Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community

  • Tim Chester and Steve Timmis Authors
  • 2008 2 Oct
Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis (Crossway).


Alan is the leader of a small Baptist church. He moved to lead his suburban congregation five years ago after several years working in industry and three years studying in a theological college. He has seen a number of people join the church, but not as many as he had hoped. They have a thriving mothers-and-toddlers’ group, a solid youth work program, and an accomplished music group. And yet Alan can’t help feeling that the church is only scratching the surface. Truth be told, it feels as if ministry has become a production line: churning out sermons, putting on events, trying to generate another wave of enthusiasm for evangelism. If only there were a different way of doing church.

Bob was converted as a teenager in a lively Anglican church, then became a youth group leader. Now he no longer goes to church. It had just become a burden, a set of responsibilities. He was always being asked to do things. If he didn’t show up at meetings, questions were asked and eyebrows raised. Conflict among church members was the last straw. “I don’t need this,” he told his wife the day he stopped going. He still reads his Bible, still prays, still tells unbelievers about Jesus if it comes up in conversation. “I’m just taking a break from church,” he says. He can sense the disapproval when he runs into other Christians. He feels it himself. He knows

Christians should be part of a church. But he can’t face going back. If only there were a different way of doing church.

Cathy became a Christian in her first year at university. It was great. She spent hours hanging out with her Christian friends, talking through their faith, praying together, sharing the gospel with other students. But two years after graduation she feels spiritually

flat. She goes to church each Sunday and attends a home group on Wednesday evenings. But she misses the intimacy of the relationships she had at university. She misses the discussions, the enthusiasm, and the late-night prayers. She laughs to herself at how immature they were sometimes. But she can’t help wondering whether “grown-up” Christianity is any better. If only there were a different way of doing church.

Denzel was one of the founders of Elevate. Elevate grew out of a common desire to explore new ways of doing church. They were inspired by the alternative worship scene and some people within the emerging church movement. It started as a monthly gathering with images, incense, and meditations. From that came a weekly meeting in a pub. It was all very exciting at first. It still is. Denzel enjoys the energy that comes from doing something different. But he has some concerns. He suspects the Bible is not as central as it should be. Plus, although a number of other disaffected Christians have joined them, they don’t seem to be impacting unbelievers. And then last week several members questioned whether adherents of other religions really need evangelizing. They talked about a safe place to ask questions, but Denzel felt uneasy. He thinks they’re really on to something, and he certainly doesn’t want to go back to a hymn sandwich and a sermon. But increasingly he worries about what is being sacrificed. If only there were a different way of doing church.

These people are fictional, but their stories are all based on real conversations and real experiences.

The Authors’ Stories

Maybe you can relate to Steve’s story. Steve was the minister of a church in a working-class community in northern England. It was his first “charge,” and it was something of a baptism by fire! The church was welcoming and caring, small and intimate. Looking back, despite all the early difficulties, it is hard to imagine a better place for a young man to be nurtured in ministry. The people loved the Lord and showed it in their love for his word and his people. Over time, the church grew as lives were changed by grace.

But for all that was good, Steve had a nagging sense of unease. The building was nearly full, but there were thousands outside. It was difficult to put his finger on it, but somehow so much of their life together as a church was inaccessible and irrelevant to those around. They loved each other, and the Bible was being taught, but he was growing increasingly aware of the almost impenetrable wall between the church and the world. It impacted traffic in both directions.

As Steve reflected, he saw two issues. First, for all the attempts at preaching God’s word in a faithful and contemporary way, there was little opportunity for non-Christians to hear it. Second, although Steve was convinced that theirs was a believing community loving one other, there was little opportunity for non-Christians to be exposed to it. If only there were a different way of doing church.

Tim’s story is different. He was brought up as a “pastor’s kid.” In his late teens his father was asking big questions about what it meant to be the church. Tim remembers long conversations as people shared their dreams about what church could be. At university he got the chance to make something of those dreams. He lived in a house with other Christians—eating together, worshipping together, offering hospitality, sharing lives. He has vivid memories of sitting around a large, battered, old table with the remnants of a meal and celebrating Communion together.

But life was very different after graduation when Tim and his wife, Helen, moved to north London. Tim still remembers the first time they were invited out for a meal. They assumed it would be that evening or maybe the next day. But a date three weeks away was suggested. It turned out to be their first experience of a “dinner party.” It certainly wasn’t sharing lives. If only there were a different way of doing church.

Key Principles

This book argues that two key principles should shape the way we “do church”: gospel and community. Christians are called to a dual fidelity: fidelity to the core content of the gospel and fidelity to the primary context of a believing community. Whether we are thinking about evangelism, social involvement, pastoral care, apologetics, discipleship, or teaching, the content is consistently the Christian gospel, and the context is consistently the Christian community. What we do is always defined by the gospel, and the context is always our belonging in the church. Our identity as Christians is defined by the gospel and the community.

Being gospel-centered actually involves two things. First, it means being word-centered because the gospel is a word—the gospel is news, a message. Second, it means being mission-centered because the gospel is a word to be proclaimed—the gospel is good news, a missionary message.

So maybe we really have three principles. Christian practice must be (1) gospel-centered in the sense of being word-centered, (2) gospel-centered in the sense of being mission-centered, and (3) community-centered.

1. gospel-centered
      1a. word-centered
      1b. mission-centered
2. community-centered

You may think this sounds like a statement of the obvious. We hope you do. But let us make two points by way of introduction.

1. In practice, conservative evangelicals place a proper emphasis on the gospel or on the word. Meanwhile others, like those who belong to the so-called emerging church, emphasize the importance of community. The emerging church is a loose movement of people who are exploring new forms of church. Each group suspects the other is weak where it is strong. Conservatives worry that the emerging church is soft on truth, too influenced by postmodernism. The emerging church accuses traditional churches of being too institutional, too program-oriented, often loveless and sometimes harsh.

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.”

Is this “gospel plus” (requiring something—in this case, Christian community—in addition to the gospel, which thereby robs the gospel of its saving power)? The answer is, it depends how you tell the gospel story. It depends whether you see the gospel simply as the story of God saving individuals or as the story of God creating a new humanity.

Part 1, “Gospel and Community in Principle,” outlines the biblical case for making gospel and community central principles for Christian life and mission. Part 2, “Gospel and Community in Practice,” applies this double focus to various areas of church life.

Activists may be tempted to skip Part 1 and go straight to Part 2, but the applications in Part 2 are integrally linked to the convictions outlined in Part 1. We are trying to do more than assemble a collection of “good ideas” for church life. We have tried to explore the contemporary implications of the preoccupation with the gospel word and gospel community in the Bible story.

Who We Are

It might be helpful to include a brief word about the ministry in which we, Steve and Tim, are involved. The Crowded House is a network of missionary congregations, most of which meet in homes. We are trying to “do church” in a way that is welcoming for unchurched people. We place a big emphasis on sharing our lives with one another and welcoming unbelievers into the network of relationships that make up the church. It also means we grow by planting new congregations rather than acquiring bigger premises.

This book, however, is not an argument for household church. Not all our congregations meet in homes. It is our conviction that the principles we outline can and should be applied to all congregations. Nor is this book an account of The Crowded House. We do not think the way we do mission and church is the “right way” or the “only way.” It is not an off-the-shelf model that people can fit to their context without alterations. Most of what we say in the book is what we aspire to, but sadly not yet what we do! It is a book of principles, vision, and hopes, not a description of practice.

Where we have included stories, we are seeking to encourage readers to respond imaginatively. We often find that people conceive principles simply in terms of their current practice. At the other extreme, some people see such a vast gulf between principles and current practice that they think the pursuit of principles is futile. This failure of imagination can prevent us from applying the Bible as we should. We hear it speak to us but either find it too far removed from current experience to feel it possible or squeeze it into our current experience. We need Spirit-inspired imagination to reconfigure church and mission around the gospel word and the gospel community.


Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community 

Copyright © Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.