Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission
David E. Fitch
What is the subject?
As its title suggests, Faithful Presence explores the connection between the church and God’s mission. More specifically, it proposes that God’s project to restore his presence in the world, ultimately accomplished in Jesus Christ, is now extended by the Holy Spirit through the church as a worshipping, covenant community.
With a balanced approach of scriptural survey, theological reflection, and practical examples from his experience as pastor and church planter, David Fitch proposes seven corporate disciplines “through which Christians are shaped by Christ to be his faithful presence in the world”:
- the Lord’s Table,
- proclaiming the gospel,
- being with “least of these,”
- being with children,
- the fivefold gifting, and
- kingdom prayer.
Who is the author?
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, David Fitch is the B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, Chicago. He also serves as a pastor and church planter for his home denomination of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and as a mission coach for Fresh Expressions USA.
Why this book?
Faithful Presence contributes to the much-needed discussion that bridges the everyday worship of local congregations with God’s mission in the world through Jesus Christ.
Fitch notes that his book is something of an answer to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (OUP 2010).
Fitch agrees with Hunter’s proposal that Christians ought to seek social and cultural change not through power and coercion, but by being “shaped by an alternative covenant community of the kingdom” to then be an “on-the-ground presence that dialogues and interacts with those around us and the institutions we are a part of.”
What Fitch sees lacking in Hunter’s proposal is a politic capable of embodying that presence socially before individuals can reflect that same presence into their respective worlds.
Thus, Fitch contends that faithful presence “must take shape as a whole way of life in a people… For this to happen, however, we need a set of disciplines that shape Christians into such communities in the world.”
How does this book intersect with the MB Confession of Faith?
As it is presented in Faithful Presence, the idea that the church witnesses to God’s presence and kingdom by being a distinct social reality in the world is consistent with how Mennonite Brethren have understood the church’s role in God’s mission (see “Mission of the Church,” Confession of Faith).
It is unfortunate that the MB practice of a disciplined, separated community has historically found expression in petty legalisms, unloving excommunications, and a sense of spiritual superiority over fellow Mennonite groups. Accordingly, many Mennonite Brethren congregations may not be looking to recover any sense of separation for fear of past mistakes or cultural irrelevance.
Nevertheless, Faithful Presence presents an opportunity for Mennonite Brethren to be reminded of our conviction that covenant community is the means God has chosen to extend the presence of Christ into the world.
Furthermore, the seven suggested disciplines can help Mennonite Brethren to reengage and recover this aspect of our Confession in fresh and practical ways.
What is a key insight?
As Fitch discusses how the seven disciplines shape the church for mission, he does so through a typology of community intended to maintain the tension of being a set-apart community that exists for God’s purposes in the world.
He suggests that the disciplines occupy three spaces continually:
- “the close circle,”
- “the dotted circle,” and
- “the half circle.”
The close circle is comprised of committed followers of Christ, the dotted circle maintains the shape of a circle yet is open to seekers and strangers, and the half circle is the Christian sent out among the world as guest.
This typology receives extended treatment in the chapter on the Lord’s Table and in an appendix. For congregations that wrestle with the tension between identity and inclusivity, or between meaningful church membership and welcoming strangers, Fitch’s analogy of the three circles alone is worth the price of the book.
What is the book’s downside?
In determining the seven practices that shape the church for mission, it is unfortunate that Fitch excludes baptism.
He explains the exclusion of baptism, along with the exclusion of marriage: “This is simply because they are not repeatable. They are initiatory practices. At their best they are not repeated in our lives…. I have chosen to focus exclusively on the disciplines of Christ given to the church that we live daily as central to our everyday life.”
Yet, baptism as a communal practice of congregations is very repeatable, and hopefully repeated often. As congregations regularly baptize new believers, they are repeatedly practicing baptism together.
Furthermore, though the rite of baptism is a singular act in the believer’s life, in an expansive sense, we continue the discipline of baptism as we live into our new identity in Christ connected to that moment (e.g. Romans 6:2-3, Galatians 3:27).
It is surprising to find Fitch – no fan of individualism – referring to baptism as “not repeatable,” because this obviously applies only to the individual. He does afford an expansive sense to the practice of the Lord’s Table (beyond the singular moment of breaking the bread and sharing the cup); it’s a missed opportunity that he does not include baptism in this way.
A quibble with Faithful Presence is its evocation of “fivefold gifting” for an otherwise fine chapter on the discipline of mutuality in church ministry, leadership, and authority.
“Fivefold gifting” refers to a paradigm drawn from the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers of Ephesians 4:11. This has become a recent fad in some missional circles as a long-lost ecclesiology to be recovered for today’s post-Christendom context. Fitch integrates only a cursory treatment of this contested interpretation into his chapter, yet the whole discipline is named after it. The chapter would have been more credible without it.
Who should read it?
Faithful Presence is a book for local church leaders, pastors, and church planters. Given its scope, those in all aspects of church leadership from mission and evangelism to teaching to worship planning would benefit from reading it.
[Michael VandenEnden is a pastor at Grantham MB Church, St. Catharines. Ont.
Note: InterVarsity is releasing the book in a shorter form in March 2018 as Seven Practices for the Church on Mission