Total church

‘Total Church’ is the potential title for a book I have just finished writing with Steve Timmis (a fellow leader in The Crowded House). It is due to be published by IVP in the Spring of 2007.

Here’s the introduction:

Two key principles should shape church life: gospel and community. Christians are called to a dual fidelity: fidelity to the core content of the gospel and fidelity to the primary context of a believing community. Whether we are thinking about evangelism, social involvement, pastoral care, apologetics, discipleship or teaching, the content is consistently the Christian gospel and the context is consistently the Christian community. What we do is always defined by the gospel and the context is always our belonging in the church. Our identity as Christians is defined by the gospel and the community.

Being gospel-centred actually involves two things:

  • being gospel-centred means being word-centred because the gospel is a word – the gospel is news, a message
  • being gospel-centred means being mission-centred because the gospel is a word to be proclaimed – the gospel is good news; a missionary message

So maybe we have really got three principles: Christian practice must be:

1a. gospel-centred in the sense of being word-centred

1b. gospel-centred in the sense of being mission-centred

2. community-centred

You may think this sounds like a statement of the obvious! We hope you do. But let us make two points by way of introduction.

1. In practice conservative evangelicals place a proper emphasis on the gospel or on the word. Meanwhile others, like those who belong to the so-called emerging church, emphasise the importance of community. The emerging church is a loose movement of people who are exploring new forms of church. Each group suspects the others are weak where they are 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 programme-oriented, often loveless and sometimes harsh.

So let us nail our colours to the mast. We agree with the conservatives that the emerging church is too often soft on truth. But we do not think the answer is to be suspicious of community. Indeed we think that often conservatives do not ‘do truth’ well because they neglect community. Because people are not sharing their lives, truth is not applied and lived out.

We also agree with the emerging church movement that often conservative evangelicals are bad at community. The emerging church is a broad category and an ‘emerging’ one at that with no agreed theology or methodology. It means generalisations about emerging church are far from straight-forward. But many within the movement seem to downplay the central importance of objective, divinely-revealed, absolute truth. This may not be a hard conviction, but it is a trajectory. Others argue that more visual media (images, symbols, alternative worship) should compliment or replace an emphasis on the word. We do not think this is the answer. Indeed we think emerging church can sometimes be bad at community because it neglects the truth. It is not governed by truth as it should be, so its community is too whimsical or too indulgent. It is often me and my mates talking about God – church for the Friends generation – middle-class twenty and thirty-somethings church. Only the truth of the gospel reaches across barriers of age, race and class.

We often meet people reacting against an experience of conservative churches which has been institutional, inauthentic and rigidly programmed. For them the emerging church appears to be the only other option. We also meet people within more traditional churches who recognise the need for change, but fear the relativism they see in the emerging church. For them existing models seem to be the only option. We believe there is an alternative.

We want to argue that we need to be enthusiastic about truth and mission and we need to be enthusiastic about relationships and community.

2. Rigorously applying these principles has the potential to lead to some fundamental and thoroughgoing changes in the way we do church. The theology that matters is not the theology we profess, but the theology we practice. As John Stott says: ‘our static, inflexible, self-centred structures are “heretical structures” because they embody a heretical doctrine of the church.’ If ‘our structure has become an end in itself, not a means of saving the world’ it is ‘a heretical structure.’[1]

Being both gospel-centred and community-centred might mean:

  • holding fewer church meetings and spending more time hanging out together
  • seeing church as an identity instead of a responsibility to be juggled alongside other commitments
  • celebrating ordinary life as the context in which the word of God is proclaimed
  • running fewer evangelistic events, youth clubs and social projects, and spending more time sharing our lives with unbelievers
  • moving house, changing jobs and reorganising our leisure time so that mission becomes central to our lives
  • starting new congregations instead of growing existing ones
  • making ‘God-talk’ a normal feature of every day conversation
  • inviting people to the cinema with our Christian friends so they experience the life of the Christian community instead of inviting them to a ‘guest service’
  • preparing Bible talks with other people instead of just studying alone at a desk
  • adopting a 24-7 approach to mission and pastoral care instead of starting ministry programmes
  • dropping the categories of clergy and laity altogether
  • discovering the churches we thought were models of ministry are not as successful as they first seem
  • switching the emphasis from Bible teaching to Bible learning and action
  • spending more time with people on the margins of society
  • learning to disciple one another – and be discipled – with the gospel day by day
  • having churches that are messy instead of churches that pretend

We have called this book ‘total church’. 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 is ‘total church’.

Part one, ‘Gospel and Community in Principle’, outlines the biblical case for making gospel and community central principles for Christian life and mission. Part two, ‘Gospel and Community in Practice’, applies this double focus to various areas of church life. Activists may be tempted to skip to part two, but the applications made in part two are integrally linked to the convictions outlined in part one. We are trying to do more than assemble a collection of ‘good ideas’ for church life. We have tried to explore the contemporary implications of the preoccupation with the gospel word and gospel community in the Bible story.

It might be helpful to include a brief word about the ministry in which we, Steve and Tim, are involved. The Crowded House is a network of missionary congregations, most of which meet in homes. We are trying to ‘do church’ in a way that is welcoming for unchurched people. We place a big emphasis on sharing our lives with one another and welcoming unbelievers into the network of relationships that make up the church. It also means we grow by planting new congregations rather than acquiring bigger premises. This book, however, is not an argument for household church. Not all our congregations meet in homes. It is our conviction that the principles we outline can and should be applied to all congregations. Nor is this book an account of the Crowded House. We do not think the way we do mission and church is the ‘right way’ or the ‘only way’. It is not an off-the-peg model that people can fit to their context without alterations. But we do believe in the centrality of the Christian gospel – both as a word from God and a word for the world – and the Christian community. Where we have included stories it is to encourage the reader to respond imaginatively. We often find people conceive principles simply in terms of their current practice. This failure of imagination can prevent us applying the Bible as we should. We hear it speak to us, but either find it too far removed from our current experience to feel possible or squeeze it into our current experience. We need Spirit-inspired imagination to reconfigure church and mission around the gospel word and the gospel community.

[1] John Stott, The Living Church (IVP, forthcoming).

7 thoughts on “Total church

  1. Pingback: Total Church on Evangelism-- eucatastrophe

  2. awesome book! I’ll have a review up on my site soon.
    I have been thinking for some time that the cell group I lead (and home groups in general) should have a “church plant” mentality, and this book has proved really provoking & helpful.

  3. Pingback: Total Church Interview in the Briefing | bathgatesdotnet

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