A few months ago, I bought the book Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis with an Amazon.com gifts card that I received for Christmas. Several people had recommended this book to me, and the blurbs that I had read about it looked promising – although blurbs can be misleading.
Last week, I needed to read something “for fun” – yes, I had plenty to do and too many books to read for school, but I needed a break. So, I picked up this book and started reading through the first chapter. I’m hooked. I really like this book.
The authors’ premise is:
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. (16)
By being “gospel-centered”, the authors mean that we should be centered on both the message (word) of the gospel and the mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. The authors recognize that some groups of Christians rightly focus on the gospel, but fail to live in the significance of the community. Meanwhile, other groups focus on the community while failing to see the significance of the gospel. Therefore, the authors suggest that the church should focus on both.
We believe there is an alternative. We need to be enthusiastic about truth and mission and we need to be enthusiastic about relationships and community. (18)
In Part One of their book, they write about the principles involved in being gospel-centered and community-centered. For example, concerning the church being “gospel-centered”, they show how God rules through his word and his Spirit. They reject a polarization between the two. Thus, the proper understanding of the word of God is as a word through the Spirit of God. Similarly, they say that this word is a “missionary” word, meaning that the good news of the kingdom is meant to be proclaimed.
However, living a “gospel-centered” life or being a “gospel-centered” church is often easier said than done. They say,
The church exists both through the gospel and for the gospel… Few Christians are going to object to being gospel-centered… The problem is the gap between our rhetoric and the reality of our practice. The continual challenge for us is to apply this principle to church life and ministry without compromise. (33)
The challenge for us is to make the gospel the center of our lives not just on Sunday mornings but on Monday mornings. This means ending distinctions between “full-timers,” “part-timers,” and people with secular employment in our team and leadership structures. We need non-full-time leaders who can model whole-life, gospel-centered, missional living. It means thinking of our workplaces, homes, and neighborhoods as the location of mission. (37)
Next, the authors examine the idea of the church being “community-centered”. They point out that following Christ is not an individualistic endeavor:
By becoming a Christian, I belong to God and I belong to my brothers and sisters. It is not that I belong to God and then make a decision to join a local church. My being in Christ means being in Christ with those others who are in Christ. This is my identity. This is our identity. To fail to live out our corporate identity in Christ is analogous to the act of adultery: we can be Christians and do it, but it is not what Christians should do. The loyalties of the new community supersede even the loyalties of biology. If the church is the body of Christ, then we should not live as disembodied Christians. (41)
This does not mean that the church becomes something that we add to our lives – just another to ball to juggle along with other responsibilities such as work, family, finances, etc. Instead, the community of Christ becomes part of our identity, such that our “problems” with work, family, finances, etc. become their problems, and their problems become our problems. We now live life together.
I think I appreciate their conclusion to this section on “principles” more than anything else that I’ve read in the book so far. Why? Because they give the same advice that I often give to people who are seeking this type of community life:
If you warm to this vision of Christian community, then start where you are. Sell the vision by modeling the vision. Don’t become a pain to your existing congregation, telling them everything they are doing is wrong. Become a blessing by offering hospitality, showing practical care, dropping in on people. Create around you a group of Christians who will share their lives and encourage one another in the faith. (50)
The only thing that I would change in that last quotation is the word “create”. I don’t think that we can “create” a community centered on Christ. However, as Christ creates that community around us, we can foster it and encourage it and not hinder what Christ is doing.
The next section of the book is called “Gospel and Community in Practice”. The authors write about certain church “practices” and how they would look if the church centered on gospel and community. I have read the chapter on “Evangelism” and thought it was excellent. Hopefully, I’ll be able to read more soon and wrote more about this book.
Meanwhile, what do you think about my quick summary of the first part? Do you think the church should be both gospel-centered and community-centered? How would you implement this in your life and community?