Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review- Total Church

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis in their book Total Church: A radical reshaping around gospel and community, are passionate about the gospel and the future of the church. The book raises significant questions about the way churches operate and provides a challenging alternative (2007:15).

Chester and Timmis were nurtured and equipped for ministry in English main stream churches and show a genuine concern for the decline of the church in England (2007:36). An underlying assumption of the book is that the church is valuable and worth continuing with. They are keen, however to differentiate themselves from both main stream and emergent churches without wanting to dismiss each of these approaches completely (2007: 16-17).

One of their key hypotheses is that there is an increasing gulf between those who attend church and those outside the church (2007:61). This, they note, has resulted in diminishing opportunities for non-Christians to hear the gospel. In this context they make a number of observations about current church life and practice which provide a back drop to their exploration.

The authors note that churches, while concerned about the gulf, have continued with “attractional” models of ministry despite there lack of effectiveness. They cite youth and children’s ministries that are failing to stem the flow of young people leaving churches let alone attract new young people (2007:177). Further to this they argue that where attempts have been made to bridge the gulf Christians have often “thrown the baby out with the bath water”. The authors question programmes of social involvement that do not explicitly include the gospel proclaimed (2007:52). This same concern is also identified in the context of world mission where programmes are identified as part of missio Dei even if they fail to have any explicit connection to the gospel (2007:103).

Chester and Timmis also suggest that many churches of an evangelical commitment are not engaging the marginalised. They cite examples where it is easy to find pastors who pastor large middle class churches but difficult to find pastors who will work in marginalised areas.

Further to this they argue that even when the gospel is proclaimed, and there is someone listening, the approaches that main stream churches take seem to be ineffective. The authors cite apologetics that include uncritically, enlightenment epistemology or alternatively have embraced postmodernism (2007:159f). These influences are also noted in the development of theology. It is argued that these world views weaken our theology of church and mission and have failed to help us engage in a real theology or spirituality that helps us deal with the ‘stuff of life’ and the mission of the church (2007:150). All this contributes to the increasing gulf between the church and those outside it and diminishes the opportunity to proclaim the gospel.

Another key hypothesis that forms a backdrop to Chester and Timmis approach is that even in churches where the gospel is preached faithfully and people are being converted there appears to be a genuine lack of community (2007: 38). In this context the authors raise concerns about programme centred churches with huge budgets, buildings, and staff teams. They question the use of resources needed and the failure of the laity to be genuinely engaged in mission and care for one another.

Questions are raised about the out sourcing of pastoral care and the failure to disciple and equip people in a way that sees them taking initiatives for the Gospel in all of life. In this context questions are also raised about how success is measured (2007: 187f). Their conclusion is that many churches and pastors are looking for glory, not the way of the cross.

In this context these authors offer radical alternative. Chester and Timmis argue that to address the gulf between the church and the outsider, and the lack of community what we need is the Gospel to shape and form our attitudes and identity. They argue Christians are called to a dual fidelity.

1. "Fidelity to the gospel word - believed and proclaimed
2. Fidelity to gospel community - bonded and missional".

In practice this dual fidelity leads to a radical reshaping of church life. They are committed to "small church and a high buy-in from members. In contrast to the pursuit of large church and a low buy-in from members ". The illustrations on pages 42-43 are a good summary of this radical reshaping. In the first illustration the individual is juggling many responsibilities, church being one of them. In the second diagram the church is at the centre and together the church made of 15-30 individuals juggles these issues together. Examples are given of buying houses, caring for unwell individuals, caring for the marginalised and discipleship.

This radical reshaping also impacts the structure of the church. Very few are paid and those who are often have part time jobs. There is a leadership structure with accountability and training but the requirements of those overseeing each church are much less rigorous than those of traditional churches. This also provides flexibility for continuous church planting.This book could almost be seen as a modern out working of Roland Allen’s: The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church or Robert Banks’, Paul’s Idea of Community.

Perhaps the greatest impact of this radical reshaping is the ability of the gospel community to bridge the gap between the church and the outsider . This is one of the great strengths of the book and a great reminder of what is possible when people work together and are passionate about evangelism. In my own veiw John Dickson’s Promoting the Gospel, has much in common with the evangelistic methodology of this book

One of the other great strengths of the book is the analysis of the challenges that churches face. I am someone who oversees a middleclass church and the gulf between our church and the community is a growing concern. People are also craving community. These issues are addressed by the authors in a stimulating and thoughtful way with an ecclesiology which provides a helpful corrective to the view that church is just a Sunday gathering.

In my context I think there is room to apply much of what is said to small groups. We have a number of small groups that are beginning to function along these lines.

While it is difficult to disagree with much of what Chester and Timmis have argued there are a number of issues which need further reflection. They include:

  • The almost communitarian zeal for community. For example selling a house or choosing a job almost sound like group decisions. I think the Bible calls us neither to communitarianism nor individualism but to iterrelationism.
  • Suburbia (where I live) does not have central hubs for locals, many people travel significant distances in and out of the suburb for work, shopping or lesuire. This makes the formation of community as envisaged challenging.
  • I think they have overstated Luke’s “bias to the poor” in Chapter 4.
  • It would be good to see their ecclesiology interact with Church History.
  • While it is possible to see this model working well with new churches it is difficult to see how this could be adopted in a large existing church. To be fair this is not what they were intending to address.
Total Church: A radical reshaping around gospel and community it is a book I would highly recommend Christian leaders read. Just wondering what you thought.

4 comments:

gbroughto said...

more to come, but Seumas has a good, brief post on the book and its 'failure' in our context over here:

http://jeltzz.blogspot.com/2010/08/why-we-failed-at-total-church.html

Roger said...

Thanks for the link Geoff -it's interesting to see he picks up on the communitarian aspect.

gbroughto said...

Yes - Seumas and I have this through but I haven't posted anything. My instincts are that most of us our western contexts are so far from "communitarianism" is that its the least of our dangers... ditto your concern about to much emphasis on God's bias to the poor. I can only think this is akin to me being cautious about "too much exercise" or "losing weight too quickly" - yes, real concerns for a small group people somewhere. But certainly not something that i'm, in danger of...

To your questions:
* The almost communitarian zeal for community. For example selling a house or choosing a job almost sound like group decisions. I think the Bible calls us neither to communitarianism nor individualism but to iterrelationism.

I think there is alot of difference between "group decisions" (e.g. a cult) and trusting the wisdom and discernment of the body of Christ, which we rarely do apart from asking people to "pray" that we make wise decisions... e.g. when was the last time someone in our churches actually practiced what you call "interrelationism" in their property transactions?



* Suburbia (where I live) does not have central hubs for locals, many people travel significant distances in and out of the suburb for work, shopping or lesuire. This makes the formation of community as envisaged challenging.

Good reason to move to parish closer to the city... ;)

* I think they have overstated Luke’s “bias to the poor” in Chapter 4.

Not at all convinced..
Arguments in favour of God's so-called "non-favouritism" in these parts seem to conveniently mean on the ground a form of God's impartiality that has a hell of going for it for the non-poor.


* It would be good to see their ecclesiology interact with Church History.

Not sure what you mean here exactly. But I suspect the missional community idea fits quite well with various expressions of similar forms of ecclesiology from early church models (which they do cover) to monastic missions, through radical reformation communities, etc etc.


* While it is possible to see this model working well with new churches it is difficult to see how this could be adopted in a large existing church.

I agree the challenges are greater, but perhaps even more urgent in larger existing churches. I think their critique is not that different from the basic premise of 'trellis & the vine" (which I haven't read) - that too much energy is expended on peripheral matters. BTW Col Marshall was at a gathering with Tim Chester that I was at last month... so this observation may not be that wide of the mark!

Roger said...

Geoff, an initial response from your more conservative brother  I know we could do better:

1. I agree individualism is very pervasive and that it needs to be dealt with, I just don’t want it to be replaced by another philosophy equally untrue. In my context some of the Australians I work with are more powerfully influenced by collectivist tendencies because of their Asian backgrounds and I see the damage done here also. As you might guess I committed to “mutual love relationships” that I think addresses both these philosophies. I think interrelationism is the closest philosophically to this (after all Michael Hill pointed me in this direction –when I was discussing with him my concerns about the philosophies behind western education).

With regard to your comment about the out working of interrelationism, I frequently see people not only asking for prayer but making significant decisions and sacrifices of time, money and property in order to serve us as a church but also those in our community, around Australian and the world. So what I see is individuals transformed by the grace of God making decisions not only with regard to themselves but also with regard to others. Total Church presents one challenging way of doing this but I remain to be convinced that the group process in the way they describe is what we all should be aiming for.

2. Does the inner city really provide more opportunity for community? Or is this the romantic ideal?

3. Re your comments about “bias to the poor”. I am not looking for a way to diminish our responsibility. I am still working on this but I think my thinking is more in line with Kellers observations found here see point (2D). Maybe this is all Total Church is suggesting?

3. Yep re-ecclesiology that’s what I meant-I was just wondering of there were helpful insights from church history that could help inform their thinking. I have some vague recollection of a discussion which involved viewing church history through the lenses of sodalities and modalities…..no sure if it was helpful or not?

4. Not read “trellis & the vine" yet either-so really can’t comment. But yes I acknowledge we are often incumbered with “peripheral matters”. Just received an email asking about what type of kitchen sink should go in the church kitchen. On the other hand (putting my not for profit hat on) studies show that what often holds our organisations back is a lack of attention and expertise in the backend of the organisation. This has certainly been my experience. Maybe picking the right sink is important to enabling gospel ministry ;)