Dr. Fitch is a mission focused academic, and there is a lot of confusion, in my opinion, about the relationship between the church’s identity and its mission in most missiological studies, but this book is less about the concept of mission as such. Rather Dr. Fitch works through seven practices he believes should begin to be understood again as sacramental: Eucharist (referred to as the Lord’s Table), Reconciliation (historically called Confession), Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with the “Least of These,” Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting (APEST), and Kingdom Prayer. Faithful Presence is an exploration of these practices as a way to empower the local community of faith with the presence of King Jesus to fulfill the mission given to the kingdom of God.

Key to Dr. Fitch’s idea of these disciplines is that they are social sacraments. It is less about physical quality of being and more about the space actively created in the participation of these moments in the relationships of those involved. This space, Dr. Fitch contends, brings in the presence of King Jesus, and this is what changes all of creation and empowers the local church to fulfill its mission.

Coupled with this idea of being social sacraments, Dr. Fitch proposes there are three modes of expressing these sacraments in our relationships: close circle (church family), dotted circle (Christians living together in neighborhoods inviting non-believers), and the half-circle (Christians in non-Christian contexts). He believes that the presence of King Jesus is just as present in the community potluck and the conversation at a bar as it is at Eucharist. This is possible because of the quality of the sacrament resting in its social element between the believer and the other person.

There are many stories and exegetical explanations, both cultural and scriptural, throughout the book to help these points which must be read to get the full grasp of Dr. Fitch’s arguments. There were slight historical and textual issues I had with a handful of sections, as should be expected, but overall the argument of the book, that the local church must understand and use communal practices to open up a space for the presence of King Jesus to be empowered to complete the mission, is vitally important and true.

The most powerful chapters for me had to be those over the Lord’s Table (chapter 3), the practice of reconciliation in the relationships of those in the community of faith (chapter 4), and understanding preaching as distinct from teaching (chapter 5). The case for being with children (chapter 7) lacked any real substance to me other than the history of the church demands that we catechize children because they are raised in Christian families (and in many traditions already baptized as infants or very young children). The idea that being with the “least of these” (chapter 6) is a powerful idea that needs to be worked out more as a reality of sacramental being before I am comfortable to connecting, what many would assume, general social justice work as a sacrament.

There are some major issues from my perspective with associating the Fivefold Gifting (chapter 8), or more generally called APEST as taught by Alan Hirsh, and prayer (chapter 9) as sacraments. There is no doubt that exercising one’s gifting and prayer can be sacramental moments that God uses to be with the Christian, but these are just not places where such moments are promised. I believe this is key to understanding sacraments.

My working definition of sacrament for the last number of years has been intentional participatory moments with King Jesus which he has promised to his kingdom. There are a number of texts in the New Testament pointing out that not all prayer to God is heard, even if in the name of King Jesus,[1] let alone always bring in his presence. The same is to be said for the idea of APEST gifting. Personally, there are too many contemporary issues reading back into Ephesians 4 for me to be academically comfortable with the way many use the idea of gifting in APEST. There are also exegetical issues with the rendering of the distinctions and how they function as authority and leadership in the community of faith. All that to say, I see no promise that the exercise of a gift denotes the presence of King Jesus. If anything, Paul seems to critique the Corinthians on issues of the presence of pride and disorder in their gifting rather than the sacramental presence.[2] In my understanding of sacraments, I can’t grant such status to the use of spiritual gifts or prayer, even if they are both often a sacramental moment in Christian life.

As an interested student of the work of Rene Girard, the idea of the sacrament’s social dimension of being is something I can easily get behind. Andrew McGowan also references the social focus of early Christian practices, particularly the importance of the community’s participation in Eucharist.[3] But I would point out that the early Christians’ had a deep emphasis on the real presence of King Jesus in a way that can only be given contemporary language as biological (whatever that might mean for us must be worked out).[4] Is it enough to simply have relationship or are we saying the Christian is sacramentally the very body of Jesus, not figuratively, but actually is the biological expression of the Spirit of King Jesus? From my studies the social and biological aspects of human being (and therefore human presence) cannot be separated. Space by and in the sacraments must be space for both elements of presence.

Faithful Presence is an exciting exploration into some of the practices of the local church seeking to bring in the presence of King Jesus. This conversation is deeply needed in free church Protestantism. Dr. Fitch lays a necessary foundation for these free churches to begin developing a perspective about their practices which views them as spiritually invested, and not simply “from the bible” and common sense. As American culture continues to become more disagreeable to Christian life, these communal practices of the presence of King Jesus will become the anchors of Christian life and be vital to the kingdom’s existence in our context.

[1] Mt. 7:21; 1st Pt. 3:7; James 5:16

[2] 1st Cor. 12-14

[3] Andrew Brian McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 32.

[4] Ibid., 47.

Posted by Justin Gill

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