Friday, March 31, 2017

Faithful Presence (Summary)

Questioning the necessity of 'church' is a growing phenomenon among even Christian people. But David Fitch believes The Church is vitally important to the world when it is the 'faithful presence' of God in the world. In order for the church to serve as the faithful presence of God, it best practice the 7 disciplines that are the focus of this book. These are the disciplines that shape Christians into communities that change the world.

Chapter 1 God's Faithful Presence
The story of God is the story of God's presence. From the Garden to the formation of Israel to the Tabernacle to the Temple to the prophecies of Immanuel ("God with us") to the coming New Heavens and Earth... "The Scriptures, from beginning to end, tell the marvelous story of God returning his presence to all creation. It always was God's intent to be with his creation in the fullness of his presence." In fact, "God's people are not his people apart from his presence." The church today needs to rediscover its sense of the presence of God. When the church does this, it once again becomes the hope of the world. It becomes an access point for all to experience God's presence.

Chapter 2 To Change the World
God is, of course, present in the whole world. But His plan to change the world involves having his presence especially manifest in a particular people (the church). Fitch believes the 7 disciplines that prepare the church to be the faithful presence of God are as follows: The Lord's Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the Gospel, being with the least of these, being with children, the fivefold ministry, and kingdom prayer. Young champions these 7 because they are given directly by Christ in Scripture, time-tested, repeatable, holistic, and social. When the church faithfully practices these disciplines, God's presence becomes visible in the church's worship, the neighborhoods of its members, and throughout the world. God's presence, in other words, is always moving outward (and re-engaging at the center). We must avoid both the holy huddle (thinking we can only find God's presence in our worship services) and mere social activism (thinking we can change the world with our social activity alone).

* I'd be interested to know how much agreement there might be between Fitch and WM Paul Young in regards to 2 Corinthians 5:19. Young believes all people are saved and just need to be led to realize as much. Fitch, I would guess, would not go so far as that... but there does seem to be some sympathy for that position on the bottoms of pages 36 and 39.
* I like Fitch's 3 circles imagery. The close, dotted, and half circles seem like helpful ways of thinking through ecclesial mission.

Chapter 3 The Discipline of the Lord's Table
Our society is a mass of disconnected souls, but starving for connection and real presence. Fitch sees the Eucharist as the answer to this problem (for it is all about the genuine presence of God and people). He recognizes that there are many different traditions when it comes to the Lord's Table. Drawing on those traditions, Fitch would have us to re-imagine what God is up to in this sacred discipline. The table trains us to discern God's presence all week long. Our practice of the Lord's Table in our church congregations may be more formal and Sunday only, but it 'sets the table' for further disciplines of communion throughout the week. Fitch wants us to see meal-sharing during the week as a discipline of the Lord's table. Not-yet-followers of Jesus are welcomed into our homes (we host God's presence). We get invited into their homes (and we discern God's presence there as well). In short, "The Lord's Table happens every time we share a meal together with people and tend to the presence of Christ among us." We must practice the discipline of the Lord's Table in all three settings (close circle (church congregation), dotted circle (in our homes as hosts), half circle (in our communities as guests). Fitch thinks this 'extending-table' model was lost around the time of Constantine when communion became just a formal little ceremony in a church building rather than a shared meal in a home. Food brings us together and, even more importantly, when we are together we can best experience the presence of Jesus.

*I could tell Fitch truly values this discipline in his own life, but it seems to me most churches just practice communion as a routine ritual. The power of the discipline seems to be lost in most churches. I don't sense an 'amazing social dynamic' breaking forth when we break the bread. This should be a matter of prayer.
* I really liked Fitch's application of his 3 circles to the issue of the Lord's Table. I like the idea of thinking of meals in our homes and neighborhoods as extensions of this discipline. And I think his New Testament examples were on point.
* I got the impression that Fitch thinks the food just brings us together. It is our togetherness (not the bread and drink) that truly makes Christ present.

Chapter 4 The Discipline of Reconciliation
Broken relationships exist on both the surface level of our society and they simmer beneath. The world hungers for reconciliation and the church must lead the way in this discipline (in fact, when we see no reconciliation in our churches, there is no gospel in them). The discipline itself is really quite simple. When (not IF, conflict is an inevitable part of life and actually shows we are engaging challenging places with the gospel) there is a problem in a relationship, we meet each other face to face. Jesus is there. As reconciliation occurs, the world takes notice and may even begin to seek the aid of the church in further reconciliation. Fitch understands, though, that reconciliation won't always take place ("nine times out of ten, it may be rejected"), but we must persist. Doing the hard work of reconciliation is dangerous, but amidst this work the kingdom of God breaks in. Fitch thinks the church has too often just tried to manage conflict (at the leadership level) rather than discerning the presence of Christ in it (at the every day level). If the church becomes a faithful presence for reconciliation, the world will change.

* It wasn't totally clear why the word 'mediation' has such a negative connotation for Fitch. He seems to think it means one party gets its way (judged as 'right'). I think of it more as two parties being brought together. He also seems to contradict his own position on the bottom of page 79. He's against mediation, conflict management, conflict resolution, etc., but it is not entirely clear how those things differ from 'reconciliation' in Fitch's mind.
* Once again, Fitch seems to speak of forgiveness as something already accomplished for all people via Christ (page 81). This sounds very much like William Paul Young's position.

Chapter 5 The Discipline of Proclaiming the Gospel
Our world is becoming more and more hopeless. People don't think change is possible. Proclaiming the Gospel is proclaiming not just the possibility, but the reality, of new world. The gospel is big news. It is not just about individual salvation. Fitch wants to make a clear distinction between proclamation and teaching. Proclamation announces a new world. Teaching simply informs about that world. Proclamation must precede teaching. Proclamation keeps God at the center, not our rational minds and our ability to process information. Proclamation cannot be argued or debated, only accepted or rejected. Proclamation isn't aimed at non-Christians only. We are in constant need of re-orienting ourselves toward the new realities in Christ. In that sense, we need to get saved all over again each Sunday in church worship (close circle). The church then moves from house to house, proclaiming the Gospel in our daily relationships (dotted circle). But we must also go into the world as guests (half circle). We must be present, as guests, before we proclaim to the world. In many cases, our proclamation will be rejected. Even still, we have been faithfully present.

* I liked a lot of what Fitch said here about proclamation and how it differs from teaching. This book wasn't the context for it, but I would like to hear more of what Fitch thinks about the role of teaching. He seemed a bit too cynical, to me at least, about what currently goes on in most churches. I think a lot of contemporary preaching is a blend of proclamation and teaching. And I don't think that's a bad thing. His presentation is a bit black and white at times, but most authors have to do this to make their emphasis clear. I do the same.

Chapter 6 The Discipline of Being with the Least of These
Fitch is very concerned that we've turned caring for the poor into merely a program (he is careful to say that programs do some good work, but he clearly consider them highly problematic when used as an exclusive or even primary method to help the poor... even to the point of suggesting that they do more harm than good in the long term). Instead, we must discipline ourselves to be WITH the poor and needy. This will not only benefit the poor (who long to be more than 'projects'), but it will benefit Christ's people (for it puts them in His presence). This is what the early Christians were known for. This needs to start in the close circle. The church must be with the poor among their own members and care for them, but this will allow the church to extend this discipline of 'withness' to the dotted circle and the half circle as well. We need to spend real time with the poor. In doing so, we will access Christ.

*I felt like some of the biblical interpretation in this chapter was unnecessarily stretched (though not beyond credulity). I'm thinking here of Luke 16 and Matthew 25 and the motivation for Paul's tent-making vocation, but I'm willing to prayerfully consider these thoughts some more.
*Overall, I liked this chapter best of all so far.

Chapter 7 The Discipline of Being with Children
Fitch believes that we obsess over and idolize children in our culture without actually spending time with them. We must resist centering our lives around our children and instead center our lives together with them in Christ's presence. Being with children actually is an encounter with the living Christ! All Christians need to spend time with children (it's not a spiritual gift for only some). But we should resist making children's ministry a 'program', it must be a way of life. Being with children will naturally connect us with our community (birthday parties, play dates, etc.). We've got to stop trying to distract our children away from presence and bless them (and be blessed) with presence.

*Really good thoughts in this chapter.

Chapter 8 The Discipline of the Fivefold Gifting
The contemporary church seems defaulted to a hierarchical leadership structure. But there is another (better) option according to Fitch. The world longs for mutuality and the church should lead the way by a leadership structure of the fivefold ministry (from Ephesians 4). In this style, a leadership team (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher), relates in mutual submission under the authority of Christ. These leaders serve under the community, not over it (discerning the gifts of the people and equipping them for ministry). Fitch is adamant that this is the way (abandoned at the time of Constantine) church leadership should be structured and that it is the basis for the church being a place of faithful presence.

*I liked Fitch's emphasis on the importance of leaders being vulnerable and willing to confess sins in front of each other and others.
*I actually agree that the church needs a less hierarchical leadership structure. I'm not sure if I agree that the 'fivefold ministry' is the only or best replacement option.
*I wonder if Fitch makes a distinction between Apostles in the (walked with Jesus) sense and apostles in the modern day sense (since he says he believes there are modern day apostles). I also noticed that Fitch seemed to somewhat regularly neglect the 'teacher' role. I wondered if this was accidental or on purpose.
*I liked the way Fitch was willing to use spiritual gifts assessments, but not be ruled by them

Chapter 9 The Discipline of Kingdom Prayer
Fitch stresses that, though he has saved this discipline for last, in practice it must come first. Disciplining ourselves in prayer demonstrates that we know we need God. It is an act of inviting God's presence into a disordered world (and, therefore, a revolutionary act). Fitch believes we'd do well to stick to the Lord's Prayer. We must also pray in all three circles (so 'praying the hours' is wise). We do well to offer prayer (but must never coerce someone in prayer). There should be no drive-by prayers. Prayer flows from presence (true knowledge of a situation... a relationship) and aligns us with God's presence.

* I totally agree with his point that prayer needs to be listed as a separate category (even though it is part of all the other disciplines) for the very reason that it is so important and so easily neglected.
* I was convicted by Fitch's statement about not be too quick to offer kingdom prayer. He stresses that we must be present to the other person and to Christ's presence at work in the situation. "True kingdom prayer demands we know and are involved in the situation concretely." This contrasts with most 'prayer meetings' which tend to pray through a list of generally unknown names and situations.

Epilogue & Appendixes
Fitch sees a disconnect between much of the older generation of Christians (maintenance mode) and the younger generation (exhaustion mode). It once to combine the strengths and eliminate the weaknesses of these two modes. He's calling the church to become 'political (not a reference to national politics) organizers for the kingdom'. We do this by practicing the 7 Disciplines in all 3 circles.

*Appendix 4 was especially interesting to me. Fitch discusses the two major interpretations of Matthew 25. One emphasizes taking care of the church (neglecting world). The other emphasizes taking care of the world (neglecting church). Fitch offers a third interpretation. It's whatever YOU (Jesus' disciples) to do the least of these (the needy in the world). It must be the CHURCH reaching out to the WORLD. This cannot occur without a strong church. Fitch believes the missional church often has a weak ecclesiology (appendix 3) and he hopes his book offers a corrective.

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