Total Church by Tim Chester & Steve Timmis
I picked this up when I was in Seattle recently. (Steve Timmis was also at the Acts 29 conference and staying at the same hotel as me, although I didn’t get to talk with him.)
Tim & Steve lead a church/church planting network called Crowded House. I first became aware of them a couple of years back and had been somewhat perplexed by their growing connection with Acts 29. Their “thing” is house churches, whereas Acts 29 comes out of the Mars Hill megachurch – I couldn’t really see how they connected.
However, having chatted with people in Seattle and having read the book I can now see the connection: Mission.
Chester & Timmis do argue fairly strongly for the house church model, and I do not quite share their enthusiasm for this. My observation over the years would be that leading a house church – if anything – requires a higher level of leadership gift than leading a ‘conventional’ church, and so is actually much harder to replicate. I think of the family who left my previous church to go and start a house church in a tough part of town with another family, only to find after a couple of years that they had seen no-one saved and added, hadn’t grown at all, and were just killing themselves with the effort. That said, the authors do acknowledge that there is no single model that every church should adopt in terms of size, but they are arguing for particular values regardless of size. I think this is the right approach, and in the reorganisation and relaunch of small groups we are planning for Gateway this autumn I would encourage prospective small group leaders to read this book.
So what values are they arguing for?
The guts of the book is that everything we do in church should be built around gospel and community. This is then to be worked out in:
• Social involvement
• Church planting
• World mission
• Discipleship and training
• Pastoral care
• Children and young people
• How success is defined
As you would expect, I found some of these sections more convincing than others. At a couple of points I thought the authors were actually being a little silly – overstressing their argument in order to make their point. They so want to stress the importance of community that they could be read as saying that any activity that does not happen with other people is invalid, which is clearly silly. They are right in their diagnosis of the weakness of western individualism, and I am with them in my preference for noisy prayer meetings, and so on. But this does not mean we should throw out the biblical baby of the spiritual disciplines of rest and solitary time with God with the water of solo Christianity. A true appreciation of community means that even when we are alone we are aware of the presence of the body of Christ. They are also a bit arbitrarily dismissive of the place of spiritual gifts, and that too is silly.
Those criticisms apart, there is much here that is worth thought and should be challenging to the average Christian. The call to be true to the gospel word and the gospel community is a compelling one. If we are true to these two expressions of the gospel there will be profound implications for how we work out our faith. We will do evangelism by building relationships and calling people into the story of what Jesus is doing in and through his people. We will do pastoral care not by professional counselling but by the body applying the word to one another and believing in the sufficiency of that word as worked out in community. We will do children’s and youth ministry not as entertainment but as a family together learning how to apply the gospel to our lives.
Fidelity to the gospel word and to the gospel community will make us missionaries. “Missional” is an increasingly trendy word, which generates a lot of discussion. The heat sometimes produced by this discussion can hide the simple truth that followers of Jesus are called to be missionaries to the people around them. We are to do this confident in the truth of the word of God, and we are to do it alongside others who share this confidence. Our faith is not meant to be introspective or private. It is not meant to be compartmentalized into a ‘God box’. Instead it should be total.
As Chester and Timmis put it:
The prevailing view of life today is that of an individual standing on his or her own, heroically juggling various responsibilities – family, friendships, leisure, chores, decisions, and money. We could also add social responsibilities like political activities, campaigning organizations, community groups, and school associations.
From time to time the pressures overwhelm us, and we drop one or more of the balls. All too often church becomes one of the balls. We juggle our responsibilities for church (measured predominantly by attendance at meetings) just as we juggle our responsibilities for work or leisure.
An alternative model is to view our various activities and responsibilities as spokes of a wheel. At the center or hub of life is not me as an individual but us as members of the Christian community. Church is not another ball for me to juggle but that which defines who I am and gives Christlike shape to my life.
Amen! Read this book – it will do you good.