Dr Tim Chester is a director of the Porterbrook Institute which provides affordable, Bible-college level training for church leadership and missional church in the context of your ministry (www.porterbrookinstitute.org). He is a leader of The Crowded House, a church planting network (www.thecrowdedhouse.org). He blogs at www.timchester.co.uk. He has previously been Research and Policy Director for Tearfund UK and a part-time lecturer in missiology. He is the author of a number of books and series editor of The Good Book Guides (The Good Book Company). He is married with two daughters.
“What I want to do essentially is give you a vision and foundation of a missional church. . . What I want to show you is that the vision for missional church doesn’t come from sociological reflection, nor from a desire to do a kind of ecclesiastical revision, trying to invent a new way of doing church. It starts with the Bible’s story. It starts with an understanding of how the Bible fits together as one story. And what drives that story is the very nature of God himself. So it goes, Missional God, missional story and missional church.”
“One of the key convictions shaping that logic is that who we are drives what we do. Our identity drives our actions and not the other way around. We don’t love one another in order that we might become a family. We don’t evangelize in order that we become missionaries. . . . we don’t begin by exhorting people to action, we begin by reminding them of their identities. We don’t start with what we do, we start with who they are in Christ. If we turn it the other way around, it’s legalism.”
Session 1. The Story of God’s People
The gospel story doesn’t begin with individual salvation outside of community, it begins with a God who is communal. “God perfectly combines unity and diversity. Human cultures tend to veer off into one of two extremes: either we elevate unity as what happens in Eastern cultures. Others elevate diversity, where the key is difference. This is the typical problem in the West. A trinitarian understanding helps us to balance those extremes. God is persons in relationship and human beings are persons in relationship. We think of ourselves as defining ourselves by our relationships. You can no more have a relation-less person than you can have a motherless child. To be a person is by definition is to have relationships. We find our identity in relationships, not in isolation because we are made in the image of God.”
Today sin twists our relational nature, but we still have it—the first child ever born kills the second child ever born; in some families, one member becomes tyrannical… Moving forward to the promise to Abraham, God offers a promise of a people who will be devoted to God. “God stakes the future on this man, this family—changes his name from Abram to Abraham meaning ‘the father of many’—to be a light to the nations. . . . God will have a people among the nations not through human achievement but through his grace.” The blessing is not just that Abraham’s people will be a people, but will be a people obedient to the Lord.
In Exodus, we find the promise fulfilled. God comes to Moses and describes what he’s going to do as remembering the promise to Abraham. And we see Abraham’s descendants freed to know God, to be in relationship with him… But that’s not all we see. At Mount Sinai, they build a fence around the mountain—God’s presence is terrifying. “Then when Moses is on the mountain, it gets worse. They build the golden calf. . . . It is Israel’s fall, and brings the question, ‘how can a holy God live with sinful people?’ And that’s where Leviticus comes in, but it leaves us with as many questions as it answers. . . . Can an animal’s death really atone for sin? Can a human priest mediate for the people?”
Then we get to 1 Kings 4:20, the promise is fulfilled and the people are happy, but it’s only for a short time. In 1 Kings 12, the kingdom is divided. “Jeroboam comes out of Egypt, at first looking to be a new Moses, but turns out to be another Aaron. God’s people have become a divided people, worshipping idols.” The people are taken back into captivity, a return to their days of slavery.
In the whole land, declares the LORD, two thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God.’”
“This is that refrain restated, ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’ that we see throughout Exodus.” Then we come to Jesus and we see the promise entirely fulfilled. “Jesus is God with us, but he is also the faithful people of God. Zech. 13 points to a time when the faithful remnant will come down not to a third but to one person—the Lord Jesus Christ (Zech 13:7). Consider Isaiah 5—it’s against that context that Jesus says, ‘I am the true vine.’ The NT pictures Jesus as both God with us and God’s faithful people. . . . And the climax of the story is the picture of the new humanity, echoing again that promise to Moses, “I will be their God and they will be my people” (cf. Rev 21:3).
When you become a Christian, you’re being invited into the people of God and into relationship with God and his people. “That word belong is a very strong word. It doesn’t mean that you become a Christian and start going to church, it’s that you belong to the people of God—there’s a sense of ownership. It’s a question of loyalty; Jesus always sets loyalty to this community ahead of even loyalty to biological family. . . . Church is not a building you enter, it’s not a meeting you attend, it is who you are. To be a Christian is to be part of God’s people and to express that in community. The creation of the people of God is at the heart of the mission of God.”
The session Q&A allowed for the opportunity to expand on this idea of “being vs doing,” something that many of the session participants struggled with as it chafes against the pragmatic ideal of America:
How do you balance this idea of what we do reflects who we are, but still doing something? How does the American overlay upon Christianity impede us as Christians?
“This is a little bit like inviting someone over to insult the host. . . the only way I can say it is by your teaching is to exhorting them to be who they are and modelling it. One of the key things is the legalist says ‘you should…’ What the gospel says is, ‘you need not…’ And that brings good news. The imperatives of the Christian faith come out of the indicatives. ‘You need not pursue sex because Christ is the one who satisfies…’ Sin makes promises but doesn’t deliver. The gospel is bigger and better than anything that sin promises to offer. But we really need to model grace—and one of the ways we need to do this is by not doing anything. You don’t need to prove anything. You can relax and enjoy a book to the glory of God for a couple hours. . . . I don’t want you to become lazy or unambitious, I don’t want to drain that out of you, but let’s not have a culture where you’re driven to prove yourselves.”
Chester took an opportunity to expand on his thoughts about gospel communities (a topic that’ll be coming up frequently in this event):
“Another thing that comes up as I talk about this idea of community is… everybody likes community, it’s people they don’t like. We love the idea of community, until we have to deal with the people. We are called to love real people. . . . The people in your small group, God has chosen them to be there, even if you wish he might have chosen other people. . . . But as we continue to talk, I also want about the ideas of small groups or house groups or gospel communities… every church seems to have a different name for them.
“One of the challenges is that these need to be more than a night . . . more than ‘just’ a Bible study, more than a place for pastoral care . . . they’re a place for mission. They should be able to articulate their mission and vision—who are they trying to reach and how? There should be a strong sense of mission and vision. They should reproduce organically. . . . there’s no one-size fits all approach. Gospel community is more than meeting. People often ask when do people meet, what time and where… but those questions miss the point. It’s about shared life, shared community. it’s ordinary life—shopping, sports, journeys… it’s the context of Israel’s community, it’s the way Jesus did ministry, it’s how Paul did ministry… Ordinary life. And it’s ordinary life together. So our gospel communities meet together, usually once a week. It gives an opportunity for coordination… but it’s also about gospel intentionality. To pray together, encourage one another, to share the gospel and give praise.”
“Decision making should be communal. We should involve the Christian community in our decision making to the extent that our decision affects the Christian community. So if you’re a single man, you can make your decisions pretty much on your own. But when you get married, you’re no longer making decisions on your own—your decisions affect your wife. So if a coworker invites you out for a drink after work, you’ve got to think about the implications for your wife. And you make significant decisions in consultation with your wife. And so it is with the Christian community. You’re not alone, you’re part of a family. They’re not necessarily going to tell you what to do, but they’re going to help you work through the implications. We are family, we’ve been adopted into God’s family. You make decisions thinking about the family and so it is within the family of the church. We make our decisions in light of our membership of that family.”
How do you deal with people who’ve structured their lives in a way that makes community very hard?
“You do want to encourage people to be intentional about how they structure their lives. In our context, everyone’s moved house to be closer to gospel community. They want to be part of the community, to be [accessible]. The other answer is that you’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to find ways to connect with one another. The third thing is that you need to challenge people on why they’re so busy. . . . the reason people are often so busy is a heart issue and there might be a place to challenge that.”