Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community (Crossway, 2008) is a book born out of longing: If only there were a different way of doing church!
Authors Tim Chester and Steve Timmis seek to orient the Church around two main principles: gospel and community. The content of our message is the gospel. The context of our message is the Christian community.
Being gospel-centered means we will be word-centered and mission-centered. This book directly challenges the voices of some in the Emerging Church who downplay the Word in favor of community. But Total Church also challenges the traditional’s church’s failure to produce authentic community under the guise of “biblical faithfulness.”
The authors chose Total Church as the title in order to stress that church is not a place we go. Church is an identity that shapes our whole lives. Our life and mission must become “total church.” (18)
The book begins with the principles of gospel and community. I am glad the authors do not collapse these two principles into one. They rightly see the gospel as a proclamation. “The gospel is good news. It is a word to be proclaimed. You cannot be committed to the gospel without being committed to proclaiming that gospel.”
Reshaping the church around gospel and community leads to a rethinking of all aspects of church life.
Evangelism? The centrality of the gospel word as proclamation is combined with the importance of the Christian community living with gospel-intentionality.
Social involvement? Loving the poor means we will not only help them with physical needs but proclaim to them the gospel of salvation. The church is not to focus on being a respectable club for the upper class. We form a community that believes all worldly divisions are nullified at the foot of the cross.
Church planting? Let’s focus on multiplying small churches rather than growing big ones. Church planting is church growth.
Discipleship and Training? The gospel word means that we will learn from each other as we follow Christ. Authentic Christian community sees church discipline as a natural outgrowth of our close relationships.
Apologetics? Intellectual persuasion is not the answer. Our rejection of the gospel is a moral decision. Instead, we must combine rational apologetics with relational apologetics that spring from a community putting the gospel on display.
Success? We must see ordinary Christians who live out the message of God’s kingdom as “successful.” We are not to seek church growth for our own glory. Character matters more than charisma.
I enjoyed Total Church. It is filled with powerful insights. But the book has a couple of problems. It seems the authors advocate the house church model in a way that echoes some of the arguments of Viola and Barna’s Pagan Christianity. The authors believe the monologue-styled sermon was invented after Constantine. The historical record shows something quite different. If the only person experiencing good learning in a sermon is the preacher (as the authors assert), then it is a wonder any education has taken place in the past 1700 years!
The authors also overreact to the current desire for “spirituality.” In the chapter on spiritual disciplines, they downplay the importance of silence and solitude. They do not see stillness in prayer as helpful. “When the psalmists do talk of stilling our hearts, it is not the stillness of silence, but the stilling of self-justification or self-confidence.” (148) For the life of me, I cannot find even a hint of this concept in the biblical text itself. It seems that the authors conveniently explain away the commands that do not fit with their preconceived notions of active spirituality.
Surely there are ways we can engage in spiritual disciplines in a gospel-centered, community-centered way, without abandoning some of the historic practices of the church. What the authors want to avoid is the substitution of passive disciplines for active involvement. But why should we choose between the two?
Overall, Total Church is an important book. When I first began reading, I was not expecting their vision of church to be so comprehensive. It is indeed total church – in that this book addresses a wide variety of important issues facing the church. This book will lead to fruitful discussion about the church and the gospel. Total Church deserves to be read, pondered, discussed, and practiced.