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Total Church

Tim Chester and Steve Timis, Total Church: A radical reshaping around gospel and community, IVP: 2007.

The thesis of Total Church is summed up well in the subtitle. It’s a thesis that has grown out of a) the authors’ reading of the Scriptures, b) their reacting against forms of contemporary evangelicalism that either forget the gospel (fluffy emergent church) or forgets community (stuffy conservative church) and c) their practice of actual church planting and church living in The Crowded House in northern England.

It’s readable, fresh and punchy. As Ian Coffey says in the foreword, you may well not agree with all their arguments and conclusions but it makes you think about the things that matter most.

A number of things really struck home, helped and challenged me:

1. The emphasis on deep, genuine, love relationships within the church – interconnectedness.

The core point of the book is that the gospel creates community – Christ saves a people for himself (Ttus 2:14) not just individuals – and that this church/people/community is one marked not only by devotion to the Word but also by radical love for one another.

“this cross-love is the primary, dynamic test of whether or not we have understood the gospel word and experienced its power. Not our doctrinal orthodoxy, as important as that is. Not our ingenious strategizing, as fascinating as that is. Not our commitment to preaching, as vital as that is. Not our innovative approach to planting, as radical as that may be.” (p. 54)

The text of Total Church contains a number of boxes with testimonies and real life stories and interestingly, the first of these testimonies is from a Kenyan who spent some time in the UK. She talks about the differences between her Kenyan church background (a big church of thousands of people and multiple services) and her experience at The Crowded House in Sheffield:

“At first I’d squirm. When we were so close together my sins seemed so much more apparent to others. Back home if you fell out with someone you could always sit on the other side of the auditorium and never had to see them again.” (p. 33)

2. The question of whether our churches are segregated by class or truly reflect the gospel.

In their fourth chapter the authors highlight the priority of Jesus to reach the outcasts and ‘sinners’; the pattern that God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). We are to invite to the banquet the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (Luke 14:12-13).

“We are not to prioritize our rich neighbours… Indeed part of our evangelism to the rich is our evangelism to the needy. We subvert their preoccupation with power and success as they see us loving the unlovely. We expose their self-righteousness and selfishness as they see us eating with outcasts.” (p. 71)

What they’re saying here is that if we create churches that are pitched at the upper middle class, where upper middle class people feel completely at home and comfortable, where the setting and interactions and constituency mirrors perfectly their workplace or social circles, where there is never the challenge and potential awkwardness of relating to someone of different class, where there is never a need to get beyond class barriers and see ourselves and others through the eyes of Christ, as brothers and sisters because of the Cross of Christ – then we are not really doing anyone any favours because there we have attendance without community, attendance unchallenged by costly sacrifice, attendance without an assault on pride, attendance without the sort of relating to one another which demands the gospel.

3. Spirituality rooted in the Word and community.

Chapter 9 is a very provocative appeal to a context like ours where individualised ‘spiritual disciplines’ of silence and solitude and fasting are elevated and seen as the key to unlocking blessings and getting to a higher level of spiritual life. Total Church argues (I think persuasively) that true spirituality is not about listening for the still small voice in the silence but listening to God written Word and it is not fundamentally a solo pursuit but a corporate one – reading the Word together, praying together, encouraging one another daily (Heb. 3:13). Read the chapter and see what you think.

4. Apologetics flowing from a theology of the cross not a theology of glory.

Following the lead of Paul, Luther and Pascal, in chapter 11 Chester and Timmis outline an approach to apologetics which doesn’t lean on natural theology or an assumed ability of unregenerate man to reason his way to God but which instead takes seriously a) the fallenness and rebellious heart of man; b) God’s hiding of himself from the wise and revealing himself to those he chooses (an epistemology of grace); c) the genuine challenge of postmodernism in exposing the coercive power often behind truth claims; and d) the need to proclaim the True Truth, the gospel reality, truth which “is not a function of coercive power, but of sacrificial love” (p. 169).

5. Children’s and youth ministry that is Word-driven and community-integrated.

“It is easy to suppose that attractive activities are the key to successful youth work [and] that the corresponding measure of success is weekly attendance. But God does his work through the Word. The key to successful youth work is the Bible.” (p. 180)

And in relation to integration with the rest of the church family:

“Of course, it is only natural for young people to default to spending time with other young people, but the church is not a ‘natural’ agency.” (p. 182)

6. What is success?

“It is actually not that difficult to create a large congregation. Paul tells us how.”

We’re all on the edge of our seats now!

“You give people what will ‘suit their own desires’ and say ‘what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Timothy 4:3). Entertain the congregation each Sunday with a good performance. Do not focus on the depth of their sin, nor the cost of cross-centred discipleship. Whatever you do, do not challenge the idolatrous desires of their hearts. Instead offer them sermons on how to realise those desires and find success in life.”

But Paul gives Timothy another model of success – preach the gospel Word in view of the return of Christ as judge of the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

“This may well make us less successful, but only if we measure success in terms of numbers. If you view success in a biblical way – as faithfulness to Christ and his word – then being gospel-centred becomes the very definition of success.” (p.189)

There are loads of other things that could be mentioned from this book – the emphasis on church-based training and raising of new leaders (which meshes very well with the iServe Africa emphasis on ministry apprenticeships), the convictions about the church and the Word being sufficient to deal with pastoral issues in contrast to the professionalization of counselling and medicalization of problems (which connects with Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony), and many more.

So basically I love Total Church. Highly recommended. I’ve just got a few minor quibbles and caveats:

  • As mentioned above, the authors are (quite self-consciously) reacting against certain tendencies in the UK evangelical scene around the turn of the millennium. E.g. “Obviously most large evangelical churches remain faithful to the gospel.” (p. 189) Perhaps that’s true in the UK but not necessarily in Kenya. This UK context means that there is perhaps slightly more emphasis on ‘community’ than on ‘gospel’ in Total Church. For our culture context of East Africa I would want to reverse that emphasis and spend a huge amount of time on getting really clear on the gospel of Christ taking the wrath of God in the place of sinners to bring them to rejoice in him and in the Father.
  • There are a couple of pages (p. 112-113) where the authors argue against a church focus on pulpit ministry and argue instead for a more varied view of Word-ministry. Much is helpful here – we do want to value and encourage one-to-one and group Bible study – but I think that can still happen with a focus on the special place of public Bible preaching. I’m not convinced by the biblical and sociological arguments the authors give against pulpit primacy. Christopher Ash has answered them well in The Priority of Preaching.
  • I love the emphasis on community in Total Church. I think that is a really important biblical emphasis and really needed in our churches. But I hesitate at the idea that the church’s community life of loving one another is “the hermeneutic of the gospel” (p. 56, quoting Leslie Newbigin). I’m increasingly unconvinced that John 13:34 and 17:21 (and 1 John 4:12) are straightforwardly evangelistic – the love and unity of the church could just as well convict the world and lead it to hate the sons of light as much as convince it and lead it to want to join them (John 3:20; 9:41; 12:37-48; 15:19-16:11 cf. Philippians 1:27-28). Historically speaking, the love of Christians in the early church for one another led to accusations of incest as much as admiration. I’m not denying that our love for one another can adorn or discredit the gospel message but my fear is that evangelism could drift into a dependence on sociological mechanisms of community inclusion (see the very scary video by Bart Campolo on the power of community building) and away from a dependence on Word and Spirit. I completely support the emphasis on the loving, inter-dependent church community but my question would be how does someone get into that? Is it a) through seeing a loving community, is it b) through the loving invitation of a loving community, is it c) though community plus gospel proclamation, or is it d) first and foremost through gospel proclamation plus the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s d) that seems most to fit the book of Acts but c) that fits the Total Church chapter on evangelism (though this seems to be in tension with what they say in the chapter on apologetics about God’s sovereignty in hiding or revealing the truth to helpless sinners and the need to preach the gospel).
  • A final concern, which is really outside of the text of the book itself, is that the very strengths of the Total Church / Crowded House movement – gospel wedded to community, small churches, authentic relationships – could become a new and subtle source of pride. The authors would hate such a response – the gospel should humble us to the dust – but the human heart is terribly good at finding new ways to look down on others and it would be very possible for someone who has experienced the warmth of a Crowded House-type church to begin to despise other churches, larger churches, more liturgical churches, more wealthy churches.

Total Church – great book. May it take us back to the Bible, back to the gospel, back to community, back to Christ and the Cross, back to the God who saved us (plural).

 

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Glory to God in the highest… (Luke 2:14)

to Him be the glory in the church… (Ephesians 3:21)

At our closing carol service at the end of the ministry training week Pastor Manases of Christ Supremacy Church fed us wonderfully from these verses, particularly pointing us to the glory of Christ and the way that he brings true peace on earth through his reconciling death, but also making a side point that it is very easy for a church or Christian organisation to drift away from a pursuit of the glory of God towards a pursuit of the glory of man.

David Jackman, in an Evangelicals Now article, highlights the case of ‘Solomon’s Temple’ in Sao Paulo, Brazil – a recently completed 11-storey, 10,000 seater, $300 million centre for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Solomons Temple Sau Paulo

This is religion as idolatry, for the glory of man in the name of the glory of God. We may stand aloof, assuring ourselves that we would never fall for such blatant idolatry, but we might be wise to identify its characteristics and examine whether their roots are to be found in our own corporate church cultures…

Religious idolatry is an ever present threat and… powerful whenever Christ and his work is sidelined in favour of he church and its image in the contemporary culture. It will be motivated by competitiveness (my church is more successful than yours), by a commitment to impressing the world on its own terms, rather than living in it on Christ’s terms. It will seek the acceptance and approval of the world, rather than being crucified with Christ (Gal. 6:14).

We need to look within. The seeds are ready to germinate in all our hearts. “Dear children, keep yourself from idols.” (1 John 5:21)

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Click to View

After Church I came home and turned on the TV to listen to a sermon by one famous Kenyan preacher.

It begun with the famous “This is my Bible… I am what it says I am…”

The Topic is ‘Power of God’s Word

The text is Luke 1:26 – 39, with a particular emphasis on v37 during the reading ‘For nothing will be impossible with God.

Intro:

“The word of God is powerful.”

“God confronts every disorder in your life with an order from his mouth.”

“The word of God talks about prosperity. Though you who is watching may not like that word but it’s what the word of God says.” He then goes ahead to quote a number of passages that ‘supports’ what he’s saying:

  1. Psalm 35:27b- “The Lord be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.”
  2. Psalm 37:25- “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.”
  3. 2 Cor. 9:8 (though he said 1 Cor.)- “And God is able to make all grace abound in you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.”
  4. 4:19- “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
  5. 3 John 2- “Beloved, I pray above all things that you may prosper and be in good health, even as your soul prospers.

[Context, Context, Context… was totally ignored here.]

“You see poverty is not a sign of humility. There are many poor people who are very proud.” [I totally agree with this]

The plan of God is for you to live a good life. Christ took the curse when he died on the cross, for it’s written ‘cursed is he who earns on a tree.’ Christ took that curse so that you may be blessed. There’s no one who is cursed here. All of you are blessed.”

“He says you shall be the head not the tail.”

“God’s word is powerful, whatever he says happens. I am wearing a black jacket but when God looks at it and says yellow, that’s it… it’s yellow… it changes. It’s yellow in God’s eyes… are you with me?” [Ok, I wasn’t with him at this point, I was still struggling with this black-yellow-jacket-thingy]

It’s the word of God that matters. It’s not what I say, don’t listen to my every word… have the word of God.” [I got lost a bit here… should I listen to you or not??]

40 Minutes Later:

“Let me now go to the text quickly”

“God sent his angel to Mary. I can’t preach unless am sent. How can they hear unless someone is sent? Just as the angel was sent to Mary, I am sent to you. I can’t preach unless I am sent.” [Mmmmh!]

“The word says that 1000 shall fall on your side, 10000 on your right hand but it shall not come near you. Power of the Word- even AIDS shall not come near you.”

“He is able to heal AIDS, even cancer. ‘He sent his word & healed your disease.’ This what you need to hear.” [Wololo!!!!]

“Just as he sent his angel to Mary, he’s sent me (as his angel) to you. He’s sent me to tell you that there’s no sickness/condition that has plagued you that God can’t reverse.”

“He’s sent me to tell you that there’s no sickness that he can’t heal. He sent his word & it healed their condition.”

“He’s sent me to tell you that he’s going to turn your situation around.”

“He’s sent me to tell you that the wealth of the wicked is going to be released into your hand.” [I am so nervous here… I don’t want that ‘wealth of the wicked’]

“The angel said to Mary ‘’you are favoured among women.’ It can be anyone but it is you. Just as the Lord sent the angel to Mary, he’s sent me to prophesy favour to you.”

“Favour isn’t deserved. Favour isn’t earned, you don’t qualify for it.” [what is it?]

“Favour will give you a cheque written in USD”

“Get ready to build a house in a place you never thought you would.”

“Get ready to drive a car of your dreams.”

“Favour will do it all.”

“You are favoured among women. What you are about to carry in this season shall be great… just like Mary.” [By this time am totally lost]

“Mary then asks ‘How shall it be since I do not know a man?’ I am not connected, I don’t know people! It’s not about who you know, it’s about what God is doing.”

“I decree that what men can’t do, God will do. I prophesy that where there’s disconnection, they shall be connection.

I come as an angel to decree promotions, abundance, overflow… can I get an Amen.” [The congregants were on their feet throughout the whole sermon & he had to tell them to sit down at least twice.]

Joseph is irrelevant in what God is about to do. [This is serious ‘mis-preaching’ if there’s such a word.] The bankers, the oncologists, are all irrelevant. This thing shall not be about who you know.”

 

“In your walk with God, you must come to a time where man disappoints. God will cause men to disappoint… that’s the time when God shall step in. Where men have disappointed you, that shall be God’s appointment.” [where does this come from?]

 

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you. I sense the Holy Ghost walking on your situation. *Rababoboshaka*”

“When the Holy Spirit starts to move, this is the result *calls Fidel- name withheld (one of the pastors) for everyone to see him & witness what the Holy Spirit can do*”

“Tell your neighbour ‘This is not your auntie, your uncle, or the politician, or the person you know. This time it shall be the hand of God.’”

Conclusion:

“I prophesy as I come to an end that you shall carry that miracle- that baby. And Mary said ‘Let it be according to your word.’ I decree according to the word of God that you shall get that tender, that contract that was cancelled shall be yours. I cancel death (you shall not die but live to see the goodness of God in the land of the living). I cancel that cancer, I cancel that cirrhosis… even if you are in the ICU, I declare that you shall live… shout yeah!”

Then in conclusion “If you are watching on TV and you are not saved, say this prayer…” [Oh dear, what exactly is this prayer about? In response to what?]

 

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

What a sermon!!!! Was it:

  • Clear
  • Cutting
  • Christ-Centred
  • Careful
  • Compassionate

You tell me!!!

 

 

 

 

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It’s a Saturday morning, there’s a somber mood sweeping across the whole village. There I was among the mourners.

Reality is dawning on the mourners that actually they won’t be seeing their loved one again. In a few hours’ time, she’ll be laid six feet under and that is it… gone forever never to be seen in this life again. That’s the moment you realise that however much you, as a mere mortal, love someone so much, you can never bring them back to life again. Death is indeed an enemy!

At this time of bereavement, the family and friends of the deceased need nothing short of comfort, consolation and support. And there’s a way in which if you belong to a church congregation, you can definitely, almost certainly know that the church will be there in full swing to provide this kind of support.

All was going on well, with tribute after tribute pouring in, until something happened; When time came for the ‘church’ to take over and conduct the service and eventually bury the dead, they were nowhere to be seen! They had boycotted the whole thing because apparently the family didn’t play by the rules like no playing of music, no speeches, burial be at 9 a.m. e.t.c. So the best thing they could do was leave. What a disappointment! Is this how the ‘church’ behaves?? Seemingly, the church is more important than the people! But what really constitutes the church if not Christ and people!!

My disappointment wasn’t because they failed to give a proper send-off, we buried my aunt, 2 of us conducted the service. My disappointment was because of 3 things:

  1. Failure to Bear Witness for Christ

Romans 12:15b teaches us to “mourn with those who mourn.” And our Saviour Himself, in John 11:33 “When He saw her [Mary] weeping, & the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in His Spirit and greatly troubled. ” He couldn’t hold it in “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

The ‘church’ here failed to witness for Christ. What does the Bible teach us about death & mourning? And how can we represent Christ to a watching world? Jesus is deeply moved & greatly troubled by Lazarus’s death and the weeping of those who were there… He identified with them… He didn’t shut Himself from the realities of the messy world around Him, which death is part of. This is exactly the reason why He came on earth, to restore this fallen world. Funerals provide a huge opportunity to speak of this Christ & His Mission and also to show people what the heart of Christ is. This we do not in theory but in practice.

  1. Failure to Present the True Hope found in Christ

Look at Jesus at Lazarus’s funeral. He would do more that just weep. He went ahead and raised Lazarus back to life. Of course Lazarus died again later but here Jesus was giving us a sneak preview into what He will do. He will later on go to the cross, die, be buried and after 3 days rise again, thus opening the way for us to enjoying eternal fellowship with God the Father, Son & Holy Spirit.

Funerals are a great evangelistic opportunity. This is the opportunity that the Church has. Use that setting of funeral and death to speak about One who died to defeat death and thus give us hope beyond the grave.

  1. False Teaching

Yes, this is the genesis of the whole saga. The ‘church’ in question here is actually well known. I know in Kenya we don’t like calling by name but we know them- the Jehovah’s Witness. The thing here is not just about refusal to mourn with the family or bury the dead- it goes much deeper. What of causing some of the children to also skip the burial of their own mum!! And how about going and locking themselves in one of the sons’ house to ‘pray’ when people are waiting for you to speak to them!! How about being totally secluded from ‘the world’ and not wanting anything to ‘defile’ you! It has to do with what they actually teach (which is a thing for another day). Is this really biblical Christianity?

It’s either they are representing Christ wrongly and they need to be corrected or the Christ they are teaching is not really the real Christ, or both- if their actions are anything to go by!

Remember Christ’s warning,

“Be careful… Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees & the Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6).

A little yeast affects the whole lump of dough and given some time, you’ll see the dough ‘rise up’ never to flatten again. That is what false teaching does.

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Really helped by this recently:

Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote in 1879: ‘Cease to regard the gospel as a mere set of abstract propositions… Look at it as the introduction to a glorious personal Friend. This is the kind of gospel that the apostles preached… The leading subject of all their sermons was the loving heart of an actual living Christ!’
And J.I. Packer wrote in Themelios magazine in 1996: ‘The great Puritans were as humble-minded and warm-hearted as they were clear-headed, as fully-orientated to people as they were to Scripture, and as passionate for peace as they were for truth. They would certainly have diagnosed today’s fixated Christian intellectualists as spiritually-stunted, not in their zeal for the form of sound words but in their lack of zeal for anything else’.
As for me, I’m with the Puritan Thomas Goodwin who wrote: ‘I never yet took up party religion in the lump… I have found gospel holiness where you would little think it to be, and so likewise truth. And I have learned this principle, which I hope I shall never lay down till I am swallowed up of immortality, and that is, to acknowledge every truth and every goodness wherever I find it’.
(David Baker, EN, March 2014)

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return christ

What really struck me from the last few days of the ministry training course last week was the emphasis that came out on the future, eternity, our great Hope.

I’d never noticed what Fidel brought home so powerfully from 2 Tim. 4:1-2 that the number one reason to preach the word is the return of Christ. We are preaching in the last days a gospel of eternal life in view of the coming Day (cf. 2 Tim. 1:1, 10, 18; 2:10; 3:1; 4:8).

We found that the reason to put to death our ungodly desires (Col. 3:5) is because Christ, who is our life, is about to appear and we will be glorified with him (Col. 3:4).

Sammy reminded us from Job that the end comes at the end, and in the same session one of the apprentices very movingly shared how she had been through times when she desired to depart and be with Christ more than cling to this life. This in turn resonated very strongly with the account we read from John Paton’s autobiography:

At last the child literally longed to be away, not for rest, or freedom from pain — for of that he had very little — but, as he himself always put it, “to see Jesus.”

How badly do we need this powerful injection of eternity into our Christian lives and churches?

———————————————

Notes and resources:

Intro to Expository Preaching – Context

Christ-centred youth ministry

Being pro-active in mentoring

Preaching Christ from the Gospels (esp Matt)

How to manage email with filters and folders

2nd year programme:

The church as mission agency

Lessons from the life of John Paton

Doctrine of Salvation (2) – Predestination, Justification and the glory of God

Preaching from OT narratives

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A few questions:

  1. Is the Christian Union of a university (FOCUS, UGBR or whatever) a church?
  2. Do CUs understand themselves as effectively churches?
  3. What is and what should be the relationship between the CU and local churches?
  4. How easy is the transition for Christian students from university fellowships to post-university church life? What would help that transition?
  5. What about High School CUs? Does a disengagement from the local church start much earlier than university?

Talking to a number of brothers in Kenya I know the answers to these questions will vary considerably depending on whether we are talking about Nairobi contexts or more rural campuses.

Let me say here I’m a big fan of FOCUS-Kenya. They do fantastic work in evangelism and discipleship, training in Bible handling, expository preaching, and in mission mobilisation. In many ways they are one of the most exciting aspects of the Kenyan Christian scene. iServe Africa is very grateful for a strong partnership with FOCUS. All the same I am interested to hear answers the questions above and interested to know whether there is a useful discussion still to be had on these issues.

As a point of comparison, it’s interesting to look at the UK situation though where the understanding of what is a CU is (I suspect) quite different to East Africa. Matt Waldock wrote the following from the perspective of a former IFES worker now on the pastoral team of a city church in the north west of England:

[The IFES-UK] commitment to the local church is the very foundation of [its] existence. Having no students of [its] own, the whole missionary outfit is manned and led by students belonging to local churches. Without the local church, there are no Christian Unions. Local churches are wonderful at working with one another at a student level — they faithfully send their students to work together under the one banner of Christ.

Christian Unions are the missionary arm of the local church on campus, and so the best way for churches to support CUs is to invest in their students — to strengthen the arm that holds out the word of life on our campuses… love your students generously: open up your home; lift them up regularly in prayer; get alongside your younger brothers and sisters and disciple them. I am constantly urging the students who I work with to ask more mature men and women of their church family to meet up with them for Bible study and prayer. I pray for a time when the students don’t have to take the initiative, but are invested in as a matter of course, one-to-one. Christian Unions can only be as strong and mature as their represented churches make them.

(‘How to support the CU’, EN, Nov. 2012)

Now I’m sure there is lot that is determined by social, cultural, historical and geographical context. In England, for example, boarding at high school is comparatively rare; university courses are usually 3 rather than 4 years; CUs at universities number in the 10s or 100s rather than in the 1000s; many (though by no means all) university cities have a high density of good Bible-teaching gospel-hearted churches who have been developing student ministries for many years. But are there some things here that are cross-cultural? What are the functions and mission of the church? When is it ok for a fellowship to be of a single age group? Do we need to have a bit more of a think about what is a CU and what is a church?

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