Some Thoughts on Total Church by Chester and Timmis
Having had it recommended to me by several people recently, I just read Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis. I found it to be a compelling and stimulating read, so I’ve decided to write out some thoughts about it. I will likely be writing more on a few specific topics raised in the book, but here are some overview thoughts for now. The table of contents is below:
As you can see, the book covers a number of topics, but its central premise is that the church–from its life and organization to its mission–should be shaped around two pillars: gospel and community. This theme is woven through every page of the book. After laying out this basic premise in the first two chapters, the remaining flesh out how that can look in the life the church. I’ll probably be posting numerous times in the coming days about specific ideas from the book, but for now, I want to offer just a few commendations and concerns.
Chester and Timmis stick to their guns: gospel and community are the two driving forces behind their approach to the church and to church planting. This is evident throughout the book. Whether it’s discipleship, evangelism, apologetics, pastoral care, or any of the other topics they discuss, gospel and community take center stage. And that’s quite refreshing in the program-heavy church church environment in which we now live.
The book is of immense practical benefit in thinking about how the church is always to keep its focus on reaching its community, and how Christians can and should rethink their role in such an effort. To give an idea of where they go with their practical ideas, consider this list of what it might mean to be gospel-centered and community-centered:
- seeing church as an identity instead of a responsibility to be juggled alongside other commitments
- celebrating ordinary life as the context in which the word of God is proclaimed with ‘God-talk’ as a normal feature of everyday conversation
- running fewer evangelistic events, youth clubs, and social projects, and spending more time sharing our lives with unbelievers
- starting new congregations instead of growing existing ones
- preparing Bible talks with other people instead of just studying alone at a desk
- adopting a 24-7 approach to mission and pastoral care instead of starting ministry programs
- switching the emphasis from Bible teaching to Bible learning and action
- spending more time with people on the margins of society
- learning to disciple one another–and to be discipled–day by day
- having churches that are messy instead of churches that pretend
Now, I might want to quibble with some of the details, but in terms of the big picture, those are some practical goals that are fleshed out with some degree of clarity in the book. It’s also easy to tell that programs are not a big feature of their vision for the church. Instead, living life in community, and including unbelievers in that community, are the central features of the church’s outreach in the community. I would imagine that every pastor would say, “Yes! If only…” In some ways, we probably have programs because church members have either become isolated from nonbelievers, or not encouraged to bring unbelievers into the community, or are just too uncomfortable doing so. I highly encourage reading some of the ideas (and snippets of stories from real life) on how to do and encourage this.
Following up on this, I thought that the application of their two-pronged approach to apologetics had some very insightful comments. Consider this one:
This does not mean that there is no place for rational apologetics. But it means that such approaches must be less ambitious. Their role is not to persuade unbelievers. The role of rational apologetics is to demonstrate that unbelief is a problem of the heart rather than a problem of the head. (p. 172)
They also take aim at the approach that many middle to upper class churches take toward church planting and leadership development.
One of the reasons we have middle-class churches that are failing to reach working-class people is that we have middle-class leaders. And we have middle-class leaders because our expectations of what constitutes leadership and our training methods are middle-class. Indeed working-class people only get into leadership by effectively becoming middle-class. (p. 120)
That’s a bit of a searing indictment, but my denomination must profess that it is at least partially true. Now, I’m grateful for the ordination standards of my denomination, and there have been steps taken in the past few years to make our ordination standards more accessible to those who can’t uproot for 3-4 years to go into full-time seminary. But nonetheless, this is a conversation that the PCA needs to keep having, even as we hold on to our belief that the shepherds of Christ’s church should know Christ’s word.
There’s plenty of other ideas that are helpful in the book, but as I intend to blog about them in coming days, I’ll wait on them and go on to a few concerns.
First, the discussion of sermons and preaching seems underdeveloped in the book. This comes through on several levels. The authors seem to encourage moving away from a sermon-centered approach to teaching and worship to a community-led, discussion-based learning model. They even claim that the sermon as such didn’t exist till after Constantine. But little defense is offered for such an approach, other than that there is less likelihood that a whole community will be led astray from Scripture’s teaching when they process it together.
Notwithstanding questions about such a claim, there seems to enough Scriptural testimony on the topic that it deserves more attention than that. While I don’t believe one book can address every issue, if you’re going to take a bite out of such a staple of how church has been done for quite some time, I would think that you’d want some more support for it than that.
Secondly, following up on that, the issue of authority seems quite neglected. In a book entitled Total Church, there is little to no discussion of elders and how leadership as such factors into the planting and discipling of churches. That seems like a glaring issue, as the establishing of local leadership seemed rather important in Acts and the Pauline epistles. Further, they claim that the Protestant response to the Roman hierarchy was that each person was his own individual pope (p. 159).
That seems to be quite a misunderstanding of what the Reformers actually taught, and so it seems to create a false dichotomy between a leadership-led interpretation of Scripture and a community-led interpretation of Scripture.Ironically, the Anabaptists are lifted up as the example of those who followed a community model of interpretation, despite the fact that they were the ones that the Reformers accused of taking individualistic interpretations too far. At the very least, the discussion of this issue in the book needed to be clearer and fuller.