“Wherever God’s presence is, we come into relationship one to another in a space where God wants to do something new.”
Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, in which David Fitch talks about his new book and the pressing need for churches to rediscover the foundational practices of our faith.
Let’s talk about your book, Seven Practices for the Church on Mission. How do those shared practices advance presence and discernment?
Shared practices are how this theology lives. They have been part of Christian life from the beginning. In the history of the church, there have been as many as 22 “sacraments.” So when I say “seven practices,” there could be more. There can’t be less though, and these are certainly the seven most important ones. What they do is shape us and call us into a social submission of Christ as King and Lord. The table asks us corporately, in groups of three or more, to submit to Christ. The reconciliation that happens whenever we gather and submit to each other in Christ’s name, all of these seven disciplines gather us together in mutual submission to Jesus Christ as Lord.
Every kingdom needs subjects. It’s out of the social space of those subjects that you have a kingdom. This is what opens up the space for God to work in Jesus Christ and for Christ to become present. Fundamentally, then, the thing that these practices do is open up space for us to submit to one another and to Christ as Lord over our space.
These practices open space for Jesus to work among us. And he does—he works, he forgives, he calls us to reconcile, to pray for renewal, to pray for healing. I think one of the reasons we don’t see miracles today is that we don’t make space for him to work. John the Baptist, following the Isaiah passage, lived out “make straight the way of the Lord.” He made space for him to come. That sentiment: I must decrease, he must increase—that’s symbolic of what a witness is and how a witness opens up space for another.
Isn’t it strange to think that we need to make space for God? Because he’s God. Why wouldn’t he just get a divine bulldozer and make some space for himself? But that’s the way God is. He is noncoercive. He is love. He will only come as we invite him to be present, specifically, among us. That’s what these disciplines do in a church.
Talk about “the three circles.”
I’ve looked through the New Testament very carefully. If you look at Acts 2:46–47 you see a description of the first church:
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
The temple is the center, close, discerning circle of his presence. A lot of people would say “closed” circle, but no—it’s not. It’s a close circle. This is where we are all discerning his lordship over our lives. Typically that happens on Sunday morning in church. But then they broke bread at home—“from house to house”—in the neighborhoods. I call this the dotted circle. Because even though these are Christians meeting and eating in twos and threes, there is space for non-Christians too.
The same level of discernment is not required here. It’s still Christians helping to discern, but it’s not the close circle. In the close circle, Jesus is the host. In the dotted circle, the disciple is the host.
The third circle is where we are guests. Here, the hurting, sinners and lost are our hosts. This is exemplified by Luke 10, like I mentioned before. The disciples are sent out and told to go into people’s homes unprepared and eat what is set before them. They are told not to go with power or with resources in that circle, but to go as “lambs among wolves.” It could really all be paraphrased as Jesus saying, “You are not in control.” And it was out of that guest posture, that posture of receiving, of weakness, that they were to proclaim the kingdom. Jesus frequently modeled being a guest, going to eat in the homes of all kinds of people, horrifying the religious leaders. That’s the dynamic.
The guest position is so important. That we would go and simply allow the presence of Christ in their space to bring people to himself.
Those three circles are so important. We do all seven disciplines in all three circles. They are supposed to form our whole way of life. We see it in Acts 2:47: “Praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” They were in the neighborhoods, cultivating the goodwill of all the people. That’s the paradigm for how the church ought to cultivate Christian life as a whole way of life.
All seven disciplines we might learn in the close circle. But we work them out every day of our lives in the other two circles. We might worship in the first circle. We might do discipleship in the second circle. But as we go into a space for outreach and evangelism, as we invite people to be reconciled in their broken relationships, we invite people in our presence to share in the beauty of what God wants to do in their life in terms of the healing that God is bringing to the world.
In an Outreach interview in 2014, you said, “Ideology 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.” Those words are timely today. How does a culture of antagonistic church relate to the seven disciplines?
God’s presence is the opposite of antagonism. God’s presence is the opposite of violence. God’s presence is the opposite of “me-versus-you.” God’s presence frees me from having to defend myself. Wherever God’s presence is, we come into relationship one to another in a space where God wants to do something new.
We can’t enter the world on the terms that it gives us—which is antagonism. It’s a shame that our churches have been caught up in the antagonisms of our culture. It’s a shame that they operate on those antagonisms. That energy of anger and defensiveness and win-at-all-costs? No! Jesus is going to win. All we have to do is calm down, submit ourselves to him and allow him to do the work that he wants to do in the world. But the more that we fight and defend, the more that we breed anger, the less his presence can work.
I think that we are witnessing the demise of church every time that we see antagonisms flare up and win the day. And of course we are seeing that kind of situation today.
With that point fresh in our minds, how would it change our work and witness for these seven practices to become metrics for church health?
Oh, that’s a really good question. Well, here’s an interesting idea: Often when we talk about metrics we are talking about measuring the number of people in seats, how many giving units we’ve received, how’s the budget doing, how many decisions for Christ this month (which we really don’t know whether it “took” or not, what it “means” or not)
The book The Art of Neighboring by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak had a great little chart. It was a house with eight squares around it. You were supposed to fill in how many people who live around you that you actually know, how many relationships you actually have in your neighborhood. How much space is being opened for God to be present? is the question I like to ask.
You can see the metric there, but let’s go back to the church plant idea. Let’s say we have 25 people in a church plant. That’s 25 people gathering on a Sunday morning. Now, fast-forward three years, and the plant has grown—by five. There are 30 people now, and everybody’s discouraged. Oh my goodness, we’ve only grown by five people in the last three years! Well, I might ask, “OK, how many people’s lives in your neighborhood do you actually know as a result of the past three years? More than just an acquaintance, but that you actually have opened up space for God to work in this relationship between you and them?”
So let’s say each of those 30 people have five people like that. That’s 150 people. So is the church plant reaching 30 people or 150 people?
How about the metric being how many people’s lives in our neighborhood we are opening space for God’s presence? I think that’s the metric we ought to use.
Honestly, I think that some churches that are 1,000 people are really only 1,000 people. But some churches of, say, 100, are really many, many more. Maybe larger than the church of 1,000. And I think that God can use that hundred people—those 30 people, too—to bring (do I dare say this?) many more people to Christ who are actually engaged through these disciplines of making presence in the neighborhood, than many churches of 1,000 people.
I think that’s the way we ought to think about this, the metric we ought to use in this new day and age of mission here in the United States and Canada. How are we doing at opening space to witness God’s work? How are we doing at the practices that make us present to his presence?
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.