David E. Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press 2016
Back in graduate school I had a heated debate with a friend in a class on ecclesiology (a class on the church) about the responsibility of the church to the outside world. Like any graduate school debate neither of us actually knew what we were talking about, but I took the position that the church needs to focus on getting its own life together in order to be of any real value to the world (Ostensibly my friend argued the opposite of that position). According to David E. Fitch’s book Faithful Presence, it turns out I was right! Except he actually knows what he’s talking about.
Faithful Presence is a book about the church and how it can be “the church” in meaningful, practical, contextual ways. Fitch sees the same world we all see: dwindling congregations, fragmented sense of community, isolated and inauthentic discipleship. His response is embodied in his operative concept: “Faithful Presence.” For Fitch, the presence of people participates in, mediates, and reveals the presence of God. The church can be “the church” when it learns to be present with God and one another.
Fitch provides a helpful model for thinking about how this works. He thinks of the church as existing simultaneously in three kinds of circles: a close(d) circle, a dotted circle, and a half circle. The close(d) circle represents the communal, insider life of the local church constituted by Christians who have committed themselves to Christ. The dotted circle is porous (hence the dots) and represents the common life among Christians outside of the church that may (or should) include others in a participatory sort of way. The half circle represents the common, public world in which Christians live and work and play alongside everyone else. In this last circle Christians witness to Christ as a guest who listens, receives, learns, and reveals, often through the nature of their receptive and humble presence alone, the God who lives and moves among us. The movement of these circles is from establishing the basis of our life together in the church, concretizing and living it out in practical ways outside of the church, and extending that life as a witness to God in every other circumstance.
The book lays out this big picture perspective on “faithful presence” in the first two chapters and then continues with a meaty seven chapter section outlining seven disciplines, drawn from Jesus’s life and teachings, that place presence at the center of Christian life. Fitch also helpfully outlines how each discipline looks within these three circles.
There are a couple of operative convictions I see at work in this book. The first is the sincere conviction that God is at work in the world in a redemptive mode. The world is not what it is supposed to be, and the meaning of the salvation at stake in Jesus Christ is the realization of the created order as the Kingdom of justice and peace and joy. If you think that Christianity is simply a group of people who agree on a minimal set of doctrines and whose task is to get other people to agree with them, then you won’t understand this book. For Fitch, church at its best is that community in which God’s presence is seen and discerned. The presence Fitch speaks of, however, is not simply a sign of God’s approval or sanction; it is the manifestation of redemptive love that transforms us into people who truly reflect his image and likeness. So for God to be present in the church and in the lives of Christians and in the social worlds beyond is for God to be at the work of redemptive transformation—and a call for us to get on the same page.
The second conviction is that presence is absolutely central to genuine and faithful Christian community. This is not just a response to an age of increasing isolation, fueled by technology and hyper individualism. It is a sacramental view of human beings, and the material reality of our bodies. Something sacred happens when we are physically present with one another. While we might not entirely discount digital forms of community like social media, we cannot deny the deeper level of communication and relationship found in the actual presence of others. Presence is holy. If God is present with us, then our presence with others radiates God’s presence.
Does the church have anything to offer a world full of injustice? Can the church reach out to the worlds around me in a way that doesn’t judge them, alienate them, or ask them in some way to come to us? Can the church engage the hurting, the poor, and the broken with something more than just handouts? We have seen the programs, the missional church, the justice teams, the church in a coffee house or a bar, and nothing seems to change. Can’t we do all of this better without the church?
In this book I propose to answer these questions with the phrase, faithful presence.
Faithful presence names the reality that God is present in the world and that he uses a people faithful to his presence to make himself concrete and real amid the world’s struggles and pain. (10)
There is a danger in thinking about the church as the number that meets only at the Sunday gathering. When we separate what happens in the close-circle gathering from the rest of life, we inevitably focus on doing the disciplines correctly, smoothly, professionally, and conveniently. We focus on maintaining and growing the close circle. In the process we get cut off from engaging the surrounding neighborhoods of God’s presence. (41)
This is a book about the church. But along the way it is also about the church’s witness to the world; its evangelism. As someone a little unenthusiastic about traditional evangelism, this book is both encouraging and challenging. It is encouraging to think with Fitch about what it might mean to extend the embodiment of God in our own bodies to others. There is hope in that thought for a more authentic and meaningful life among one another, not to mention an outreach to people and the local community. Fitch challenges us, at the same time, to own the reality of God’s kingdom. The theological world we enact in our close circle at church is the same world we witness to in our homes and communities and beyond. This is a kingdom of hope and promise, of justice and peace, of healing and reconciliation; or at the very least that is headed in that direction. That is something worth discerning in everyone’s lives regardless of whether they attend our church—that is the practice of faithful presence.