For a kid who didn’t grow up in the church, I’m certainly becoming extremely passionate about it. I love learning about what makes the church the church and how Christians can improve how we “do church” in order to better reflect the character of Jesus.
My daughter (via my lovely wife) gave me this book for Christmas and I was pleasantly surprised. I’d been reading a similar work earlier in the year that made me want to slap myself in the face for reading such a stupid book (that’s the nicest critique I can give).
Total Church combines a deep love for Scripture and the Gospel, with a strong desire to see people come to know and love Jesus in intimate community. It’s truly a rare thing when you see people advocating for both strong, biblical teaching alongside building relationship, but Steve Timmis and Tim Chester do exactly that.
The premise is that a biblical church must be gospel-centered (meaning, both word-centered and mission-centered) and community-centered. “Christianity is word-centered because God rules through his gospel word,” say the authors. “Christianity is mission-centered because God extends his rule through his gospel word.” The gospel is good news — it is a message, as succinct as “Jesus is Lord,” but as comprehensive as the entirety of Scripture, which all centers around the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. Because the gospel is good news—our sins can be forgiven thanks to the finished work of Jesus—it is a message that must be proclaimed. “You cannot be committed to the gospel without being committed to proclaiming the gospel” (pg 32, emphasis added).
This is exceedingly refreshing in a time when many (specifically well-known) churches rarely proclaim the gospel—if ever.
Further, because our identities are not formed in a void, but within community, we must also understand that our identity as Christians is found in Christ’s new community. This is, in essence, what it means to be a “total church.” You love the word of God, you proclaim it, and you discover your new identity in community with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
The second half of Total Church (chapters 3 on) deal with the practical implications of this philosophy. I won’t cover all of them, but just a few of the stand-out items:
Evangelism takes on a three-strand approach, wherein we build relationships, share the gospel, and introduce people into community simultaneously. In some ways, this is similar to the Alpha approach, but less programmatic. It allows evangelism to happen naturally through relationship. “It’s ordinary people, doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality…The ordinary needs to be saturated with a commitment to living and proclaiming the gospel,” say the authors. It’s about de-compartmentalizing our lives and being “authentic” (to use an oft-coined buzzword).
Social involvement is not simply social action. It is a cohesive blend of action and evangelism. If our social actions don’t point to the gospel, they “are like a signpost pointing nowhere” (p 78).
Church-planting is where mission and community intersect: A biblical church is one that replicates, planting new churches.
Total Church, as great a book as it is, is not without it’s problems. First, it wrongly argues that the apostolic church only met in homes, whereas Scripture says that the early church met both in homes and gathered together for corporate worship. Acts 2, for example, shows that the 128 believers gathered together to worship Jesus. The Spirit fell, Peter preached and three thousand were added to their number. Secondly, it supports the view that sermon as monologue rose after Constantine’s “conversion” and it was no longer possible to teach in a dialogue setting due to sheer numbers. This ignores the more likely origin of the sermon as monologue: the Jewish synagogue & religion. Thirdly, the authors’ view is that the disciplines of “contemplation, silence and solitude” are not biblical, whereas Jesus on numerous occasions went to be alone with the Father (Luke 6:12, 9:18, 22:41 are but three examples). Spirituality within community is extremely important, but we cannot overlook the importance of private spirituality as well.
Steve Timmis and Tim Chester have done an excellent job presenting a comprehensive and compelling vision of a biblical church in Total Church. If you’ve ever asked the question, “What if there were a different kind of church?” you will find this book an encouraging and challenging read.