Seven Practices for the Church on Mission (David E. Fitch) -- A Review
SEVEN PRACTICES FOR THE CHURCH ON MISSION. By David E. Fitch. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018. 135 pages.
What is God doing in the world? How might we who are Christians participate in that work? These are the central missional questions. As we seek answers to them, we might wish to explore the practices that would under-gird our participation in this mission of God. Seven Practices for the Church on Mission is David Fitch’s answer to these questions, offering practices that he believes can empower and sustain Christian participation in the mission of God.
Fitch’s book under review here is an abridgment of his earlier book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission (IVP Books, 2016). I’ve not read the earlier book, but I found this abridged version of the book to be insightful. While I can't speak to the larger book, except to accept the author’s testimony that the new book is an abridgment of the earlier one, I did find this brief book to be insightful and believe it will provide a good starting point for conversations about God's presence and our participation in that mission. In providing a foundation for the current book, Fitch notes that in writing the earlier book he discovered that "presence is the way God works," and that the task of Christians is to be "be present to his presence." To discern that presence, requires spiritual practices, seven of which Fitch outlines in the book.
With so much talk lately about white evangelicalism’s apparent attachment to conservative Republican, even far-right political views, Fitch’s book is a reminder that evangelicalism is not monolithic. Indeed, white evangelicalism is not monolithic. The tradition from which he seeks to write, and which I’ve seen expressed on his Facebook page, is of a much broader perspective than what we often see in public life. As for his context, out of which he writes, Fitch teaches at Northern Seminary and serves as a pastor at Life on the Vine Church (Christian, Missionary Alliance) in the Chicago area. While distinctively evangelical Fitch does have some anabaptist expressions.
The point of the book is to explore those practices that open space for Christ to be present and for Christ’s followers to be present with Christ and humanity. The book is intended, by the author, to “help train Christians everywhere to recognize and participate in Jesus’ presence as he goes with us all the way to his mission being completed” (p. 3). With that statement, Fitch dives into the seven practices.
The seven practices that Fitch has discerned to be necessary for discerning the presence of Jesus include the Lord's Table (this includes the sacrament of holy communion, but includes more than this), Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel (not the same as teaching, which is valuable but different), being with the "least of these" (social justice is important to God's mission, and I perceived some separation from what I have perceived to be a narrower view of this passage by Fitch's colleague Scot McKnight—though Fitch might not agree with my assessment, nor might McKnight), being with children (one might not expect this, though Jesus does speak of gathering the children), five-fold gifting (from Ephesians 4 - assumes that congregations will be led by a team that includes persons with each of the five gifts--and he identifies himself having the gift of apostle), and kingdom prayer (Lord's Prayer). All seven are biblically-rooted and are expressive of Jesus' vision of God's realm.
In most of the chapters Fitch speaks of the practice taking place within three different circles. First is the "close circle" (not closed, but close), which involves the community of believers. Thus, with the Table, there is the sharing of the Table in community, where in we discern together our relationship to God. This is essentially a gathering of family. The second circle is dotted. In this circle, sticking with the Lord's Supper, the meal extends into the neighborhood. The vision here is that as Christians gather at table, in time neighbors will notice and be drawn into the circle. Thus, this circle is porous so that the stranger can be welcomed in. Third, there is the half-circle, wherein the table extends beyond the neighborhood into the world, where "the hurting and marginalized people live." In this half-circle we experience being guests rather than hosts, but Christ is present here as well. There is much about this vision that is attractive and would enrich our sacramental life. What I wonder is how open he is regarding who can partake of the supper in the close community. Whatever that answer is, he does suggest that it is important to “lead people into a formative encounter with the living Christ at the table and then cultivate the extension of his presence in the rest of our lives.” This, he suggests, “is the beginning of faithful presence” (p. 23). We move from there into the process of discernment, bringing it to a close with a conversation about kingdom prayer. That seems appropriate—start at the table and conclude with the prayer of the Lord, which he suggests is the “foundation of all the other practices,” and “the foundation for living he entire Christian life” (p. 131).
Throughout the book, Fitch invites us to consider the relationship of the "close" community of faith, where together we gather as believers to discern God's presence, even as the vision extends outward to embrace neighbors, strangers, and the marginalized. With those on the margins, he speaks of shared ministry, where those living on the margins can contribute. Thus, the become not mere targets of ministry, but partners in ministry, and God's presence in Christ is discerned, transforming the world.
There is much to ponder here, even if the book is brief. Then again, it is designed to be small enough to put in coat pocket. Even if I might define some elements here differently than the author, I found it to be a worthy conversation starter. How might we make space for Jesus? Indeed, how can we do so in a world that seems to be out of control? Here is some guidance.