Review: Faithful Presence

faithful presence

Faithful PresenceDavid 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 peopleFrom 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.

Review: God Dwells Among Us

God Dwells Among Us

God Dwells Among Us, G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A study of the theology of the Eden-temple of creation as an expression of God’s purpose to have a dwelling place with humanity and the development of this theme throughout scripture, under-girding the mission of the church.

Good biblical theology works up from the data of particular books of scripture to develop themes that run through the whole of scripture. It helps us both hear the testimony of particular writers to a particular time, and the harmony of witness through time, and calls us to join the chorus with the worship and service of our lives. This book is good biblical theology that does all of these things.

The book arises from Mitchell Kim’s pastoral ministry, particularly a seven week sermon series based on the work of G.K. Beale in The Temple and the Church’s Mission in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. Kim, with Beale’s co-authorship, expand this series into a survey of this theme suitable for an adult lay audience. They begin with the idea of the garden of Eden as God’s dwelling place with his image-bearers, and his intention that they would expand Eden to fill the whole earth through their offspring. Although the fall of the first couple means this purpose to extend the Eden-temple to the whole earth could not be fulfilled in the way God originally intended, we see this working out in the patriarchs with Noah once again being fruitful and multiplying after the flood, God dispersing the nations at Babel and the promise to Abraham and the response of Abraham and later Jacob in building altars throughout Canaan as types of “sanctuaries” as God begins to make a great nation.

After the deliverance of the nation from slavery in Egypt, God establishes a “tabernacle” in the wilderness, which Kim and Beale call the Eden dwelling place “remixed in the context of sin.” There is both the Holy of Holies, and provision for sin by which the people of God may approach and live in God’s Holy presence. The tabernacle, and the later temple image the cosmic temple, and the restoration of the temple, the future temple that will fill the earth.

The second Jerusalem temple never fulfills these purposes in itself, which only the coming of Jesus does; the temple that will be destroyed and raised up, signalling the coming of God’s new creation extending to the nations. This is accomplished in and through the church, the body of Christ and the temple of his Spirit, extending the new Eden-creation to the ends of the earth, even as it looks for the consummation of this purpose in the return of Jesus, establishing the new heavens and the new earth.

The penultimate chapter asks the telling question, “Why Haven’t I Seen This Before?” The authors cite four reasons. One is that very different cosmology of the biblical writers from our naturalistic cosmos disconnected from any spiritual realities. Second is that rarely is the Bible treated as a unity, a canonical whole. We look at particular books but rarely at the witness of the whole (and some who do only emphasize the discontinuities). Third is that we are unfamiliar with the use of typology. Finally, we think of “literal” fulfillment only in physical terms, when in scripture, the “true” temple is the heavenly one of which the earthly temple is only a shadow.

The final chapter returns to the idea of the mission of the church as those through whom the new creation Eden-temple is being extended to the ends of the earth. This is a call to sacrifice, and to ministry empowered by the word of God and prayer. It was here, even as I found myself saying “Amen” to these foundational aspects of the church’s life and witness, that I also found myself struggling with the very “spiritual” feel that seemed to ignore how the church’s social witness and care for creation also herald the coming Eden-temple of the new creation, portrayed in Revelation as a garden-city.

Aside from this quibble, I appreciated this book as a model of the kind of teaching that can, and I think, ought to be done in the setting of the church that helps people grasp the Big Story of which we are a part, and how we in fact have a part in advancing the plot that is life-affirming and embracing. Such teaching is rich fare that fuels both worship and work in a way that the “fast food” diets of many of our churches cannot sustain, as many of our most vibrant churches are learning.

 

 

Review: Overturning Tables

Overturning TablesOverturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014

Summary: Scott Bessenecker argues that Western missions efforts are often captive to corporate culture and practices inconsistent with efforts to reach across cultures and to the marginal peoples outside the corporate world.

“Business as mission is not what I am addressing in this book; my concern is mission as business.”

Scott Bessenecker, a missions leader working in collegiate ministry, contends that Western missions efforts are shaped more by the corporate and business culture of the Western world, and often codified in government regulation of non-profits, than they are reflective of the values, and practices of Jesus and early Christians, as well as Christian missions arising from more marginalized peoples. He calls this the “Christian industrial complex.”

In “A Tale of Two Missions” he traces the growth of two divergent models in the early 1800s. One is the missions board, headed up by church and corporate leaders that raises large sums to send missionaries with modest but western accommodations (sometimes compounds). He contrasts this with the mission started by George Leile, a former slave who goes without board or church support to Jamaica to preach among slaves, supporting himself by his own labor.

In succeeding chapters he argues for a series of shifts that reflect what he believes is a move to a more gospel of the kingdom-centered approach to missions. He calls for movement from corporate to more local, indigenous efforts. He pleads for a more prophetically driven rather than finance and “profit” driven approach. He argues for a gospel not just centered on individual converts but also concerned for the cosmos. He argues for a move from an individually focused mission enterprise to communal solidarity on both the sending and receiving end where churches really send teams into mission, and those teams integrate with local leadership. He argues for ministries that reach the margins of societies, not the middle class mainstream that our corporate models direct us toward. He calls us away from metrics being the only measures of growth to the pursuit of flourishing people.

This is hard-hitting stuff. One of the things he touches on is that our Western organizations are set up within the constraints of 501(c)(3) status that affords tax exempt and tax deductible status but comes with certain requirements. Westerners who want to do mission in a different way may need to be willing to do this without these structures–finding alternate means of support, working under agencies in other countries, living at different standards.

The book is also inspiring because the rest of the world isn’t waiting for Christians in the West to change. Bessenecker tells a number of stories of efforts in the Majority World that are bringing the gospel to marginal peoples unreached by more traditional efforts. Nigerians are planting churches in Mexico, Koreans in Mongolia and much more.

There is a challenge in every culture that we try to fill old wineskins reflecting our cultural captivities with the new wine of the message of Jesus. Missions leaders need to consider the outcome of this story which is that the wineskins end up bursting, unless new wineskins are found. Bessenecker’s book gives us some notions of the shape and character of these new wineskins.

Review: Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission

Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission
Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration and Mission by J.D. Payne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you noticed how many people from other countries are living in your city? J.D. Payne thinks this is part of God’s providential work that creates great opportunities for mission if his people will have eyes to see it. My city, Columbus, Ohio, has the second largest Somali population in the U.S. with over 40,000 residing in our city. A whole network of shops, restaurants, places of worship (mostly Islamic) and businesses have developed in consequence.

People are moving for all sorts of reasons from country to country and Payne chronicles this movement with both stories and charts of data. There are refugees, migrants seeking better economic opportunities, students enrolling in our universities. And this is not just the case in the U.S. It is the case on every continent.

Payne has one simple contention and that is that those who come from a particular country, especially those not easily open to western missions, may make the best people to take the gospel back to these countries and plant churches. The basic issue is whether believing people in host countries will recognize the opportunity and respond.

Payne suggests a simple four part strategy consisting of Reach, Equip, Partner, and Send. One of the things he warns against is that without an intentional focus on sending, many will simply assimilate into a host culture and host believing communities. Contrary to some, he believes in real partnerships and that what Western churches have to offer is not all bad, even though paternalism in various guises is to be watched for. What he does observe is that Western partners with returning immigrants have much more access to the immigrant’s culture than they would on their own.

What I like about this book is that it refocuses the discussion on immigration from national policy debates to the kingdom implications of the immigration that is taking place. While the policy debates do matter and Christians should be involved in pursuing justice and mercy that welcomes the stranger we should also be wondering what is God up to in these global dispersions and how we might co-operate with God in what He is doing.

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