A pair of Brits have a provocative book appearing in the States this month. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis published Total Church in the UK last year, and enough readers here have found it helpful to prompt Crossway Books and Mark Driscoll’s Resurgence ministry to pick up the title in the Re:Lit series. You can watch Tim Chester introduce the book at Crossway's blog.
Chester’s and Timmis’s refrain for what they are advocating in the book is “ordinary life with gospel intentionality.” They make a case for the church’s need to exercise “dual fidelity” to the content of the spoken gospel and the context of a relational community.
Tim Chester kindly agreed to answer a few questions below for the DG blog.
DG: Tim, what do you and Steve Timmis mean by the title Total Church?
Tim Chester: The phrase is actually adapted from the world of football (or soccer in the States!). “Total football” was a style of play associated with the Dutch international side in the 1970s.
“Total church” is our way of capturing the idea that church is not one activity in our lives. Church isn’t a meeting you attend or a building your enter. It’s our identity, our community, our family. It’s the context for the totality of the Christian life.
DG: How would you summarize the message of the book?
TC: Total Church argues for two core principles: We need to be gospel-centered and community-centered.
Being gospel-centered means we’re word-centered (because the gospel is a message; it is good news), and it means being mission-centered (because the gospel is a message to be proclaimed; it is good news).
I think most conservative evangelicals are strong on this. But we also need to be community-centered. The Christian community is the biblical context for evangelism, discipleship, pastoral care, social involvement, and so on. That doesn’t mean meetings. It means the shared life of the community.
One of our catchphrases is “ordinary people living ordinary life with gospel intentionality.” It means doing the chores, having meals, watching sports, and so on with an intention to talk about Jesus, to pastor one another with the gospel, and to share that gospel with unbelievers.
DG: At several points in the book, you mention the value of hospitality. Do you see this virtue as lacking in the church today, and is there is an especially significant need for it in the 21st-century church?
TC: Here’s what I think is the key issue. In the book, we tell the story of a young man who invited us to do some street preaching with him. When we said it wasn’t really the way we did things, he clearly doubted our courage and commitment.
We began to talk instead about a whole life lived in mission and community, in which we were always looking to build relationships and always looking to talk about Jesus. By the end of the conversation, he admitted he wasn’t sure if he was up for that.
He wanted evangelism you could do for two hours on a Saturday afternoon and then switch off. Tick. Job done for the week. He didn’t want a missional lifestyle.
I think that’s the issue with hospitality. People want to put church and evangelism into a slot in the schedule. But we need to be sharing our lives with others—with shared meals and open homes. That can be demanding, but it’s also wonderfully enriching.
DG: The book’s double emphasis on both gospel-speaking and relationship-cultivating is rare. What or who have been some of your most memorable influences on this “dual fidelity” to gospel and community?
TC: Our main influence has been The Crowded House which Steve and I lead together. We began as one household congregation and have grown into a family of small church planting networks. Some of our congregations meet in homes; others gather on Sunday in a building but function as smaller missional communities throughout the week.
Although the book isn’t the story of The Crowded House, it does capture a lot of what we’ve learned doing mission and community together.
We’re Reformed and evangelical, so many of our key influences are fairly predictable—the Reformers, the Puritans, and, more recently, people like John Stott, John Piper, Tim Keller, and the guys from CCEF.
In terms of our understanding of community and mission, the evangelical Anabaptists have been an important influence, and we’ve also tried to learn from the experience of missions around the world.
Individual writers include Roland Allen, Robert Banks, and Lesslie Newbigin.
Another important influence has been biblical theology (through people like Graeme Goldsworthy, Ed Clowney, and Elmer Martins). Biblical theology is important because people often have a very individualistic view of the gospel: “It’s all about me and God.” And an individualistic view of the gospel leads to an individualistic view of mission. But the Bible is the story of God saving a people, a community, a new humanity.
DG: Can you give us some idea what being gospel-centered and community-centered looks like in practice?
TC: Let’s take evangelism. We encourage one another to build relationships with people and share the gospel. But we also encourage one another to introduce people to the Christian community.
That doesn’t necessarily mean inviting them a church meeting. It means welcoming them into the network of believing relationships by inviting them to the cinema, to go shopping, to a meal—Christians and unbelievers together.
Jesus said all men will know we are his disciples by our love for one another. We want people to see that love—to see the gospel-shaped relationships of the Christian community.
Or let’s take pastoral care. We often have a very professional approach to pastoral care—it’s something done by a pastor or a counselor. But Paul tells the whole Christian community in Ephesus to speak the truth to one another in love.
The context is the gospel community, and the content is the gospel word. So we try to create a culture in which we encourage one another to challenge, comfort, console, exhort, and rebuke one another with the gospel in the context of ordinary life.
If I’m moaning, someone will challenge me to find joy in Christ. If I’m anxious, someone will exhort me to trust in my heavenly Father’s care. If I’m ashamed, someone will comfort me with the grace of God.
It might be another leader; it might be a new Christian. It might be in a scheduled meeting; it might be as we tend someone’s garden together. It’s all about ordinary life with gospel intentionality.