of this pervasive technological environment, we are hesitant, and many are even very resistant, to recognize its liabilities. I believe this is a dangerous position for church leaders, especially since the rising generation has never known any other world. I believe church officers have a grave responsibility in this area if we are to harness the tremendous potential of these technologies as good stewards of God’s world. This requires constructive criticism of the electronic environment.

Our Pedagogical Responsibility

A wonderful example of the power of constructive criticism is the story of what the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, did by raising worrisome concerns about the state of literary reading in America. Building on an alarming trend signaled by reports in the 1990s, Gioia sounded the alarm in dramatic fashion in 2004 and 2007 with reports, “Reading at Risk” and “To Read or Not to Read.” He was often criticized as a doomsayer. But, because parents and educators, including the NEA, did not simply accept this as a necessary and irreversible trend, the 20 percent decline in the youngest age group surveyed (ages 18–24) in 2002 was reversed to a dramatic 21 percent increase in 2008, as presented by Gioia in a subsequent NEA Report “Reading on the Rise.”

So instead of throwing up our hands and saying, “This is the way it is. We have to accept it,” we have a tremendous pedagogical opportunity to help this and the next generation of Christians to navigate the electronic environment as wise stewards of God’s providential gifts. Of course we can’t escape the modern world; nor should we wish to. But we must live well formed lives, conformed to God’s self-revelation, in this world (Rom. 12:1–2). We must not miss this teaching moment.

When it comes to the electronic media, it is almost as if the church has taken the advice of Oscar Wilde seriously. When asked what he recommended in the face of temptation, he quipped, “Give in to it.”

But before we do, we must ask, Does the electronic environment diminish or threaten our face to face relationships? I believe it does. I believe we can and must do something about it. As leaders in Christ’s church we need to turn Morse’s enthusiastic declaration, “What has God wrought!” into a question. As with all of man’s inventions we need to understand them, how they work, their effect on our perceptions and relationships, and then their benefits and liabilities, and rid ourselves of the dangerous notion that they are just tools!

It is our pedagogical responsibility to teach the church to be discerning in its understanding of and participation in the rapidly changing media environment?

Electronic Media Rearrange Our Total Relational Environment

Electronic media tend to dis-incarnate and distance people from their embodied lives. While excellent at disseminating information, electronic media tend to isolate us from face to face interaction. Social media, in particular, cannot replace, and often even undermine, the fabric of personal relationships which strengthen fellowship with God and each other. Church officers need to encourage church members to ask themselves how their use of media fosters healthy relationships with God, his church, my family, my friends, my world.

Many secular researchers are sounding an alarm in this area. Professor Sherry Turkle, who was once very positive about the effects of technology on human beings and their relationships, has recently written Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.[2] She is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinic psychologist. She reports a change in her early assessments.

I reported on this work [focus groups on boundaries between real and virtual worlds] in my 1995 Life on the Screen, which offered, on balance, a positive view of new opportunities for exploring identity online. But by then, my optimism of 1984 [The Second Self] had been challenged. I was meeting people, many people, who found online life more satisfying than what some derisively called “RL,” that is, real life.[3]

Church leaders and parents are becoming aware of some of the dangers associated with online life. Mediated relationships open people up to deception about who they really are. This is a special temptation for teenagers, who are forming their identities, and learning habits of human interaction. Things are expressed online that would never be expressed, or at least in the same manner, in face to face situations. In some cases social skills are so stunted that young people actually fear face to face interaction. The church has a definite advantage in this area, because we believe in the vital importance of meeting together for worship, learning, and fellowship.

But as I have written elsewhere[4] the Internet has a tendency to rearrange and undermine authority structures. The Presbyterian church is not exempt. Members and officers make theological and personal decisions, sometimes gossiping and even slandering others, outside, or beneath the radar of legitimate church authority. In some cases people even leave the church or never connect with the church, mistakenly believing that social media are sufficient.

Hence disembodied life online can promote the tendency to avoid the messy business of life in a fallen world—of sinners, saved by grace, but with many remaining imperfections, learning to live together in truth, forgiveness, and love. This is why we have been careful as a denomination to not unwittingly draw people away from local face to face existence by centralizing church interaction, especially through the use of social media. The Committee on Christian Education’s Subcommittee on Internet Ministries, on which I serve, often receives questions that should be addressed to local sessions or directly to individuals. We direct them back to those local face to face relationships with a gentle biblical admonition when appropriate. The Bible has a lot to say about the face and about face to face life in God’s world.

The tendency toward centralized power is a clear and present danger to the church. One of the great liabilities of mediated life is its tendency to erode the local life of face to face relationships.

A Brief Survey of the Importance of Personal Presence in the Bible

“Face” is used 382 times in the English Standard Version. In the Bible the face is most often referred to as a synecdoche representing the most intimate level of personal presence. The face is a revelation of the person, a window to the human soul. “Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man’s wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed” (Eccl. 8:1).

1. Sin causes God’s face to turn away and our faces to hide from him in shame. Sin alienates. Electronic media may exacerbate this tendency. We may become electronic fugitives.

But for Cain and his offering he [God] had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? ... Cain said to the LORD ... Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Gen. 4:5–6, 13–14)

And he [Moses] said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exod. 3:6)

I will set my face against you, and you shall be struck down before your enemies. (Lev. 26:17)

And I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face. (Ezek. 20:35)

In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” (Ps. 10:4)

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Ps. 51:9)

For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil. (1 Pet. 3:12)

2. Serious confrontation in the Bible is done face to face.

I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. (Acts 25:16)

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. (Gal. 2:11)

3. Face to face communication avoids the limits of mediated communication. Paul understood that distance increases the possibility for misunderstanding,

I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— ... I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Let such a person understand that what we say by letter when absent, we do when present. (2 Cor. 10:1, 9–11)

John appreciated the importance of personal presence that could never be replaced by the first century medium of written correspondence.

Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.... I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. (2 John 12; 3 John 14)

4. The absence of face to face presence may cause grief similar to death. This is evident in the departure of Paul from the Ephesian elders: “being sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again. And they accompanied him to the ship” (Acts 20:38).

5. Jesus is present with his people through the means of grace and the officers of his church. The living and true God has orchestrated the ultimate in personal presence with the incarnation of his Son. The Word took on a complete and perfect human nature in order to create a new humanity. Church officers represent his presence as his undershepherds until he returns (1 Pet. 5:1–5). The personal presence of God’s people in worship, focusing as it does on Word and sacrament is essential to the meaning of our redeemed creaturehood.

Throughout the history of redemption God has favored his people by his grace. Now he smiles upon us through Christ. This was prefigured in the ministry of Moses and Aaron as mediators of the old covenant and consummated in the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.

[T]he LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Num. 6:25)

Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.

... “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.... Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exod. 33:11, 20, 23)

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. (Deut. 34:10)

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

The good shepherd feeds his sheep on his Word through his chosen undershepherds. As the great and good shepherd of Scripture he is always present with his sheep. This was prophesied by Isaiah, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa. 40:11). “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). His words are the words of the entire Scripture (1 Pet. 1:10–11). Thus, the whole counsel of God is the necessary food of God’s people.

The one who has visited his people in history continues to visit them through his Word and Spirit in the person of the preacher. Nothing can replace that personal presence and that living voice. Pastor, elders, and deacons are called to follow Paul’s apostolic example, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Officers must know the sheep personally by name, even as their shepherd knows them (John 10:3).

Face to face encounter is central to the incarnation. The face reveals the person. So the best means of communication for John was to see his spiritual children “face to face” (2 John 12; 3 John 14). This reminds us that the word “communicate” comes from the Latin communicare, to commune, or to live in intimate fellowship with others. For John pen and ink could only supplement personal presence.

Paul also recognized that distance can only be overcome by personal presence, “Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you” (Rom. 1:9–10). He knew his ministry to the church was incomplete without such presence, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face” (Col. 2:1). The most beautiful expression of this is found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians:

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.... But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.... as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thess. 2:7–8, 17; 3:10)

6. Public worship is all about faces: God’s face and his people’s faces. We see this in the old covenant, “Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him ...” (Gen. 17:3). “David sought the face of the LORD” (2 Sam. 21:1). It has always been the desire of his people to have the closest personal contact with the Lord, “There are many who say, ‘Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!’ ” (Ps. 4:6). “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’ ” (Ps. 27:8).

While the location of worship is now no longer limited to a geographical location (John 4), this does not mean that location is unimportant. In the new covenant the temple is the church, wherever it meets. “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ ” (2 Cor. 6:16). The writer of Hebrews sounds like the wise real estate agent, location, location, location, when he exhorts, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25). The location of worship matters, because the personal presence of God’s people matters.

While the modern world has never been better “connected” electronically, it seems to be starving nearly to death for lack of personal and local connectedness. Local church provides this reality in a way that no other institution can. At the center of this communal reality is God’s speech in the preaching and presence of his appointed vicars (the English word for substitute or representative, as in vicarious). “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). Few could afford personal Bibles in the first-century church. But even our private reading of Scripture is always also a communal reading, because Scripture is the covenant document uniting God’s people in all ages. Preaching accents and cultivates this communion. The worst tendencies of mass culture are overcome by the promotion of live pastoral preaching as the center of the church’s life.

7. The goal of redemptive history involves Christ’s and our personal presence. The consummate reality for the Christian will be seeing the face of Jesus Christ in resurrection glory. The transfiguration foreshadowed the coming glory reflected in the face of Jesus, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matt. 17:2). Paul looks forward to the final glory, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). John reflects the same hope, “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:4). There is no better antidote to the electronic dispersion of our day than the counter-environment of the church created by the Word of the good and great shepherd.

Implications for our Ministry in the Church

1. Officers, consider your personal presence with those to whom you minister in the church essential to effective ministry. Paul’s presence in Timothy’s life was essential to his mentoring, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Tim. 3:14).

2. Teach God’s people media wisdom (media ecology). To be good stewards of the media we must understand not only the content communicated but the nature of each medium itself—its benefits and liabilities. Electronic media are best for information, and as a supplement, not a replacement, to face to face, personal communication. When we know people well face to face then texting, email, and phone calls can be effective supplements—in that order from least to most personal. But nothing replaces personal face to face presence.

3. Teach technological etiquette. Manners in general are in a state of decay. By enumerating some of the dangers of poor manners in electronic communication officers can head off some of the worst tendencies in the electronic environment. So many words are sent into cyberspace that would never be said face to face.

4. Encourage people to read good literature deeply, especially the Bible. This requires undistracted concentration, which is becoming a rare commodity today. We need to find “cool spots” to eliminate the ubiquitous, distracting buzz.

5. It is especially important that church officers warn people of the dangers of coming to doctrinal and ethical convictions, gossiping, and making decisions about the church on social and other media. The Subcommittee on Internet Ministries regularly sends people with local questions to seek out their church officers.

6. Church officers should encourage people to spend time with their families, developing the art of conversation. This requires some self-criticism regarding the time we spend alone on our devices.

7. We need to emphasize Sabbath keeping and family and personal devotions. This is the day the Lord has set aside for us to enjoy the Lord’s presence in the presence of his people. This is what forms the Christian life. Worship should be a time apart, unique in the atmosphere of reverence and awe. This is the day for absorbing and being formed by God’s Word. “Hear, O earth; behold, I am bringing disaster upon this people, the fruit of their devices, because they have not paid attention to my words; and as for my law, they have rejected it” (Jer. 6:19).

Were the apostle John alive today, I imagine him writing 2 John 12 in this way, “Though I have much to communicate to you, I would rather not use email or my smart phone. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”


[1] J. Gresham Machen, Selected Shorter Writings: J. Gresham Machen (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 436.

[2] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

[3] Turkle, Alone Together, xi.

[4] Gregory E. Reynolds, “The Wired Church,” Ordained Servant 16 (2007): 26–34; “On Being Connected,” Ordained Servant 15 (2006): 13–15; “Princess Adelaide and Presbyterianism: The Death of Context and the Life of the Church,” Ordained Servant 15 (2006): 16–18.

Ordained Servant Online, December 2012.

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Ordained Servant: December 2012

Face to Face

Also in this issue

Steering a Course between Fundamentalism and Transformationalism: J. Gresham Machen’s View of Christian Scholarship, Part 2

“Thou Art the Christ”: Reflections on the Name of the Lord

To a Snowflake

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