Faithful presence book review

Faithful Presence: A book review

“You say you want a revolution? Yeah, we all want to change the world.” John Lennon & Paul McCartney

How do you change the world?

Human beings have this innate desire to make our mark, to make our dent in the universe. Most of us in North America have it engrained in us from childhood that we can make a difference. It’s the magnetic appeal of characters like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation of Alexander Hamilton.

How do you change the world?

The Christian answer to this question is: You don’t. Plain and simple. It’s not up to you. You don’t change the world. Rather, the better question is: How does God change the world?

And according to David Fitch, God changes the world through the Church as it faithfully discerns God’s presence in the world.

In a world of smartphones and Twitter and Netflix, how are we present with one another, much less, present with God?

In a world of sermon podcasts and satellite campuses and live streaming, how is our practice of church a shaping influence in our capacity to be present to God and one another?

If there’s a book that I could put in the hands of ever friend who’s a pastor or leader in ministry, Faithful Presence is the one. No other book that I’ve read in recent memory has given me such a new vocabulary for how to talk about church and practice church as a verb with others.

Seven disciplines

In Faithful Presence, David Fitch offers a vision of the church where spiritual formation meets God’s mission in the world. Without using the language “spiritual formation,” Fitch talks about spiritual disciplines as corporate activities, not just individual activities. These are not self-help with a thin veneer of religiosity. These are the means by which God shapes a community of people to change the world.

“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).

“Presence” is a key theme throughout the book, and Fitch anchors it in the story of the Bible. It’s presence with God that is lost in Eden. It’s regained in the tabernacle and temple. Lost in the exile and hoped for in the prophets. God’s presence in the world takes on a new significance in the person of Jesus. Now the Church, as the body of Christ, extends that presence into the world today.

Fitch presents two big ideas in this book. One is the idea of the seven disciplines, as the subtitle alludes. The other is the idea of three circles, or places, where these disciplines are practiced.

The seven disciplines are found in the stories of Jesus in the Gospels and in the stories of the church in the New Testament. These disciplines are the Lord’s Table (or Eucharist or holy communion), proclaiming the gospel, being with the “least of these,” being with children, the fivefold gifting (related to leadership), and kingdom prayer.

As Fitch expounds each one, he traces its historical development from the medieval church through the Protestant Reformation to today in the North American Evangelical world. As one example, “being with children” evolved over time as the ritual of confirmation and evolved further still into the programs of children’s and youth ministries.

In the three circles, Fitch articulates a vision for the Eucharist table as it shows us the presence of Jesus in the place of corporate worship, then into our homes in our neighborhoods, and then into the places in the world where we sit as guests. Some of the best parts of this book are the anecdotes Fitch tells about how he has learned to see God at work in his neighborhood McDonald’s.

Presence is with

For me, the two strongest chapters were the ones about the “least of these” (a reference to Matthew 25) and about children. This is may very well be because I work with a ministry dealing with poverty and I have two toddlers. Or it may be that what Fitch offers runs so counter to my own experience to what I’ve seen regarding children’s ministry and service projects.

The operative word in both of these disciplines is “with.” Too often, ministry is seen as something “to.” But the doctrine of the Incarnation shows us that God is with us, not doing things to us. Recognizing Jesus among children and among the poor is a mutually transforming experience.

About being with the “least of these,” Fitch writes:
“Through history the church has made its biggest impact when it has practiced being with the poor (whoever they are in our context) and resisted turning the poor into a program. In this way, being with the “least of these” disciplines us into the relational space of faithful presence with the hurting” (120).

And about children, he writes:
“As Christians, we can navigate the tension between being present to our children and guiding our attention jointly to his presence. If we can do this in the close circle, we will be able to do the same in the other equally important circles of life” (143).

It is in actively participating in these seven disciplines that we create spaces to be with one another, hear one another’s grievances and hurts, and be heard ourselves. Our world lacks such spaces. The church is uniquely designed to cultivate such spaces.

This is an important book. This is a helpful book. This is such a timely book. This is a needed book.

Read this book. Commit yourself to a community of people rooted in these disciplines. Watch how God changes the whole world.

“Behold, I am making all things new” —the risen Jesus (Revelation 21:5).

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