David Fitch: Recognizing Christ’s Presence—Part 1

What is love? It’s not a sentiment. In the Bible, it’s “he loved us by giving himself up for us.”

David Fitch is the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, and the founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He is also the author of multiple books, including The Great Giveaway, The End of Evangelicalism? and Faithful Presence. His latest, Seven Practices for the Church on Mission is a condensed version of Faithful Presence intended for helping shape Christian and congregational life around core practices to make space for God’s presence and work.

We caught up with Fitch to discuss the new book, the pressing need for churches to rediscover the foundational practices of our faith and the powerful hope of learning to be “present to Christ’s presence” in our communities.

You’ve shared before that writing Faithful Presence was an experience that personally transformed you. What happened?

Writing the book helped me see and put together in words what following Christ can be in terms of a whole way of life, not just some programs we go to two or three times a week.

The book was the culmination of about 20 years of doing ministry while thinking through the theological issues of mission. It also was the culmination of truly being in my neighborhood. That looked like finding a whole new understanding of where and how God was at work. It happened for me by hanging out in my local McDonald’s, hosting gatherings in my home, being a guest around tables in my neighborhood and, recently, regularly showing up at a little bar called Pot Belly Pub in Westmont, Illinois, every Wednesday night at 8:00 pm. (Anybody reading this, feel free to join me!)

All this was a learning experience. Writing the book helped me put it all together in a way I could explain to other people, especially people in my own church. Once this new engagement with presence was cemented in my own life, there was a whole other layer of transformation for me as I saw the numerous stories of this making sense in other people’s lives. It’s all been a journey into understanding how God has given his people a way of life to bear witness to what he is doing in the world.

You use the phrase “being present to Christ’s presence” as a backbone for the book, referencing that kind of quiet local presence. I love that. What do you mean by it?

I am convinced that God works in the world primarily through his presence. If you look through the whole of the Old Testament and the whole of the New Testament, culminating in the person of Jesus Christ—Emmanuel, “God with us”—“tabernacling” among us in John 1, all the way through to Revelation 21 and the new heavens and earth, God is seeking to fully dwell with humanity. That is what he is seeking and doing through his mission to the world.

But if God works in the world by being present in it, that’s revolutionary. Mission and ministry aren’t about me or my effort to get something done, although God can and sometimes does use that. It is primarily about making space for his presence to work. Making space—in and among and through us, in our relationships in the neighborhood, in the various struggles we face together in our towns and villages.

So, God’s presence is there in the world before we show up. But to get back to the phrase, he works in such a way that he needs witnesses to be present to his presence.

You know, we’ve talked a lot in the last 20 years about Missio Dei, and how God is at work in the world. And we’ve talked about incarnation—how God comes to be present in our neighborhoods to minister the gospel. But we don’t really talk about how that works. And what I wanted to do was answer the how.

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So, what’s the how?

God in Christ has given us disciplines to become present to his presence. We’re part of a very old Christian tradition, and these practices go all the way back to the early church. In writing the book, I wanted to be explicitly clear about how these practices make his presence visible to us and how our being present to his presence is the way God works in the world.

If you ask me, that’s a revolutionary understanding of how God works.

Tease out how that might look, say, for a church planter?

Don’t you think that most church planters think something along these lines?

For the first three years, I’ll be working 60- to 70-hour weeks, I won’t see my family, I won’t have any spare time. I have to go—right now—and convince 50 to 100 people to meet every Sunday morning and listen to me talk.

Most of them have no concept that what God actually has done is simply call them to gather a people in a neighborhood, submitting to one another and his presence, and allowing him to work in all the struggles and pains and hurts of the neighborhood. It’s not fundamentally on them to make much happen at all. They are to be witnesses. That changes the way we see the ministry, church planting, pastoring. It changes how we see God’s work in the world, and it’s all centered on this idea of our being present to God’s presence.

In the book you tell the story of walking past a local bar with a friend, looking in and seeing the patrons seeking communion with each other without truly being able to name what they’re looking for. Is a key part of our being “present” interpreting such moments as places where God is already working?

Yeah! When I walked past that little bar in Westmont, and I saw four guys around a table with longing in their eyes—longing to know, to be known, to be present—that was an unknown longing for the Eucharist, for communion. Christ is already working there; they just don’t know it yet.

But the question is not whether Christ is present there, but whether he will be received or welcomed there. And that is why God needs us to witness to his presence. That idea plays into Luke 10—the dynamic of Jesus sending the disciples out to be present at tables in the neighborhood and then proclaim the kingdom, saying things like “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16) .

To tie it all in, this theology of presence is really present all over in our existing theologies. It just needs to be recognized and emphasized. One example is “prevenient grace” in the Wesleyan tradition, which talks about the Holy Spirit being proactively present to prompt and lead people to himself. It just takes someone to be there to help say, “Do you see what this is? Can you respond?” It just takes a witness.

So this witness is a question of discernment or interpretation. For me, it might look like sitting at a table, sensing what God is doing and then, when someone starts talking and opening up space in their life, asking, “Do you see what God is doing? I believe that’s God! Can you see it too?” That’s the dynamic of how we witness.

Tell us more about how the “table” creates space for witness and presence.

I talk about how there is a grammar, or a logic, to the table. It teaches us how God works. The broken body is the forgiveness of sins. Everything leads to reconciliation of broken relationship. Then there’s the cup, the “new covenant in my blood,” Jesus says, which is the new relationship we have with God the Father through the Son by the Spirit, who is healing, restoring, renewing all things.

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All these things are present in both our church gatherings and our daily interactions. And so when we’re sitting around a table at Pot Belly Pub on a Wednesday night, we’re looking to God to lead us to those things—forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal and healing. We are becoming witnesses to the fact that that’s how he works. And all of a sudden, our pain, hurts and loneliness are met by God.

My contention is that practicing the discipline of the table on Sunday morning should enable us to discern and interpret God’s presence through Jesus Christ at the table in the neighborhood in these kinds of transformative ways.

How then do we know when we are truly being present to his presence?

I can tell you how I experience it. It’s the experience of love.

What is love? It’s not a sentiment. In the Bible, it’s “he loved us by giving himself up for us.” It’s when I’m sitting at a table, and I take my own attention off myself, almost forget myself, and pass my attention onto the other person, and pray, God, let your presence be known at this table. Make yourself real in the drinking of this beverage together. And I’m praying that prayer, even as I’m walking down the street going to Pot Belly Pub, but also as I’m in the bar at the table, praying it silently. Then I cast my eyes upon the other person sitting in the bar with me, and I’m sensing what’s going on. It is amazing to me how that dynamic happens out of that practice of the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit. In taking my attention off myself, putting it on the other person and asking God to reveal himself, that’s what feels like love. That’s what it feels like when I know the presence of God in that space.

Roman Catholics talk about real presence in terms of transubstantiation. That’s partly because of a theology that the Reformation forced on them. The presence of Christ, for them, is physically in the bread and cup. We evangelicals, or Pentecostal evangelicals, place the presence in terms of a subjective inner feeling. “I will know the presence of God by my feeling at a good rock concert/rally on a Sunday morning.” Something like that. But the Anabaptist wants to say that the presence of Christ is a social reality: “Whenever two or three gather in my name, there am I in the midst.” It’s social. When people gather around a table, Christ is present there. Like in the story of the Road to Emmaus, when Christ was known to the two disciples in the breaking of bread.

The presence of Christ, in all the circles of our lives, occurs as we socially, mutually submit one to another. That’s where Christ promises to be present and to be discerned.

In Part 2 of this interview, David Fitch discusses the “three circles” of relationship within the church, and how we can be better neighbors. 

David Fitch is B. R. Lindner Professor of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and a pastor at Life on the Vine Christian Community in the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago. For More: OutreachMagazine.com/David-Fitch

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach. His most recent book is The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Volume Two). He lives in Oregon.