Faithful Presence, David E. Fitch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2016.
Summary: Expands upon the idea of “faithful presence,” exploring how this may be practiced by the church in fulfillment of her mission through seven foundational disciplines practiced in three different settings or “circles.”
In 2010, sociologist James Davison Hunter penned a probing critique of evangelicalism’s “change the world” rhetoric in To Change the World (reviewed here), and proposed as an alternative, the idea of the subversive practice of “faithful presence.” David E. Fitch, co-pastor of Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois, takes up this idea contending that Hunter ran out of space in his book in fleshing out “what the actual practice of faithful presence might look like.” He contends that without a new kind of formational practice in the church (in truth harking back to our beginnings), attempts at faithful presence on the part of individual Christians will simply be absorbed by the broader culture. He writes:
“Faithful presence, I contend, must be a communal reality before it can infect the world. It must take shape as a whole way of life in a people. From this social space we infect the world for change. Here we give witness to the kingdom breaking in and invite the world to join in. For this to happen, however, we need a set of disciplines that shape Christians into such communities in the world” (p, 15).
In this book, Fitch commends seven disciplines that the churches he has pastored have practiced. He proposes that each of these disciplines presuppose the presence of God already in our lives and that our faithful presence, fostered through these disciplines, is the visible expression of God’s faithful presence going before us. He argues that these are disciplines that make faithful presence possible in our churches, neighborhoods and the wider society. He also contends that a key idea undergirding the practice of these disciplines is submission, to Christ and to one another, and that this is what makes these so counter-cultural.
The seven disciplines (he also calls them marks or sacraments) are: the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with “the least of these,” being with children, the fivefold ministry, and kingdom prayer. Fitch devotes a chapter in the book to each of these. He also proposes three circles in which each of these disciplines must be lived out: the close circle of the Christian community, the dotted circle of home and neighborhood, where Christians function as hosts, and the half-circle of wider society, where we are guests, but may also be the faithful presence of Christ. Faithful presence that advances the mission of the church operates in all three circles, not simply in the close circle, leading to a maintenance mentality, or in the half circle, leading to exhaustion.
I appreciate the effort of Fitch to expand this idea of “faithful” presence, because I also found Hunter’s proposal thin on specifics, and lacking in articulating the practices that sustain such presence and allow it to take a robust and transformative public form. I thought Fitch had some distinctive things to say about gospel proclamation, as opposed to teaching, in the context of the church, about the ministry of presence with children, and about the fivefold ministry (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers), contending for plural ministry leadership as opposed to hierarchical leadership in the church. I would like to have seen Fitch say more about the ministry of prophets, which was not elaborated.
Fitch also argues that through church history, the seven disciplines, meant to be personal, relational, and practiced in all the “circles” of life, have been institutionalized, formalized, and programmed. His proposal and practice breaks these strictures. Nowhere is this more evident than in his discussion of the Lord’s table, which is not only practiced weekly in his church but constantly in the lives of its people:
“The Lord’s table happens every time we share a meal together with people and tend to the presence of Christ among us. Granted the formal Lord’s table only happens at the close table. But that table extends from there. When Jesus said, “Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me: (1 Cor 11:24-26, my paraphrase), he, in essence meant, in the words of theologian John Howard Yoder, “whenever you have your common meal,” whenever you eat in everyday life with people. And yet this table is shaped differently in the three spaces I call the close, dotted, and half circles of life. The table is never merely in here or out there. It is the continual lived space with and among the world. It is the table on the move. It starts with the close circle, the ground zero of his presence around the table” (p. 64).
This work is also important in how it connects our communal disciplines to mission, and particularly the working out of the practice of these disciplines in the “dotted” circle, and the “half” circle. It is a valuable resource, not only for the training of ministers, but for leaders of churches to read and discuss together as they think about the nature of the church, and the formative practices that shape the lives of its members. Throughout, Fitch couples biblical principles and practical examples, many from his own practice. In an era increasingly disenchanted with posturing and programs, this vision of faithful presence may be the cup of cold water desperately longed for in our cultural wasteland.