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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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