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.
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.