Recommended Reading! Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).
Not long ago, while doing research, I came across the observation that religions do not interact with one another, social groups or people who adhere to a religion do. The distinction appears slight, but it puts a critical human dimension to what otherwise remains an abstraction in our minds. Similarly, I suggest, that churches, ministries, and programs do not engage the world around them, followers of Jesus do.
Most pastors, ministry leaders, and the people associated with them are deeply concerned (or we should be) with reaching our communities with the good news. At the same time, there is also a desire to experience the fullness of the new creation within our churches, ministries, and families. Yet, despite the furor and energy expended, we often suppress the sense that our efforts fail to meet our expectations. Our programming fails to produce the desired outcome and people end up as projects rather than neighbors (this is not to mention the accompanying exhaustion involved).
In Faithful Presence, Dave Fitch invites us to reconsider God’s presence in the world and how that will lead us to reimagine our own presence. Fitch is my former pastor at Life on the Vine when I was completing my M.Div. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and I can affirm that what he unpacks in this book is not theory, but years of experience. In fact, the principles of this book were part of the DNA of Life on the Vine and what we as a body (imperfectly) lived into each day.
Before going further, I cannot emphasize enough the transformative power that this book offers to everyone, it is not directed to ministry leaders. The reason the book is powerful is not due to any “Fitchian” wisdom, but because he shows us a new way to imagine ministry and he calls us into practices that root us in God’s presence.
The book is arranged in two main parts with several appendices. The contents are as follows:
Introduction: Searching for the Real Church
Part 1: God’s Faithful Presence
- God’s Faithful Presence
- To Change the World
Part II: The Seven Disciplines
- The Discipline of the Lord’s Table
- The Discipline of Reconciliation
- The Discipline of Proclaiming the Gospel
- The Discipline of Being with the “Least of These”
- The Discipline of Being with Children
- The Discipline of the Fivefold Gifting
- The Discipline of Kingdom Prayer
Epilogue: How God Changes the World
- What Formation Looks Like Around the Table
- The Indispensable Role of the Dotted Circle in the Disciplines
- Extending the Presence: An Alternative Basis for Ecclesiology and Mission
- Where is the Church? A Closer Look at Matthew 25
- A Simple History of the Disciplines from New Testament Church to Christendom
Since there is not space to go into detail on each chapter, I make brief comments on each and urge you to consider getting a copy yourself ($13.89 on Amazon as of the publication of this post).
The first paradigm change that occurred for me while at Life on the Vine (unpacked in the introduction and Part I) is that God is at work in the lives of everyone around me whether I see it or not. Not only does this perspective free us from the burden of feeling like we are the sole transformative potential for those around us, but it emboldens us to pay close attention to what God is already doing and join in that work! The only way this can happen is to faithfully inhabit our communities and spheres of influence.
Related to this paradigm shift is the realization that I don’t have to be perfect as a follower of Jesus to join in God’s work and that it is advantageous for others around me to witness the transformation occurring within my own life. That is, God’s faithful presence is at work within me just as it is in the places around me that appear lifeless and hopeless.
As a framework for each of the 7 Disciplines, Fitch explains how 3 circles are always in effect and “on the move” (p. 40; see figure 2.1 below). Church is not about “in here or out there” but a holistic “way of life” (p. 41). Not only can each discipline have an effective place in each circle, but failure to have balance in all three circles will either lead to “maintenance mode” or “exhaustion mode” (pp. 41–43). The “close” circle is the gathering of believers, the “dotted” circle is our neighborhood, the “half circle” is the world (or what others have called “third spaces”).
Discipline 1: The Lord’s Table
Fitch argues that “If we can recognize his presence at work around the table, we will be able to recognize his work in the rest of our lives as well” (p. 51). Why? Because the table in the close circle encapsulates the hospitality, deep love, and forgiveness that Jesus, as host, demonstrates to us and for the world. As a result of this encounter, in the dotted circle we become the “liturgy after the liturgy” (citing John Chrysostom) where we become the host. In the half circle, we become guests who submit “to the hospitality of others” and where the question is “not whether Jesus will be present, but will he be recognized” and received (p. 61)?
Discipline 2: Reconciliation
This discipline challenges the perpetual antagonism and tribalism of the world (that unfortunately followers of Jesus also vigorously embrace all too often) because we are “’ambassadors’ of his reconciliation” (p. 72; 2 Cor 5:20). In the close circle, we are called to observe Biblical principles with one another (e.g., Matt 18; 1 Cor 5). In the dotted circle the principles extend into our families and neighborhoods. In the half circle, we are called to be agents of reconciliation in the hurt around us, including issues of sexuality, gender, and racism.
Discipline 3: Proclaiming the Gospel
This is one of my favorite and most difficult chapters because it beautifully intertwines the perennial debate between the two poles of the “social Gospel” vs. the “intellectual assent Gospel.” It also is a corrective to approaching Gospel proclamation in terms of “to” or “for” other people, but rather with others. True proclamation requires… faithful presence. In this way, it allows us to “fund” peoples’ imagination with how the new creation can specifically and concretely become real (p. 96). As Fitch observes,
“The authority of preaching does not derive from a person’s expertise in biblical knowledge, reasons for believing, or rhetoric, although these skills may be of help. Proclamation is spoke from a place of weakness and humility” (1 Cor 2:3)” (p. 99).
As you may imagine, this has clear ramifications for the dotted and half circles as well.
Discipline 4: Being with the “Least of These”
In a similar vein of logic, this chapter unpacks how our good intentions of helping others usually turns them into projects. The difficulty is again, faithful presence. Will we take the risk, time, and patience to be with the lost, hurting, and broken? Fitch implores us to rethink how, when, and where we give, and instead learn to stand with the ones who need help. Moreover, he challenges us to consider how we as givers end up “supporting systems that caused the injustice in the first place” (p. 120).
Discipline 5: Being with Children
Fitch calls for a complete reimagination of “children’s ministry,” an intentional shift from entertainment and distraction to, you guessed it, faithful presence. Of all the disciplines enacted at Life on the Vine, this was the most difficult for me. Not because I didn’t agree with it in principle… I was one of the parents who wanted to be “free” from children at church because I had them the rest of the week (p. 139)! It is no exaggeration that 70% of the congregation spent some regular, alternating time in our children’s ministry. That experience helped me learn to attend to God’s presence in my own children as well as the others in our covenant community.
Discipline 6: The Fivefold Gifting
The beauty and power of this chapter is that it is founded on the principle that all gifting comes from the Holy Spirit and that we are called to exercise our gifts in a posture of mutual submission. Not surprisingly, this was a guiding principle of leadership at Life on the Vine, which was led by three bi-vocational pastors in addition to numerous other regular volunteers. As Fitch notes, Church leadership “is not a democracy. It is a pneumatocracy” and the only way to actually work is if the leaders intentionally lean into receiving, listening, discerning, and mutually submitting (p. 156). He later adds,
“Whereas hierarchy tends to centralize authority and push power in and up to the person at the top, a church based on the Spirit’s gifts, as founded in the discipline of the fivefold ministry, decentralizes authority, pushes power down, and disperses it out” (p. 163).
Discipline 7: Kingdom Prayer
There are two aspects of this chapter that made an enduring impact on my life. The first relates to entering into prayer with unrushed silence. The first time I experienced this during the “College of Preachers,” I was nervous about participating in that group and wanting to get down to business. As we sat there in long silence, I went through the usual thoughts, “Is Fitch asleep? Did he forget that he was opening us in prayer? Was someone else supposed to start?” This, of course, revealed to me my attitude regarding prayer, that it was some sort of formality to do and move on. Ever since then, I feel jolted whenever I’m in a group that opens brusquely in prayer. The silence helps me slow down, put my humanity and its issues in perspective, and recognize the Holy space I’m entering with others.
The other practice of prayer that I still yearn for followed the sermon in the “prayers of the people.” The preacher would provide a one sentence fill in the blank prayer as a suggested model, and it always pertained to the theme of the sermon. People would then briefly pray aloud their personal, vulnerable, and sometimes charged requests. At first, I was highly suspicious of the practice because it felt so “post-modern” to me—people were making scripture say what they wanted it to say rather than simply hearing the pastor’s “authorized” sermon application points that one typically hears. Then it hit me… this was not a post-modern high jacking, but rather a spirit-guided personal application of the sermon, on the spot, to the real and messy lives of the congregation. Nothing could be or was more beautiful. After a while, I began to evaluate the success of a sermon on how I and others prayed during the prayers of the people.
I’m sure that not everyone will agree with every point made in the book (this is true of all books!) but if you take the time to engage Fitch and implement these principles in your own life and church, I can assure you that these are disciplines that will transform your life and congregation. My assurance is based on the fact that these disciplines lay the groundwork for God to work in new ways. It is also the case, at least for me, that it is hard work to actually implement these disciplines.
God, in the midst of my desires for easy and self-centered solutions, will you show yourself faithful as I practice these disciplines?
Lord, in your mercy.