Total Church

September 12, 2011

I have recently been listening to Tim Chester and Steve Timmis speak about Total Church. I appreciate their emphasis that two key principles should shape church life: gospel and community.

As Tim Chester writes:

Christians are called to a dual fidelity: fidelity to the core content of the gospel and fidelity to the primary context of a believing community.

Wondering about what I would consider an important, really an essential, third spoke, Mission, Chester elaborates:

Whether we are thinking about evangelism, social involvement, pastoral care, apologetics, discipleship or teaching, the content is consistently the Christian gospel and the context is consistently the Christian community. What we do is always defined by the gospel and the context is always our belonging in the church. Our identity as Christians is defined by the gospel and the community.

Timmis and Chester suggest “Being gospel-centered actually involves two things”  So really we have three principles at work.  Christian practice must be:

1.Gospel-centered

  • gospel-centered in the sense of being Word-centered
  • gospel-centered in the sense of being mission-centered (or what I would call being gospel-driven)

2. community-centered (or what I would call a gospel-formed community)

Here’s how it fleshes out. Contrasting the common polemic nature within much of Christianity, Chester says:

In practice conservative evangelicals often place a proper emphasis on the gospel or on the word. Meanwhile others, like those who belong to the so-called emerging church, may emphasize the importance of community. The emerging church is a loose movement of people who are exploring new forms of church. Each group suspects the others are weak where they are strong. Conservatives worry that the emerging church is soft on truth, too influenced by postmodernism. The emerging church accuses traditional churches of being too institutional, too program-oriented, often loveless and sometimes harsh.

So let us nail our colors to the mast. We agree with the conservatives that the emerging church is too often soft on truth. But we do not think the answer is to be suspicious of community. Indeed we think that often conservatives do not ‘do truth’ well because they neglect community. Because people are not sharing their lives, truth is not applied and lived out.

We also agree with the emerging church movement that often conservative evangelicals are bad at community. The emerging church is a broad category and an ‘emerging’ one at that with no agreed theology or methodology. It means generalizations about emerging church are far from straight-forward. But many within the movement seem to downplay the central importance of objective, divinely-revealed, absolute truth. This may not be a hard conviction, but it is a trajectory. Others argue that more visual media (images, symbols, alternative worship) should compliment or replace an emphasis on the word. We do not think this is the answer. Indeed we think emerging church can sometimes be bad at community because it neglects the truth. It is not governed by truth as it should be, so its community is too whimsical or too indulgent. It is often me and my mates talking about God – church for the Friends generation – middle-class twenty and thirty-somethings church. Only the truth of the gospel reaches across barriers of age, race and class.

If this all sounds a little too radical, to me it sounds a lot like what Francis Schaeffer trumpeted a generation ago.  Check out Schaeffer’s Two Contents, Two Realities.  What Chester and Timmis advocate seems to be two of the principles Schaeffer emphasized: Sound Doctrine and the Beauty of Human Relationships.  Listen to what they say:

We often meet people reacting against an experience of conservative churches which has been institutional, inauthentic and rigidly programmed. For them the emerging church appears to be the only other option. We also meet people within more traditional churches who recognise the need for change, but fear the relativism they see in the emerging church. For them existing models seem to be the only option. We believe there is an alternative.

We want to argue that we need to be enthusiastic about truth and mission and we need to be enthusiastic about relationships and community.

And finally Timmis & Chester offer a warning notice:

[WARNING:] Rigorously applying these principles has the potential to lead to some fundamental and thoroughgoing changes in the way we do church. The theology that matters is not the theology we profess, but the theology we practice.

As John Stott says:

‘our static, inflexible, self-centred structures are “heretical structures” because they embody a heretical doctrine of the church.’ If ‘our structure has become an end in itself, not a means of saving the world’ it is ‘a heretical structure.

One Response to “Total Church”

  1. David Says:

    GREAT Post Dennis. Like Stotts statement at the end as well as the alternative posed by Schaffer.

    My take is the emergents get alot of heat about their view on Scripture. Maybe some of it is well deserved. Probably is.

    But they sure have shaken up some up tight conservitive evanglicals that tell everyone how God works. A little bit a shaking things up is good for the soul….

    Good post.


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