Monday, June 1, 2009

Book Review.
, Tim and Steve Timmis. Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

by Geoffrey R. Kirkland | associate pastor | christ community church

proves to be compelling and carefully crafted so as to bring about the two main themes of the book, namely, a gospel centered and a community centered church. To be sure, these are both important—indeed, foundational—aspects of the local church as Scripture defines it. In no less than five times in the Introduction, Chester and Timmis state the phrase: “If only there were a different way of doing church” (13–20).

The recurring statement in the introduction in seeking to find a “different way of doing church” immediately alarmed me as I began to read the book. I have heard that this book is a hot-button book now-a-days. With the up and coming newer “missional” and “community-centered” churches, Total Church fronts the parade as far as impact and influence in the Christian community.

But as I read, questions erupted in my mind such as: Why must there be a different way of doing church? or What is so radically different about a community-centered approach to “doing church?” or Should “community” really be the main focus in the local church when the local community may be comprised of both believers and nonbelievers? Questions such as these must be answered . . . and answered honestly and biblically.

To briefly summarize Total Church, the first main part of the book contains two chapters, the first speaks to the issue of the gospel and why this must be first and central in the life, body, and ministries of the local church. The second chapter in the first part of the book summarized community by defining it, giving some clear illustrations of its implementation, and some helpful results from a “community-based” ministry.

The second part of Total Church focused around gospel and community in practice. Chester and Timmis related gospel and community to various aspects of church-life such as: evangelism, social involvement, church planting, world mission, discipleship and training, pastoral care, spirituality, theology, apologetics, children and young people, and success. No doubt Total Church covers a broad spectrum of aspects relating to church and does a fairly good job at keeping the book gospel centered and biblically saturated.

With that said, however, I have a few critiques regarding the methodology of Total Church. I’m not attacking Chester and Timmis, nor am I specifically attacking Total Church per se. What I endeavor to do is to examine and evaluate the methodology and the practical outworkings of a church focused around gospel and community.

The book wonderfully and repeatedly emphasizes the centrality of the Scriptures and the utter necessity of God’s supernatural and sovereign intervention through His Holy Spirit in the lives of sinners in order to respond to the gospel, believe upon Christ, and be justified. This is clearly explicated in the book.

But I struggle with community being a fundamental pillar in church life. The simple reason is this. Should we tailor and even “alter” the way we do church in order to bring in nonbelievers? The obvious theme in the book is a “new and different way of doing church” that is more appealing to the world as opposed to the traditional “just go ask your neighbor to go to church with you on Sunday” sort of approach (which they repeat constantly throughout the book). They are unmovable in asserting that going to a pub with a friend after a basketball game and “building a relationship” can be much more effective than simply talking to your friend after the game about Jesus Christ.

The problem is simply this. The New Testament no where tells—or even hints to!—the church to change its method in order to reach more people. Fundamentally, it boils down to the purpose for church. I believe that Chester and Timmis would agree that the overall purpose of the church is to glorify God by worshipping Jesus Christ through the power and joy of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, only born-again, Spirit-indwelt Christians can do this. As Paul says in Romans 8:8 those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (oi` de. evn sarki. o;ntej qew/| avre,sai ouv du,nantai). Therefore, if nonbelievers (lit.) “are not able” to please God, then why should the church go out of its way in changing the format of the church in order to make them feel more welcome to the Christian community.

Certainly, I’m not saying that believers must never seek to go out of their way to evangelize and reach out to nonbelievers. No doubt this must be done—regularly! But, the church is not the primary place to do this. Noticeably, Peter, on the day of Pentecost when the church was founded, spoke as to what the church is: "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Therefore, the church is comprised of those who 1) repent and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and 2) live godly lives evidencing the heart-transformation (including baptism, Lord’s Supper, fruit of the Spirit, etc.).

The church ought not—indeed, it must not—seek to making reaching unbelievers its primary function. Again, this is a function of the local church, but it’s not the only or primary function of the church.

A simple survey of the book of Acts reveals that the concept of “preaching” is thematic and domineering. “Preach” occurs 6 times in the book; “preaching” occurs 11 times in the book; “proclaim” occurs 4 times in the book; “proclaiming” occurs 6 times in the book, etc. One also finds that the phrase “gathered together” occurs nearly 10 times in the book of Acts also. The primary function of the church is the building up of true, born-again believers to the attaining of Christlikeness (cf. Eph 4:11–12). This maturity inherently involves personal evangelism, but this “new way of doing church” is not the purpose of the church.

Is it accurate then, to conclude with Chester and Timmis that people feel more loved and cared for in the context of “community?” Does a solid “community” have to be present for it to be a solid church? Is it really better to invite the nonbelieving friends to many different BBQ’s, sporting events, hang-out times at home, guys’ night out at the pub, etc. in order to reach out to the lost? I don’t think so.

I am of the strong opinion that the church is mandated to be different than the world. Though living in the world and conducting life amidst a godless culture, the true believer in Jesus Christ must be radically different than the world—not seeking to fit in to the world and do the things that nonbelievers do where the only difference is that there are a Christians at the other “function” or “event” than the other. Is it proper to invite a nonbeliever to a pub to simply “hang out” and build a relationship. Some may argue that it is profitable. I beg to differ. Am I opposed to going to a pub? A movie theater? A bar? Not really. It’s not about the rules. Rather, it’s about the motivation for going to these places. Do I go there to evangelize them and share the gospel of Jesus Christ with them as if eternity were hanging in the balances (as it is!)? Or, do I go there simply to “hang out” and “fit in” and “spark relationships” (community?) with some folks with whom I will at some later point invite them to a church function?

Therefore, I hope it is clear that the main fault of the book, in my opinion, is a wrong purpose for doing church. If we are to reach the community, help people feel more comfortable, that’s fine, but I believe that we should not worry about coming across as too brash and bold in our witness for Jesus Christ. Times are nearing the end. The “judge is right at the door” (James 5:9). The end of all things is near (1 Pet 4:7). Therefore, the hour is urgent and we ought not to take away any opportunities to boldly and clearly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Anonymous said...


good analysis Geoff!


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