Lit)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.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2008 Kingdom People blog

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17 thoughts on “Book Review: Total Church”

  1. Barry says:

    Sounds interesting.

  2. scottw says:

    Trevin,

    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.

    I have often (even typically) seen the call to silence and solitude tied to the phrase in Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God” (NIV & KJV). I’m no Hebrew scholar, but using the resources I have, the “Be still” word (raphah) appears to have more to do with the ceasing of activity (or perhaps effort) than with the absence of sound or company (aka silence and solitude). Hence the NASB translates it “Cease striving. I know this is not conclusive and there is more unpacking that should be written (and I’ve not read the book being reviewed), but perhaps this gives something of a “hint of this concept.”

    :-)

  3. Trevin Wax says:

    Scott,

    I understand that the word means to cease from activity. But I believe it is reading into the text to assume that the “striving” in question is the efforts to justify yourself. I highly doubt the author was seeking to address “justification by works” in a Pauline sense. More likely, the psalmist is telling us to cease from activity – to stop in a physical sense.

  4. scottw says:

    Trevin,

    I agree that the call is to cease from activity–in a physical sense.

    But doesn’t this then beg the question(s): “What is the striving in question an effort toward?” “Stop from what?”

    And we should also ask “Why stop?”

    :-) Scott

  5. Christopher Lake says:

    Trevin,

    About the “monologue sermon,” I am currently in an e-mail dialogue with an elder from my church on this very subject. You write that the authors of Total Church assert that the “sermon as monologue” (or vice versa) model was invented after Constantine. The man with whom I am conversing contends that the monologue model for preaching slowly started before the Reformation, around Wycliffe’s time. He further states that the idea that Western Christians have of “preaching= monologue-style sermons” is not a Biblical one. He says that true Biblical preaching would actually use a variety of forms and methods.

    It is a bit intimidating for me to dialogue on this subject with the elder, as he has vastly more Biblical and theological training than I do. However, he is an elder in our church, which as a “9 Marks-friendly” church, theoretically holds to the importance of expositional preaching as the very first mark of a healthy church! I have been surprised to hear of his views on the subject and am not sure how to answer him. Can you point me to some information as to the Biblical basis for monologue-style preaching and the historical origin of such preaching? Thank you, brother!

  6. Trevin Wax says:

    Hi Chris,

    I have not done extensive study on this topic, and would probably agree that the model we use today has been developed over time and is not 100% like the model of the earliest Christians. But the leader of the gathering exhorting the flock can already be found in Scripture. (Think Jesus on the Mount, Paul in Acts, etc.). The monologue style of preaching seems to provide the backdrop of Paul’s exhortations to Timothy regarding proclamation, and it also explains books like Hebrews – which many scholars believe to be an actual sermon.

  7. Tim Chester says:

    Hi Trevin, Tim Chester here, one of the co-authors of Total Church. Thanks for the review. I thought in the light of your comments you might be interested in a recent post I put on my blog in which I explain why I haven’t read Pagan Christianity!

    http://timchester.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/pagan-christianity/

  8. Trevin Wax says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking book, and thanks for passing along that blog post. I appreciate your book and your ministry.

  9. Alex Foote says:

    Cheers Trevin for the review. One question though:

    “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.”

    Do the authors see the church community itself as an integral part of this proclamation, or just a “context” for evangelism?

  10. Trevin Wax says:

    The community itself is part of that proclamation. But they see verbal proclamation as essential (meaning that it’s not merely the witness of the community, but the proclamation backed up by the lifestyle of the community).

  11. Trevin,

    Thanks for the insightful, well-written review. I want to read this book. Do you have details on “The historical record showing otherwise” regarding monological preaching? It seems that we have tilted a bit toward monological and we could use some more dialogical emphasis combined with solid monological preaching. I think Timmis and Chester go further than that…

    Garrett

  12. Trevin Wax says:

    Hi Garrett,

    Good to hear from you. I answered a similar question a little earlier in this thread. Hope you are doing well!

  13. Jordan says:

    “The authors believe the monologue-styled sermon was invented after Constantine. The historical record shows something quite different.”

    I am not sure if I care all that much, but since you have made a confident assertion that the historical record shows something quite different could you give some example or citations that would evidence that conclusion?

    I do not have the time to do my own in depth study on this topic, but if you are a scholar who already has had time to delve into this or if you have read some good material on this, I would love to be pointed in that direction.

    I read both Pagan Christianity and Total Church, and in my opinion it seems somewhat careless to lump these two books into the same camp together. These books might touch on similar subject matter in some ways, but they are headed in what seems to be a very different trajectory. Even the attitude that comes through in Barna/Viola is not, in my opinion, at all the same as Chester/Timmis.

    I love the word, preaching, the gospel, and the rich heritage of theology in the reformed tradition. I appreciate the stuff you are writing, but it seems like people are quick to focus in on a few weakness in book reviews that will turn people away from something that might stir up some good things.

    The celeb mentality of many churches and their preachers does not seem like the best thing for the church overall. I love listening to guys like Piper and the rest, but you end up with people thinking that is what everyone should be doing.

    To reconsider how we even approach expository preaching may not be a bad thing. I am with John Stott (Living Church) when he calls for us to not throw out these things, but I don’t really think that it is the heart of Tim or Steve to throw out sermons or buildings -they make that clear in much of the stuff I have heard them on.

    Perhaps that does not come through strong enough in the book, I’m not sure. But I know that I would not embrace the attitude of Viola etc, but I have been blessed by the irenic approach of Chester and Timmmis.

    Thanks for the review it is actually a good one in many ways; I’m just not sure if you’re having associated the authors with the Barna/Viola type of movement was very kind to the authors or shows whether you actually have much knowledge of their ministry.

    As far as Church history, I am open to learning more so please respond with some insight if you would. I also think there is room for many different ways of God building his church that still embrace a Gospel fidelity and a Biblical faithfulness.

  14. David Mitchell says:

    this was an excellent, balanced review. You highlighted the same strengths and errors I observed in the book. Our leadership will have it for our summer reading, and this review will go along with it. Thanks!

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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