David Fitch: On the Missional Frontier

“The engagement with our local neighborhoods, villages, towns is harder and harder the bigger and bigger you get.”

Twice David Fitch has lived under a cloud of numbers. Once as a prosperous stockbroker during the 1980s’ excesses of Wall Street. Then as a returning Christian seeking to live an authentic faith in the context of the American megachurch. In their own way, both were stifling. Now as a church planter and professor at Northern Seminary, he’s calling on the church to liberate itself from its numerical preoccupation and rediscover what it means to be a faithful presence, joining Christ in the work he’s already doing in America’s neighborhoods.

You’re a seminary prof, a pastor, a church planter and a coach of church planters. How does that happen? What are the signposts in your journey that have led you to this place?

Well, I grew up a typical evangelical in the ‘60s and ‘70s. By the time the ‘80s came around and the culture was somewhat in upheaval I was finding myself having graduated from Wheaton College, having even gone to seminary—I did an M.A. in New Testament—and spent the majority of my research on the church. What is the church? What does church do? How did church happen? And I just left seminary somewhat disillusioned with the picture of church I was seeing in the ‘80s.

I wound up getting a job as a stockbroker—but this was the ‘80s, the beginning of the debauchery of Wall Street. I experienced firsthand what life without God looks like, and it was not good.

I had a renewed conversion out of being immersed in the world. It was at this point I was looking around at where to go to church and what to do, and I started going to a megachurch in the Chicago area, and from there got involved at the very beginning of another large church. What I experienced was a struggle to have an authentic Christian life in a large church. Yet I felt the call to ministry and didn’t feel prepared. That’s when I went and did a Ph.D. in theology and ethics at Northwestern.

Out of that experience, we felt called to plant a church, and that’s when Life of the Vine started in the Northwest suburbs. We started with 10 people. A couple hundred people later, we planted two more churches.

My writing and my academic work grew out of my search for how to be the church in the world. So that’s why they’re integrated. And I never planned on being a professor, but I was asked to be one, and this was later in my life, when I’m almost 50. I didn’t plan on making it a career vocation, but now it’s afforded me the opportunity to be in a seminary, shape leaders, even shape seminary education because it’s changing fast and furious to the new conditions we’re facing as a church on mission in North America.

There’s an interesting back story to how things unfolded at Life of the Vine and the church plants that have grown out of that.

When Rae Ann and I got married and I finished my Ph.D., I had a successful business, but I’m, like, 43 years old and I’m saying I believe God’s calling us to do something with all he’s given us. So I went back to my denomination that I grew up in, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and I said I believe God’s calling me to plant churches and I asked, Is there any need?

They said yes, we have a need, but it’s in Long Grove, at the corner of Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove and Long Grove—a highly populated area in the northwest part of Chicago’s suburbs.

I said, “I can’t move to the suburbs. I’m a city guy. I’ve lived in Chicago for 15 years.” I said no three times, but the fourth time God convinced me—and it was difficult, because I’m not a suburban dude.

Having said that, the way I made that decision was we had 10 people who would go with us to the suburbs; we did not have 10 left in the city of Chicago. So I went. It was an obedient act, but we learned a lot in those first three to five years. It was a long struggle figuring out how to inhabit the neighborhood. Chicago’s northwest suburbs have got to be one of the more difficult places to live the kind of embodied, incarnational witness I’ve been talking about.

But some things started to come together. Some leadership started to materialize. And things grew to a couple hundred people, maybe a little more.

We were given a church building and figured the space would max out at 225 at the most, and we were packing it out. We just said, What are we going to do? And I said, We’ve got so many young leaders here, and most of them can’t afford to live here anyway. Let’s not build a building for Pete’s sake, let’s send them out some place else.

I believe in what John Howard Yoder calls migration evangelism. We don’t just send one person out, we send a community large enough to sustain one another, but small enough that they don’t become a cultural island unto themselves. So we sent out approximately 20-25 people to Hyde Park on the south side and 20-25 people to Westmont, a southwest suburb. After long prayer and long examination people felt called to move.

Those two places have been going for two or three years, and it takes two or three years just to get leadership sorted out, just to learn how to live together. And it’s only five, six, seven years into it that you begin to have relationships that bring forth the fruit of the gospel.

Let’s walk through your first three books and trace the development of your thought. In 2005, Baker released The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church From Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism and Other Modern Maladies. There’s a bit of passion in that title.

Well, that’s probably what I’d call my angry stage. I was reacting to the grand ecclesiology, the grand way of thinking about church, where anybody who was anything had to think mega or else you were nothing. I just saw tons of friends, tons of great pastors, tons of great missionaries, who could have been such powerful, on-the-ground, grassroots workers for mission get discouraged because the only way they could imagine church was mega. And so I just wanted to dismantle the myth that megachurch is the only church there is.

But the second thing is, I really felt there is a mythology around the way we’re doing church. In reality we weren’t being the church anymore because we were primarily assembling Christians. If indeed you subscribe to the idea the church is in mission—that is our identity—then we can’t simply herd Christians into maintenance functions to keep good Christians going. Now, in my later years I’ve seen that sustaining Christianity—sustaining Christians in their lives—is a legitimate role for the church. But at the time I was fearing that we had given away all of what it means to be the church in the world. We’d given up our evangelism, because nobody who was really outside the Christian bubble was thinking I’m going to go to a megachurch.

I also wondered, Were we proclaiming the gospel into people’s lives, or were we actually reinforcing what they already thought to keep them going? We were creating a defensive Christianity.

And so for all these reasons I felt we were giving away the church and its functions, and I was calling people back to local communal engagement of who we were in the world.

A few years later, in 2011, The End of Evangelicalism: Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission was released. How was your thinking about the church evolving at that point?

I started reading the really esoteric philosopher, social theorist, culture theorist Slavoj Zizek, and what I started to realize was not only is the church in the midst of a lot of swirling ideologies that we get caught up in, but actually, we ourselves become an ideology. For me, the definition of ideology is something that runs on antagonism. If we can get people stirred up and angry enough and scared enough, we’ll keep a congregation going. For me, that not only separated us from the world, but it separated us from living into the full presence of Christ for the world. So I wanted to give us some tools to understand how we can avoid living this kind of life in this antagonistic way that we gather people together.

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One of the things I talked about was the way we reduced the Bible to an ideology—not the story of God in Christ for the world we live into, but the inerrant Bible that we believe over against those people who don’t.

There are similar ways we go about ideologizing ourselves over against other churches. When we’re running out of churches, and Christianity is shrinking, and we have fewer and fewer Christians to be mad about and gather other Christians to be mad against, well, we lose mission and we lose the wherewithal to sustain church life.

I wanted to give people a diagnostic on how to escape the antagonisms that we’re gathering around and instead living to the fullness of Christ for the world.

In Prodigal Christianity, released in 2013, you point to 10 signposts in the missional frontier. A more positive and proactive work?

Even though The Great Giveaway offered some helps in terms of what we should be doing, looking back, it was largely a critical book on the state of the evangelical church. In The End of Evangelicalism, even though there was a constructive chapter there at the end, it was largely a critique, helping us understand through social psychoanalysis how we have created this monster where all we do is fight among one another. I felt I needed to provide positive, simple practices of the local engaged church, where we can be witnesses to the kingdom of God and all that God has done in Christ for the world. So the signposts are a way not only to think about church positively—by positively, I mean constructively—but also to give a practice for it.

Most of Prodigal Christianity was my notes on teaching missional theology and missional church from the last 10 years at Northern Seminary. But Geoff [Holsclaw], one of our co-pastors—he’s at Life of the Vine and I’m at our second church plant, Peace of Christ Church—we wrote it together out of our experiences of actually doing, being, leading church in the neighborhoods.

So we talked about how seeing God on mission changes the way you inhabit your neighborhood and live Christianity. Seeing how God in Christ comes to us to be among us and with us in incarnation changes the way we live and think about evangelism. Witness is the embodiment of what we believe, not just the verbalization of what we believe. And then we talked about how this changes the way we preach and inhabit Scripture, the way we evangelize, the way we think about the gospel, the way we even think about ecclesiology.

At the end we talked about the three biggest challenges I think we’re all facing, in North America at least: alternative sexuality, the pluralism of religions, and the injustices all around us and the church’s way of engaging it.

In each one of these situations, we wanted to avoid the two big mistakes we think have happened: And that is, the defensiveness of Christianity on the right and the accommodation of Christianity on the left. Either one fails to engage our society, our culture, with mission. The one is defensive and distances themselves from our culture; the other accommodates and has nothing to say to our culture. Either one fails. And so that’s why we wrote Prodigal Christianity as a way of kind of fleshing out in simple terms a way to be the church in the world and on mission.

It’s fascinating to me how nervous we get. It’s like, I have to speak for God but if I can’t find the way to articulate everything convincingly enough, then somehow the church fails. And we have this defensiveness that is a bit perplexing, almost as if we’re trying to convince the world and ourselves at the same time.

That is the great missional insight. So often we must not be truly convinced if we have to go out and try to convince everybody else in order to feel better about ourselves.

Some of that dynamic I fear is taking place in the whole gay/lesbian controversies. I’m pointing my finger at somebody else to make myself feel more righteous, because that’s the only way I’m going to be convinced that I should keep going in what I’m doing.

And so I agree with you.

The other thing, sometimes I wonder if evangelicals can still be evangelicals if they think they’re not here to save the world. Another way to put that is, God’s mission is God’s mission. He will save the world, but he has come into the world through Jesus Christ and has extended himself through the body of Christ, and all we have to do is participate, not take the job onto ourselves.

Could you relate this to your discussion of pluralism? What do you say to the church speaking into a pluralistic culture?

I learned most of my understanding of what God’s doing and other religions and how the Christian faith maintains its witness yet doesn’t shut off dialogue from John Howard Yoder. In my mind I could summarize what he said by just saying, Jesus is Lord, and if we really believe Jesus is Lord then I can enter into a conversation and not be lord. I don’t have to go in and determine what is right and what is wrong about another faith for me to be confident and to know out of the history in Jesus Christ and the church and the Holy Spirit in my life that I can affirm Jesus is Lord and that he’s bringing the whole world to himself.

Now having that confidence, I can go in and take my controls off and allow God to work in this dialogue that I’m having with other religions. And we need to open up that space and know preveniently that God’s at work there. That’s not saying God’s going to save somebody outside of Jesus Christ; that’s not even saying that all religions have an impulse toward the same God. No, I can’t affirm either one of those things, but what I can affirm is that God is at work in the world, and he is Lord, and I can enter in and allow him to work in that space of dialogue and reconciliation and the witness of his Holy Spirit through my life. All I have to do is respond and speak and relate.

So, if Jesus is Lord, why am I paranoid? Why am I defensive? Why am I angry? There’s something tremendously relaxing while at the same time elevating my sense of responsibility, if I affirm: Jesus is Lord.

Well, that’s a beautiful summary statement. If Jesus is Lord, why am I not more relaxed? But at the same time, if Jesus is Lord, I’m so elevated to participate in what he’s doing in the world.

The vast number of churches in the country are small. It’s difficult to pastor a small church when every measure of success held up around you is related to size. If I’m a pastor of a small church, what should concern me, and what should encourage me?

The first thing we need to understand is that local engagement—the engagement with our local neighborhoods, villages, towns is harder and harder the bigger and bigger you get, because of the massive amounts of programming and organization big churches require. You’re caught up in organizing already existing Christians to be sustained in the Christian life.

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On the other hand, what I want to say for the small churches is, the central thing you must think about is leading people into the real presence of Christ. First of all, as we gather together around the Eucharist, the Lord’s table, the hearing of the proclamation of the Word, being with the poor in our midst, being with children.

Whenever we have conflict, we can actually be with one another in the presence of Christ when he says whenever two or three are gathered together in the moment of conflict and we come to an agreement, I will be there, and what is bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, what is loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven. And the kingdom of God will break in.

These practices of the presence of Christ can happen only with a few people. Once we get big it’s hard to pull people into that.

And then I want to tell every small church pastor, you can lead people into the presence of Christ, but that same presence is extended into the neighborhood doing the same things. Eating meals together. When there’s conflict in our neighborhoods bringing them into reconciliation. I could tell you story after story where conflicts become the place of healing in the neighborhood because of who we are in Jesus Christ and his cross and resurrection.

We can’t do that when we’re busy organizing thousands of people. But when we have even 12 people doing that, the kingdom will break out, a new mission will be born and you may have the megachurch problem in about 10 or 15 years.

At that point, you just want to start all over again to try and get out of the megachurch habits.

Then it becomes a real problem of figuring out how to take your big church and make it small, fluid and intimate.

I’m an observer of church culture, and I’m doing this book with InterVarsity Press called Faithful Presence, trying to help people understand this dynamic of faithful presence in the neighborhoods and cultures we live in. And I’ve seen megachurches starting to grapple with this question.

There’s a large church about 10 miles from here that started in the early ‘70s. In the ‘90s, they developed a seeker service to reach the younger set. It became successful. But now, 15 years or so later, they realize some of their previous strategies won’t work. Why? Because they have people under the age of 35 who say, no, we’re not interested [in that model]. They actually want to live the life of the kingdom in their neighborhoods. Now the church is coming to people like me and they’re asking, What’s the next strategy? How can we support local incarnational engaged communities of life in the deprived neighborhoods in our 10, 15-mile radius?

I’m not seeing that happen a lot, but I am seeing a half-dozen megachurches across the country that realize they can’t just go plant another megachurch. It’s over. There’s not enough Christians to be harvested to form that kind of programmatic activity. And the young people are saying they’ve had enough.

So I am seeing hope that the large churches with a lot of money want to engage in mission in places outside of their bubble. And they’re asking, How do we do this?

Let’s talk a little bit about church planting. What encourages you about the state of church planting today?

Well, hundreds of churches are being formed by that 35 and under crowd. They are wonderfully inhabiting neighborhoods and teaching their people how to be present in the lives and in the places where people intersect and the hurting places in their local communities. They’re becoming witnesses through their lives as opposed to evangelism programs.

I just wrote a forward for an InterVarsity Press book by my friend Mark Lau Branson at Fuller where he collects eight stories of such churches. I just read through them. They’re marvelous.

My own denomination, Christian and Missionary Alliance, has been a denomination almost 100 percent focused on overseas missions and is seeing church after little church die, not knowing what to do. But now they are seeing people 35 and younger come and be with them and teach them how to engage in the neighborhood.

I’m trying to encourage denominations to think about a new order of clergy: bivocational, multiple pastors in each location. These people are self-sustaining and yet because they’re economically tied to the community, they just have mushrooming relationships everywhere.

I ask every one of our bivocational pastors who are planting churches to not think any less than a 10-year commitment to this place. It will take that long to cultivate a new birthing of the gospel and a fresh expression of the gospel here in this neighborhood. So that’s what I’m seeing happen. Now, it’s not in the thousands; it’s still in the beginning stages. But I see the missional movement being one impetus for this kind of local engagement. And I’m very, very encouraged.

There’s a recurring theme in a lot of what you’re saying that relates to the virtue of patience. Almost a sense of serenity, a lack of striving, that I find an engaging, refreshing word. We feel so much pressure to perform, and the huge responsibility we feel to be the spokesman of God as opposed to being an expression of the life of God in our place.

Well, we don’t send missionaries to an Islamic country and tell them if you don’t have a self-sustaining church in three years you’re a failure. Our circumstances may not be comparable to an Islamic country, but in many parts of the United States—and certainly Canada—we do live in a post-Christianized, secular world. If we are going to engage people outside the Christian bubble, we will find them unfamiliar with Christianity, or holding a jaded view of the faith from their past or from the culture’s disavowal of Christianity. Therefore, we have to overcome a lot to get to that space for honest, open presence and conversation. That’s going to take patience; it’s going to take time.

If you go to a town and you set up a video screen and you pipe in a very popular, charismatic speaker and you get 1,000 people joining that church within a month, I guarantee you haven’t reached the people who are outside of the Christian bubble in that arena. You have assembled already existing Christians who for whatever reason are struggling with their existing churches. I’m not so sure that’s an entirely bad thing, because we need to revive and renew the church for Christians too. But we must understand that’s a totally different dynamic than mission, and we need to be doing mission in this time.

According to the statistics I’ve seen, a lot of our denominational structures and our small church structures will disappear within 20 to 25 years. There may be a lot of megachurches left, but certainly much of our existing Christianity will be gone if we don’t engage our communities with the mission of the gospel.

For people like me, that’s who we are. God has sent Christ into the world to redeem and reconcile the world, not just to redeem and reconcile me. I’m happy. Thank you, Lord, for all you’ve done for me, but that’s not where it ends. God has entered the world through Jesus Christ to bring the whole world to himself. That’s who he is. So we cannot stop the Christian life with me. If we do, we’re denying who Jesus Christ is, as opposed to living Jesus Christ in the world.