Books like Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community offer a glimmer of hope among the steady decline of Western Christianity. Rather than clinging to the traditions of the last few centuries, Christians around the world are asking the hard questions and adapting to life outside of the comfortable societal majority. Written by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church is one of the best and most important books on the church written in the last few years. It seems pretty obvious from even a cursory reading that the authors are Biblically orthodox, men who cherish and revere the Word of God. They also have some important questions to answer regarding how the church functions.
The key to the entire book is the idea of Gospel witness and Gospel community. There can be no genuine Christian community unless the Gospel word is the central authority, a community where the Bible is taught as authoritative. The community of believers is likewise vital to living out the Gospel witness to the world. The key is that a Gospel community is more than a couple of weekly meetings where Christians come from all around to pick up their religious fix for the week and then go about their lives. It is a whole life commitment. Scattered throughout the book are examples of people involved in a ministry called The Crowded House and they are a mix bag of people who minister in various ways. None of them as I recall are professional ministers but many of them have made substantial lifestyle changes to be able to spend more time in ministry (several work at secular jobs part-time so they can minister more often). The disconnect between Gospel and community is crippling the church and Her witness and urgently needs to be addressed.
I also appreciated the perspective. This is the second book in a row I have read on the church written by Christians in the U.K. and it strikes me as a “sneak peek” of what we might see happening here in the near future. How do we minister in America when Christianity is no longer the default, when it is not nearly as cultural accepted, when being a Christian is not assumed? This book answers some of those questions.
The chapter titled Success was worth the price of the book by itself and really gets at the core of what is wrong with so much of the Western church. When I read the section regarding Ephesians 4: 11-16 calling on leaders to equip others for ministry, I almost leapt out of my chair to cheer! Elsewhere in the chapter they dealt with the erroneous notions of success in the church. We equate large congregations with success. Growth is internal, big churches get bigger. Total Church suggests that the better model is growth through replication, instead of building bigger and bigger churches the church grows by planting more churches. A lot of what appears in this chapter is going to rub people the wrong way because it bumps up against their traditions but perhaps it will also shake some people up.
Chester and Timmis get it when it comes to ministry. Not perfectly for sure but there was very little I had a problem with in the book and the book is sitting next to my computer full of underlining and dog-eared pages. My only concern is in application, because it seems that we have a long way to go before we can get to this model of ministry. I do think that the collapse of institutional Christianity has a silver lining in that as the forms and structures that stifle ministry collapse it will free Christians up to form Gospel centered communities that will be a witness to the world. It might just be that the paradigm shift we are seeing in Western Christianity, lamented by so many, is actually going to the be the healthiest thing to happen to the church since the Reformation.