Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester (Book Review)

Today I finished Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, cofounders of The Crowded House, a church-planting initiative in the UK.

Total Church is one of the best books I've read in a long time and may be THE best books I've read on church. As the subtitle suggests, the authors argue that church is to be radically reshaped around gospel and community. They argue for three things:

"Christian practice must be (1) gospel-centered in the sense of being word-centered, (2) gospel-centered in the sense of being mission-centered, and (3) community-centered." (p. 16)

The authors immediately nail their colors to the mast, distinguishing their perspective from both conservative evangelicals and the emerging church. With emerging church, they agree that conservatives are often bad at community. But with conservatives, they agree that the emerging church is sometimes soft on truth. This book proposes an alternative to both, churches that are both gospel-centered (with both a word-centered focus and a missional focus) and community-centered.

"Rigorously applying these principles has the potential to lead to some fundamental and thoroughgoing changes in the way we do church," warn the authors (p. 18). This is no entrenched defense of traditional church structures or practices. I found the book stimulating, eye-opening, paradigm-shifting, and sometimes personally-threatening.

Total Church is divided into two parts.

I. Part one is on "Gospel and Community in Principle" and argues for each in turn. Chapter one, "Why Gospel?" discusses both word and mission. "Christianity must be word-centered," the authors argue, because "God rules through his gospel word" (p. 24) and "mission-centered because God extends his rule through his gospel word" (p. 28). These assertions are fleshed out with close, but non-technical, attention to the text of Scripture, and real-life stories that show how the principles work out in practice. In fact, two of the strengths of this book are the pervasive use of Scripture and the multiple stories and examples of application. Chapter 2, "Why Community?" argues that "The Christian community is central to Christian Identity" (p. 39) and "Christian mission" (p. 47).

II. Part Two of the book focuses on "Gospel and Community in Practice," by applying the principles of part one (being word-centered, mission-centered, and community-centered) to the following areas:
*Evangelism (chapter 3)
*Social Involvement (4)
*Church Planting (5)
*World Mission (6)
*Discipleship and Training (7)
*Pastoral Care (8)
*Spirituality (9)
*Theology (10)
*Apologetics (11)
*Children and Young People (12)
*Success (13)

There are too many helpful insights from these chapters to share in a brief review. But here are some examples from the chapter on evangelism. The authors argue that there are "three strands of evangelism" (1) building relationships, (2) introducing people to community, and (3) sharing the gospel (p. 60-61). Their approach is holistic, relational, and driven by genuine concern for both the gospel and people. You won't find gimmicks or techniques here. In their words, "most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality" (p. 63).

Evangelism is to be a community project, which means that "our different gifts and personalities can complement one another. Some people are good at building relationships with new people. Some are socialites - the ones who will organize a trip or an activity. Some people are great at hospitality. Some are good at initiating gospel conversations. Some are good at confronting heart issues" (p. 62). A team approach combines the various gifts, which helps counter the guilt and despondency so many people feel when thinking about evangelism. "By making evangelism a community project, [we] take seriously the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit . . . Everyone has a part to play - the new Christian, the introvert, the extrovert, the eloquent, the stuttering, the intelligent, the awkward. I may be the one who has begun to build a relationship with my neighbor, but in introducing him to community, it is someone else who shares the gospel with him. That is not only legitimate - it is positively thrilling!" (p. 62).

As you can see, this approach focuses on all three priorities: the word, mission, and community. This is how the authors approach each of the eleven topics listed above.

I can hardly recommend this book highly enough. I will be sharing it with my staff, elders, and other church leaders (I'm a pastor). I'll also be talking about this book with friends, exploring how to apply it in our congregational life, and referencing it often. If you want a fresh approach to church and mission that doesn't lose sight of the gospel and isn't just a plug-n-play program, get this book. You'll be glad you did.

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