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Transformational, Missional, Communal

An Interview with David E. Fitch

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Recently, Don Bubna, C&MA pastor-at-large, spoke with Rev. David E. Fitch, C&MA pastor and author of The Great Giveaway. Dr. Fitch is the Betty Lindner Chair of Evangelical Studies at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and the pastor of Life on the Vine Community Church in Long Grove, Illinois. The following is an excerpt of the interview.

Don Bubna: What is the Church?
David Fitch: Theologically, the Church, as we learn from Scripture, is the Body of Christ in the world. It is the separated people of God who are called out to be witnesses and live a life of salvation that gives glory to God before the world.

DB: Then what is the mission of the Church?
DF: To live the gospel, spread the gospel and plant the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit in real people in real communities and in every people group in the world until He comes.

DB: As a pastor, what excites you about the local church?
DF: Here in Long Grove,… I’m really excited about the young ones, the people in their twenties and early thirties. You might call them young-but-disenchanted evangelicals—children of evangelicals. What excites me about them is they… refuse to try to use techniques or various pragmatic ways to make church successful. They want to live Christ, live a mission and to be the presence of Christ in their local communities and wherever they plant churches.

They’re not driven by success; they’re driven by mission. It’s uncanny, their commitment to sacrifice just about every kind of material success—money, image—to just live Christ among the poor, among the hurting, among the disenfranchised, among those who are lost in our consumer ways of our culture—and call us back to faithfulness.

DB: This sounds very counterculture to me. When I attend or am invited to workshops, it’s all about the how-to’s and understanding sociology and making application to at least 20th century thinking.
DF: Yeah, it is countercultural. I think what the young are reacting against is the big show. I don’t think they want Christianity that is “Disney-fied.” By that I mean this excellent production by people nobody knows because there are 3,000–4,000 in the audience, and it’s just a big show every morning. They want to worship God, encounter God. They want to participate in the mission. They want to do things communally, and of course, this is all just part of getting sick of the culture we live in [where] everything is “consumerized” into a product or into an hour-long presentation. They want real life.

I think we are at a major turning point in North America and that these young people are the people that God’s going to use to lead us into a real challenging expression of the salvation of Jesus Christ before the watching world. Because I tell you what, in the current North American culture, I don’t think people are buying it anymore. I think a lot of people are getting warehoused into megachurches, and a lot of people are coming and going and fitting God into their particular time slot and getting what they need. But the younger generation is leaving those places, realizing that that’s not mission in and of itself.

DB: Why did you write The Great Giveaway?
DF: I wrote The Great Giveaway primarily because I saw this happening. I think evangelicalism has capitulated to our culture through consumerism, big business, psychotherapy and turning everything into a technique. In the process, we’ve lost real communities, real bodies of Christ, where we live a life that is in somewhat of a resistance to our culture…. No, this is a life to be lived!

Not to discourage my Canadian neighbors, but according to statistics, only 4 percent of Canada is evangelical. According to statistics, less than one half of 1 percent of Europe is evangelical. We could be going that route unless we restore authenticity, unless we restore living, breathing bodies of Christ as the center of what we’re doing in planting churches and not just putting on shows and attracting numbers that just “commodify” the gospel.

DB: So your book is saying that these qualities of authenticity and community are what the Church has given away?
DF: Yes. In our church, Life on the Vine Christian Community, we’ve come up with three adjectives that define or describe what we hope you see when you come to our church: transformational, missional and communal. Transformational refers to the way we worship. We’re coming into the presence of God to participate and be changed by Him. So there is some liturgical shaping going on. There are also triads, where we meet and confess sin one with another and are shaped in our relationship with God.

DB: Do you do that as part of the public service?
DF: No, the triads are separate, more like what you might call a “small group” in a larger church. Groups of three or four come together to do what the old Wesleyan society groups or maybe the Benedictine rule used to do: confess sins one with another, speak truth into each other’s lives and work out our faith in fear and trembling with Scripture and prayer. We have a whole rule that people follow. It’s taken off in our church. People’s lives are being changed out of depression into joy, out of certain addictions into living life for Christ.

Communal means that we do everything communally. We raise our children together. We affirm marriages. We have healing services. All of it’s communal. And then everything we do—going to work, playing, inviting people into our homes, reaching out to the retirement home or going to soup kitchens—is missional…. We witness the gospel of Christ in the way we live, in the way we present ourselves and even in the way, of course, we talk. We’ve grown from eight people to about 120 people, and we’re on the verge of planting another church.

DB: So are you seen as a church planter?
DF: I still am described as a church planter. Although I am an ordained pastor in the C&MA, I’m still a church planter with the Midwest District.

DB: What role does the so-called “emerging church movement” play in reshaping how evangelicals think of the Church?
DF: I think the emerging church, frankly, is made up of mostly younger evangelicals who are disenchanted with techniques and impersonal, large, lecture-hall worship services. And they are disenchanted with the way church has become me-centered and not missions-centered, meaning reaching out to the lost, to the poor and to those who don’t know the gospel but are lost in the hyped-up consumer culture we live in. So the emerging church is a very important critique that needs to be listened to….

I must say that the word “emerging” is a wide descriptor. It’s an adjective that includes a lot of different things. Not everybody in the emerging church, in my opinion, is right. And I don’t endorse everything written by emerging church authors. Yet the critiques they’re offering, I think, are important. I think the questions that they’re asking are on the hearts and minds of children of evangelicals all over North America, and that’s why they’re getting such a large response. I don’t always agree with every answer. But Don, it’s that critique of what’s happened to turn our church into a consumer mentality that needs to be heard.

DB: A few years back, Robert Webber wrote the book The Younger Evangelicals. Is his book an appropriate description of the young people you are talking about?
DF: Yes. Bob sits on the same faculty as me at Northern Seminary, and I know that book has had a good reception. It was a big seller because it really nailed things right on the head about what younger evangelicals were going through and how they were responding to the over-pragmatic evangelicalism of our day.

DB: In The Great Giveaway, you mention liturgy. How do you use liturgy?
DF: Well, liturgy is the “work of the people.” That’s what the word means.

DB: This is in contrast to the big show then.
DF: Right. Basically, we submit ourselves to God’s work and Scripture and the ongoing worship of God in Jesus Christ. That’s a key word—submit. We aren’t coming to get entertained. We aren’t coming to consume a worship experience. We aren’t coming even to get something out of the Word that we can use, because often we use Scripture for our own unsanctified purposes….

Liturgy asks us to submit to the Word, to confess sin, to affirm truth for our lives. To submit whatever it is in our lives, in faith, to Jesus Christ for our daily walk…. Classic liturgy does the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed… It does confession of sin and then it always does the hearing of the Word and silence and so forth…. We still preach every Sunday, of course; we have a response time to the Word, and we have art. So the basic thing that I’d just like to say about liturgy is, in doing these things, we’re asking people to submit their lives into the ongoing work and mission and life of God through Jesus Christ.

DB: You seem to be very strong on the idea of faith and obedience.
DF: YES! Yes, I can only say, “Amen.”

DB: Why are you an Alliance pastor instead of an American Baptist, since you teach at that seminary, or one of the inherently liturgical denominations?
DF: The first and most obvious reason is I was born into the C&MA. In fact, my grandfather, Elmer Fitch Sr., was A. B. Simpson’s last assistant pastor in Gospel Tabernacle before he went up to start the Alliance church in Ottawa, Canada. So the C&MA is born and bred in me. And I believe you start where God puts you. I don’t believe you go around shopping for a denomination that will fit your needs.

Secondly, I think the C&MA is unique for these postmodern days. People want a global faith. They want to know that God is bigger than personal needs, that God is the God of the world, calling the whole cosmos into redemption in Jesus Christ. That means we have to be a worldwide denomination.

I love that about the C&MA. I love that I can get up on Sunday morning and talk about stories of wonder. I can recall what God is doing this past week through our churches, say, in Lebanon. Then we can take an offering right then and there and raise $1,800 for Lebanon.

I love what the C&MA has to say about sanctification, emphasizing that the Christian life is not just about making a decision and then going on your merry way. Today, a decision doesn’t mean the same thing it meant 50 years ago. Today, it could be a consumer decision: I’m deciding to receive Christ to get benefits A, B and C. It doesn’t call us into a life of discipleship and sanctification. I love what the C&MA has to say about the emphasis that Jesus is not only our Savior but also our Sanctifier. I believe… the C&MA has some amazing emphases to offer to this postmodern generation. So that’s a second reason why I love being in the C&MA.

A third reason is that I’m an evangelical. Northern Seminary… has people from 20 different evangelical denominations. This is a time when evangelicals are coming together, and not so much is being stressed about dividing lines between denom-inations. We’re coming together to meet the mission, the call, to minister the gospel of salvation to the lost in many different ways…. So that’s kind of how I got to be where I’m at, and I couldn’t be more happy to still be here and ministering out of our history as The Christian and Missionary Alliance.

DB: So, can you succinctly summarize your passion, your dreams, for the North American Church?
DF: Someone asked me this in a radio interview, and… I offered this vision: Maybe our congregations will become smaller, not bigger. Yet they’ll be teaming with the life of Christ’s Body. I hope there are so many [churches] that they become the alternative to Starbucks! I hope our churches become known for their servanthood in the neighborhoods and their warm hospitality as we invite strangers in to hear the gospel, but also we are engaging the lost, the poor, the hurting…. As we become less… of a “Christian nation,” we must reassert ourselves as living, vibrant bodies of Christ, implanted in every community and neighborhood. That’s what I’m pushing for. That’s what I’m praying for. And that might change according to God’s work in my life, but that’s where I see Him calling me and my ministry.

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