Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community
- Thursday, October 02, 2008
Let us as authors nail our colors to the mast from the outset. We agree with the conservatives that the emerging church is too often soft on truth. But we do not think the answer is to be suspicious of community. Indeed, we think that conservatives often do not “do truth” well because they neglect community. Because people are not sharing their lives, truth is not applied and lived out.
We also agree with the emerging church movement that conservative evangelicals are often bad at community. The emerging church is a broad category and an “emerging” one at that, with no agreed-upon theology or methodology. This means that generalizations about the emerging church are far from straightforward. But many within the movement seem to downplay the central importance of objective, divinely revealed, absolute truth. This may not be a hard conviction, but it is a trajectory. Others argue that more visual media (images, symbols, alternative worship) should complement or replace an emphasis on the word. We do not think this is the answer. Indeed, we think emerging church can sometimes be bad at community because it neglects the truth. If Christian community is not governed by truth as it should be, it can be whimsical or indulgent. There is a danger of community becoming me and my acquaintances talking about God—church for the Friends generation—middle-class twenty-and thirty-somethings’ church. This certainly is not true of all that calls itself emerging church, but it is a danger. Only the truth of the gospel reaches across barriers of age, race, and class.
We often meet people reacting against an experience of conservative churches that has been institutional, inauthentic, and rigidly programmed. For them the emerging church appears to be the only other option. We meet people within more traditional churches who recognize the need for change but fear the relativism they see in the emerging church. For them existing models seem to be the only option. We also meet people within the emerging church movement who want to “do church” in a different way but do not want to buy into postmodern or post-evangelical notions of truth. We believe there is an alternative. We need to be enthusiastic about truth and mission and we need to be enthusiastic about relationships and community.
2. Rigorously applying these principles has the potential to lead to some fundamental and thoroughgoing changes in the way we do church. The theology that matters is not the theology we profess but the theology we practice. As John Stott says, “Our static, inflexible, self-centered structures are ‘heretical structures’ because they embody a heretical doctrine of the church.” If “our structure has become an end in itself, not a means of saving the world,” it is “a heretical structure.”1 Being both gospel-centered and community-centered might mean:
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 conservation
- 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
We have called this book Total Church. Church is not a meeting you attend or a place you enter. It is an identity that is ours in Christ. It is an identity that shapes the whole of life so that life and mission become “total church.”
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