A Review of “Total Church” by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis

totalchurchThe church is more than organizational structures and facilities! There has been an ever-increasing desire to rethink the patterns and nature of the church in the postmodern era. Many of those redesigns have been unbiblical and ridiculous, but in Total Church Chester and Timmis offer us a model of church life grounded and built up on the gospel word and gospel community. The model is not just a more comprehensive picture of the church than other have proposed but it is a simple and organic model. In Total Church readers are given a simple and effective framework for thinking about the various areas of church life. Total Church offers readers something rare: a new framework for doing conservative theology alongside a fresh way of being the church.

While the idea that the church is about gospel-word and gospel-community may seem obvious to some the authors believe that it deserves a thoroughgoing clarification in monograph form. In defense of their thesis they point out that while conservative evangelicals “place a proper emphasis on the gospel or on the word” they often “do not ‘do truth’ well because they neglect community” (16-17). On the flip side are more progressive Christians who emphasize community over and against objectively revealed truth. These groups tend to “be bad at community because” they neglect the truth (17). The authors believe there is a more Biblical alternative, a via media between the conservative and so-called Emergent church. “We need to be enthusiastic,” they write, “about truth and mission and we need to be enthusiastic about relationships and community” (18). The authors also argue that consistently applying this perspective of “total church” to our context will mean “thoroughgoing changes in the way we do church” (18). We have far too often reduced church to one or the other of these key principles, but they are both part of the Biblical picture. Timmis and Chester define their title helpfully, saying:

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”. (18)

They want us to look beyond church organization to church organic. They want readers to embrace a definition of the church that sees how the church can permeate all of our life when it is reshaped around gospel-word and gospel-community.

The book is broken down in to two parts: principle and practice. They begin by establishing the principles of Gospel-Word and Gospel-Community and then move on to demonstrating how the apply to a host of areas in church life. The book builds off a key concept: the gospel is to be at the heart of church life and mission, and the church is to be at the heart of the gospel life and mission. Word and Community are interrelated. The church is to be word-centered (since the gospel is a word), and it is to be mission-centered (since the gospel is a missionary word) (32). Likewise, the gospel gives me a new identity, one grounded in the community of believers, and the gospel mission is given to this community of believers. The Gospel-Word is given to a community to fulfill a gospel-mission, the two concepts are the driving characteristics of total church. As we grasp their interrelatedness we can begin to reshape all of church life around “gospel and community.”

In part two the authors discuss eleven different features of church life and demonstrate how Word and Community are essential to their expression within the church. They examine evangelism, exposing how it can and should be done within the context of community. While most conservatives will quickly affirm their application of the Word principle to evangelism it is refreshing and insightful to explore this ministry through the lens of community. Other topics include: social involvement, church planting, world mission, discipleship and training, pastoral care, spirituality, theology, apologetics, youth ministry, and success. Part two is really worth the price of the book as it reshapes church life in terms of “total church.” Here we explore topics that are common to many of us but from fresh angles. We see how Word and Community correspond to bring people to Christ, train them in godliness, and care for their needs.

The book is helpful ultimately because it can help conservative Evangelicals to think outside the box when it comes to church life. Timmis and Chester help us wrestle with cultural assumptions about church planting, pastoral training, theological hermeneutics, and success in ministry. They are part of a different model of ministry, doing more home-based church life and than large gatherings. And while they do not suggest anywhere in the book that their model is THE model, it does lend itself well to offering readers a different perspective than the norm. That different perspectives allows us to reconsider how we are doing church and whether gospel Word and gospel community are the key principles of our ministry philosophy. This is a helpful book because it encourages pastors to and models for them how to be progressive in the church without losing their theological orthodoxy. Such a book is a rare resource.

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