Book Review: Total Church

UncategorizedJared Kennedy3 Comments

Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community (Re:Lit)Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.  Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community. Wheaton, IL: Re:Lit/Crossway, 2008.  224pp.  $15.99. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis believe that the gospel is a word that works.  And this word works  in church community.  They state clearly in the introduction to Total Church that these two principles, gospel and community, must shape the way we "do church" (15).

Total Church's dual message of gospel and community addresses two major audiences.  On the one hand, there is conservative evangelicalism, which places "a proper emphasis on the gospel or on the word" (16).  On the other hand are proponents of the so-called emerging church, who "emphasize the importance of community" (16). Both groups suspect 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 (16).

Chester and Timmis are clear that there is a need for change on both sides.  They agree with the emerging church 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" (17)  They also agree with conservatives that emerging churches "can sometimes be bad at community because they neglect the truth" (17)

The result of this dual critique is a volume dedicated to understanding how both the truth of the gospel and the life of church community intersect in all of ministry--and all of life.  Total Church has two major sections: (1) Gospel and Community in Principle, Chapters 1-2, and (2) Gospel and Community in Practice, Chapters 3-13.

Part 1, Gospel and Community in Principle.

The Gospel. For Chester and Timmis, being gospel-centered means being both word-centered, "because the gospel is a word--the gospel is news, a message," and mission-centered, "because the gospel is a word to be proclaimed--the gospel is good news, a missionary message" (16):

Christianity is word-centered because God rules through his gospel word...  Christianity is mission-centered because God extends his rule through his gospel word...  The gospel is a word; so the church must be word-centered.  The gospel is a missionary word; so the church must be mission-centered (24, 28).

In this way, Chester and Timmis argue that the gospel defines who the church is and what it must do.  The gospel word defines the extent ("when [church leaders] apply the word they are exercising the authority of God himself") and limits ("they have authority only as the teach God's word") of the church's authority (28).  And the gospel makes the church into a missionary people (the "missional cardiogram" questions on page 33 are fantastic!).

Community. The gospel gives the church its' community identity.  God has saved a people for himself--a community of people, not just individuals.  Church is not simply another responsibility for individuals to juggle--along with family, friendships, career, leisure, chores, decisions and money (44).  Instead, the church, that is the community of Christian persons, should be at the center or hub of life.  "[It] defines who I am and gives Christlike shape to my life” (43).

Chester and Timmis recognize the radical nature of this proposition.  They speak the gospel's message of community reconciliation, unity, and identiy as God's people into Western culture, with its "pervasively individualistic worldview" (41).  They suggest, "This is perhaps the most significant "culture gap" that the church has to bridge.  But the church community itself provides the church with its strongest apologetic--being with the church's people should be the most attractive thing about church(49).  After all, as Chester and Timmis state later in the book, "Jesus gives the world the right to judge the sincerity of our profession on the basis of our love for each other” (65).

Part 2, Gospel and Community in Practice.

Chester and Timmis then use the rest of their book to answer the “so what?” question.  What does it look like for a church to be centered around the gospel and community?  Each of the remaining chapters answers the key question:  How should our understanding and practice be reshaped around gospel and community?  Here is a quick run-through of selected chapters.  I've highlighted  some of the most powerful quotes, and I've offered very brief critique.

  • Chapter 3, Evangelism--Gospel and community are central in evangelism.  "The word creates and nourishes the community, while the community proclaims and embodies the word" (55).  "Jesus gives the world the right to judge the sincerity of our profession on the basis of our love for each other” (65).
  • Chapter 4, Social Involvement--The gospel calls us into community with the poor.  "In the culture of first century Palestine, eating was an indication of association and friendship.  Indeed, eating continues to function in this way in most cultures of the world.  Inviting someone to your home for a meal and accepting such an invitation are both signs of communal bonds" (70).  "Jesus' eating with sinners is a wonderful declaration of the riches of God's grace.  But notice how this grace plays out in practice.  It results in Jesus spending time with the despised and marginalized.  It means Jesus has time for the needy.  They are his priority" (73).  In our ministry to the poor, gospel word and gospel mission (deeds) are inseparable.  "Luke's gospel, which has the most to say about the poor and the inclusion of the marginalized within the Christian community, is also the Gospel that has the most to say about the centrality and sufficiency of God's word" (77).  "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" (73).
  • Chapter 5, Chruch Planting--  "Church planting puts mission at the heart of the church and the church at the heart of mission" (85).  This vision shapes our theology and our church structures.  "Mission can no longer be looked at as one branch of theology.  All theology must be missionary in its orientation.  We need the same reorientation as churches.  We are in a a missionary situation and all that we do must be missionary" (86).  "As they grew, the apostolic churches became networks of small communities rather than one large group, to safeguard apostolic principles of church life" (93).  I would offer some mild critique here.  Chester and Timmis really emphasize smaller gatherings and put a lot of weight on the New Testament term "household" (91-94).  While house churches were certainly normative, both Jesus and the apostles also gave  attention to preaching in larger gatherings--not only the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 20:20) as the authors' note (92) but also the Jewish synagogues (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; Acts 13:5, 14; etc.).
  • Chapter 7, Discipleship and Training--The gospel remains central to all Chrisitan discipleship.  "We continue to "evangelize" one another as Christians because it continues to be the gospel message with which we exhort and encourage one another" (111-112).  "All too often people equate being word-centered with being sermon-centered.  People argue for sermons by arguing for teh centrality of God's word, assuming that word and the sermon are synonymous in Christian practice...  Our contention is that being word-centered is so much more than being sermon-centered" (114).  "We have found in our context that most learning and training takes place not through programmed teaching or training courses but in unplanned conversations--talking about life, talking about ministry, talking about problems" (118).  I totally agree, but gospel ministry in all of life should not detract from preaching itself.  After all, Paul's primary instruction to Timothy was to "preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:1-2).  In this context, preaching can't be limited to "discussion, dialogue, or debate" with unbelievers.  Rather, Paul clearly defines it as "correcting, rebuking, and encouraging"--activity that seems to be primarily directed toward the church community.  While Chester and Timmis' emphasis on discussion, dialogue, and debate with unbelievers is welcome, their exegetical argument (particularly the interpretation of Acts 20:7 on page 114) seems a bit strained--and much too limiting.
  • Chapter 8, Pastoral Care--Chester and Timmis advocate a biblical approach to care that upholds a strong belief in the sufficiency of Scripture to address all issues in life.  "The term spiritual is not simply another category alongside biological, physical, environmental, upbringing, or relationships.  Each of those forms of suffering, passive or active, is always and at some point a spiritual and theological issue" (135).
  • Chapter 10, Theology--"Restoring biblical theology to its true home in the believing, missionary community is at once a far more accessible and a far more demanding enterprise.  It demands of us that our Bible teachign should always look to explore the missionary implications of a passage--to make the truth plain and to make it real" (157).

Total Church is a though-provoking book that I highly recommend.  But what does all of this have to do with children's ministry.  The answer is "everything."  Chester and Timmis dedicate chapter 12 of their book to "Children and Young People."  In a future post, I'll take time to look through that chapter with more care.

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