For those who grew up in the church – like myself, church has had a different taste depending on our life stage. Hopefully, we had the chance to experience a loving community during our younger years. As we grow older, church has strangely been less impacting, less authentic and even worse, a place of discontentment and power struggle. We wonder if ” ‘grown-up’ Christianity is any better” (p. 14). This gap is what led the authors to write this book.
“Church is not a meeting you attend or a place you enter. It is an identity that is ours in Christ. It is an identity that shapes the whole of life so that life and mission become ‘total church.’ ” (p. 18)
Total Church reviews what “church” is with at its center Gospel and community. To be more precise, Gospel-centeredness is composed of word-centeredness and mission centeredness.
“Being gospel-centered actually involves two things. First, it means being word-centered because the gospel is a word—the gospel is news, a message. Second, it means being mission-centered because the gospel is a word to be proclaimed—the gospel is good news, a missionary message.” (p. 16)
So Total Church revolves around:
- Gospel Word
- Gospel Mission
- Gospel Community
Another theme is the idea of practical theology. On one hand, intellectual ideas are great but they do not matter if they are only propositional statements no one really live out. On the other hand, theology must drive what church is.
“The theology that matters is not the theology we profess but the theology we practice.” (p. 18)
Why should we center church on the Gospel?
- Because God rules through his word.
“Christianity is word-centered because God rules through his gospel word.” (p. 24)
“God rules as his word is trusted and obeyed. God is rejected when his word is not trusted and not obeyed.” (p. 25)
- Because the Christian experience rises from the Gospel. It is both intellectual and emotional.
“Spiritual experience that does not arise from God’s word is not Christian experience. […] An authentic experience of the Spirit is an experience in response to the gospel.” (p. 31)
It implies that church must be word and mission centered since the church came to be through and for the gospel. Our problem is how we compartmentalize church and the rest of life. We make Bible study and mission activities in our calendars, instead of seeing all of life as word-centered and mission-centered.
“This radical, God-centered perspective, Wright suggests, ‘turns inside out and upside down some of the common ways in which we are accustomed to think about the Christian life. . . . It constantly forces us to open our eyes to the big picture, rather than shelter in the cosy narcissism of our own small worlds.’ ” (p. 35)
Here are a few questions from the book (p. 33) to challenge us:
- What criteria would you use to decide where to live?
- How would you approach secular employment?
- What standard of living would you expect as pioneer missionaries?
- What would you spend your time doing?
- What opportunities would you be looking for?
- What would your prayers be like?
- What would you be trying to do with your new friends?
- What kind of team would you want around you?
- How would you conduct your meetings together?
“We ask, ‘Where does God fit into the story of my life?,’ when the real question is ‘Where does my little life fit into this great story of God’s mission?’
We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.
We talk about ‘applying the Bible to our lives.’ What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality—the real story—to which we are called to conform ourselves?
We wrestle with ‘making the gospel relevant to the world.’ But in this story, God is about the business of transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.
We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.
I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.” (p. 35)
- Because the Christian community is central to the Christian identity. In the western world, we have often turned Christianity into a personal religion: “Jesus came to die for me so that I can have a relationship with him.” We think of spiritual growth as personal improvement. We ask questions such as “do we need church to be saved?” etc. However, being Christian is not a “I” statement. It is a “we” statement. Jesus came to die for us so that we can have a relationship with him. Spiritual growth is not personal, it is communal. And instead of asking whether we need the church or not to be saved, we should ask what it means to belong to the church, and give thanks for the Christian community we have.
“I am not autonomous. I am a person-in-community. I cannot be who I am without regard to other people.” (p. 41)
“in the Christian community we belong to one another, and so we are responsible for one another and make decisions together. This is not a process of “heavy shepherding” where the leader tells people what to do. Our statement does not say decisions are made for people. It says they are made with regard to the community to which they belong. Nor is it top-down. It is a community process in which everyone is accountable to everyone. As leaders, we submit our schedules, priorities, and key decisions to the community.” (p. 46)
- Because the Christian community is central to the Christian mission. We often think of mission and church planting as one person going somewhere to evangelize and start a church, and it is not necessarily wrong, but mission is a communal activity. We reach out to others together inviting them to see the love of Christ we have for one another.
“Mission in the Old Testament was centripetal (moving toward the center). Now mission becomes centrifugal (moving away from the center). But mission does not cease to be centripetal.” (p. 49)
“The gospel is good news—a message to be proclaimed, a truth to be taught, a word to be spoken, and a story to be told.” (p. 54)
“The word creates and nourishes the community, while the community proclaims and embodies the word.” (p. 55)
“Before they are preachers, leaders, or church planters, the disciples are to be lovers! This is the test of whether or not they have known Jesus.” (p. 56)
“The invisible God is made visible through the love of the people of God. The life of the Christian community is part of the way by which the gospel is communicated. Lesslie Newbigin describes the local congregation as “the hermeneutic of the gospel”—the way in which people understand the gospel.” (p. 59)
“In our experience people are often attracted to the Christian community before they are attracted to the Christian message. If a believing community is a persuasive apologetic for the gospel, then people need to be included to see that apologetic at work.” (p. 59)
“Our commitment to one another despite our differences and our grace toward one another’s failures are more eloquent testimony to the grace of God than any pretense at perfection.” (p. 60)
The three strands of evangelism:
- building relationships
- sharing the gospel
- introducing people to community
“Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality.” (p. 63)
“A commitment to mission through community works only if the priority of the gospel is a strong value within that community.” (pp. 63-64)
“If church and mission are redefined in relational terms, then work, leisure, and family time can all be viewed as gospel activities.” (p. 66)
Lk 4:18-19 (quote from Is 61) is Jesus’ vision statement:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Those in need were clearly in Jesus’ mind. But we need to clarify its relation to evangelism (p. 78):
- Evangelism and social action are distinct activities
- Proclamation is central
- Evangelism and social action are inseparable
“It is striking, then, that Luke’s Gospel, which has the most to say about the poor and the inclusion of the marginalized within the Christian community, is also the Gospel that has the most to say about the centrality and sufficiency of God’s word.” (p. 77)
We may be accused to use social action for evangelism, and we as believers do struggle with that at times. But in practice, it cannot be one without the other. We cannot be satisfied with only one. Can we proclaim without helping (whatever form it takes) someone we see struggling? Can we help without proclaiming least we see it as “pointing to nowhere?”
“Love demands that I be concerned for their temporal needs. But the most loving thing I can do for the poor is to tell them they can be reconciled to God through Christ’s saving work.” (p. 79)
What we can do is offering a community for the poor and marginalized. We ought to remember that God has called the weak and poor to demonstrate the power of the cross (1 Cor 1:26-31).
“The best thing we can do for the poor is offer them a place of welcome and community. Our first priority in social involvement is to be the church, a community of welcome to, and inclusion of, the marginalized. This needs to go deeper than a warm handshake at the door.” (p. 81)
“The church cultures we have created, the expectation we have of church members, whether in some or all of these ways we have been untrue to the message of the cross. We have left room for boasting. Instead of nullifying status, intellect, and wealth, we have valued these things too highly and so nullified the message of ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). Conservative Christians are right to oppose any downgrade in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. But we must examine ourselves to see whether we too are robbing the cross of its power.” (p. 84)
“Church planting is the outworking of mission and community. It is the point where mission and community intersect.” (p. 85)
The Christian community is at the heart of the mission.
“When we think ‘mission’ we must think ‘church.’ And the best way to link church and mission is through church planting.” (p. 88)
“I [Lesslie Newbigin] have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.” (p. 89)
There are two models of church planting though not so different:
- A team of church planters (called apostolic churches)
- Apostolic churches gives birth to churches
As churches grew, they multiplied instead of getting larger.
“As they grew, the apostolic churches became networks of small communities rather than one large group, to safeguard apostolic principles of church life.” (p. 93)
“Mutuality—teaching, exhorting, caring for one another—can flourish in the family atmosphere of a small group.” (p. 94)
The smallness of those churches ought to be missional. They also aim to reach out to their neighbors, to grow and multiply. Unfortunately, in many of our churches, small groups do not have this intent for a simple reason: Church growth has no vision for church planting.
“Many of the advantages of size could be gained through the cooperative activities of a network of smaller churches or a large church with a network of small groups functioning as missionary communities. All too often home groups become inward-looking because they lack a missionary mandate. Yet home groups have great potential to be a context in which Christians can do mission together as a community.” (p. 94)
“A vision for church growth must be a vision for church planting.” (p. 94)
Moreover, church planting is also an opportunity to revisit biblical principles to re-radicalize its commitment to the Gospel.
“Church planting cannot involve an uncritical replication of existing models. Church planting should be at the forefront of new ecclesiological thinking.” (p. 95)
“Far from weakening a sending church, church planting is a vital opportunity to refocus the life of the church on the gospel.” (p. 96)
What is applicable to local is for the nations as well. In Gen 12, God called Abraham to be a blessing to nations. From the beginning, God has the nations in mind. It was not a calling for professional agencies, but for His people. Now this said, agencies and churches can work together to send teams of church planters planting churches that will multiply.
“We take seriously the suffering and injustice of this world. We weep with those who weep. The parable of the Good Samaritan is universal and indiscriminate in its scope.” (p. 101)
“The church is God’s mission strategy. At the heart of God’s plan to bless the nations are the people of God. The church is formed by mission and for mission.” (p. 103)
Discipleship and Training
Gospel word and Gospel community are essential to discipleship. We preach the Gospel to one another even after “conversion.”
“The good news that gives life is the good news that transforms, while the community that incarnates gospel truth for the sinner is the community that incarnates gospel truth for the saint.” (p. 112)
The authors argue for community which means smaller churches. Smaller encourages more time together and deeper relationship. Smaller also forces us to deal with people we may not want, and therefore learning to love one another the way Jesus asked us to do.
“Experience teaches that there is also an inverse ratio at work: the larger the group, the more inevitable is the superficiality of our relationships.” (p. 113)
“Community has been insightfully defined as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives! Responding to this, Philip Yancey says, ‘We often surround ourselves with the people we most want to live with, thus forming a club or clique, not a community. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.’ ” (p. 113)
Discipleship is done through the teaching of the word. It does not mean preaching sermons or Bible study only. It is done through the regular practice of the Word in community.
“All too often people equate being word-centered with being sermon-centered. People argue for sermons by arguing for the centrality of God’s word, assuming that the word and the sermon are synonymous in Christian practice. […] Being word-centered is not less than being sermon-centered. Our contention is that being word-centered is so much more than being sermon-centered.” (p. 114)
“Being word-centered is more than how you teach and disciple people. It means governing church life by God’s word. It means every decision, formal and informal, is explored through explicit reference to God’s word.” (p. 115)
“The gospel word should be central to a formal meeting, but it also has to be the heart of all we do as the people of God and how we relate to the world.” (p. 117)
“We have found in our context that most learning and training takes place not through programmed teaching or training courses but in unplanned conversations—talking about life, talking about ministry, talking about problems. Let us make a bold statement: truth cannot be taught effectively outside of close relationships.” (p. 118)
We are also reminded that leaders must be known for their character. The only skill that is required is teaching the Bible which does mean preaching sermons, but understanding the Bible and applying it to their lives and the lives of church members (whatever form it takes).
“The qualities he outlines for Christian leaders are not skills-based but character-based. The focus in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is on the character of leaders—their godliness, their maturity, their example. The only skill needed is the ability to teach—and that does not necessarily mean giving forty-five-minute sermons. It is the ability to apply God’s word to the life of the church and the lives of its members.” (p. 120)
“Professionalism is always the enemy of authentic gospel leadership.” (p. 123)
Pastoral care is not for those who has the title of “pastor.” A pastor is truly someone who cares for Jesus’ sheep. The idea of this paragraph is to encourage the Gospel community to give pastoral care rather than relying on professionals such as counselors. The idea is not to denigrate professional counseling, but that every Christian can rebuke, help, encourage, support and love one another through the Gospel Word. I personally think it can be done though it requires proper training. For example, it could be done through a “spiritual formation process” which could be a simple and biblical tool to help everyone to understand our hearts and to encourage each other to grow in godliness.
“If we subscribe to a view that makes our ‘complex aetiologies’ responsible for our behavior and attitudes, then we put our lives at the mercy of our genes or our parents or our chemistry or our past. Ultimately we make those multiple factors sovereign over our lives. Of course, they can be significant factors, but we have in the precious promises of the gospel all we need to respond to those factors in a way that results in godly behavior and godly attitudes.” (p. 132)
“Pastoral care is therefore Initial and foremost the ability to address the gospel word to the problems of people’s lives.” (p. 135)
Moreover, it is not a matter of telling people what is wrong and what they should do. Too often, we have been accustomed to that kind of “pastoral care” technique. Pastoral care is done through relationship and a genuine love that seeks to point to Christ.
“Weeping with those who weep is not a pastoral technique to be learned—it is a heart response experienced as the Holy Spirit makes us more like Christ.” (p. 134)
Spirituality is a strange category of what a church does, but its definition shapes what the church does. For example, if we believe that spirituality is about feeling the presence of God, church activities may be centered on extended time of prayer and worship.
Total Church refutes mystical spirituality. The authors oppose contemplation and Gospel spirituality. I do not agree with it though. I personally believe it is good to contemplate God through His word during times of quietness, but I do not equate spirituality with mystic experiences. Spirituality must be grounded in the Gospel Word.
“We do not meet God in the stillness: we meet him in his word. (p. 142)”
“Biblical spirituality is a spirituality of the word. One of the central rhythms of true spirituality is therefore reading and meditating on the Bible. Meditation is not emptying your mind, but filling your mind with God’s word.” (p. 142)
“In the mystical and contemplative traditions, the goal of spirituality is union with Christ. […] Gospel spirituality is the exact opposite. Union with Christ is not the goal of spirituality; it is the foundation of spirituality.” (p. 143)
Spirituality is sometimes opposed to the material. We would not think of someone involved in social justice as spiritual. We tend to qualify someone of spiritual as if he spends time in prayer. However, this dichotomy is a mistake. Spirituality is both prayerful and engaged.
“In biblical terms to be spiritual is to walk in step with the Spirit in all of life. […] Biblical spirituality is a spirituality of the everyday in which God is glorified in all of life.” (p. 145)
“Asceticism undervalues God’s good creation, while gratitude acknowledges its value. Idolatry overvalues creation, while gratitude ensures that God remains our central focus.” (p. 145)
However, I cannot embrace their view of prayer which is more viewed as “passionate petition” (p. 147) for the mission. There is a need to come before God to reflect, repent and rejoice. I do not see a need to oppose silence and engagement.
Spirituality is not necessarily achieved in isolation. Spirituality is also done through the Gospel community. Total church invites us to:
- “Initially, it means we should prioritize prayer with others over prayer alone.” (p. 149) – Prioritization I do not agree with. I do not see the need for priorities. However, I strongly agree with the need for prayer in community.
- “we must not separate our relationship with God from our relationship with others.” (p. 150). If we are spiritual, we love God and others. We cannot separate the two. Indeed, Matt 5:23-24 calls us to go reconcile with our brother and sister before we go to worship God.
- “we need to exhort and encourage one another daily. […] We need to create church cultures in which it is normal and expected for everyone lovingly to confront and persuade everyone.” (p. 150)
“Theology, properly understood, is an encounter with the living God in his word.” (p. 154)
No doubt theology is centered on God’s word, but it is much more. It is an “encounter” with God. If theology stays intellectual debates, then it is fruitless. But if we fall on our knees, then we have done theology properly.
Theology is missional in the sense that it seeks to speak to our culture. It has implications for us to reach out to the world. Total Church goes as far as saying “Mission sets the theological agenda. […] The result of theology should be mission” (p. 158). I do not agree with this statement since I believe the result of theology should be worship and “mission exists because worship does not” (John Piper). However, I appreciate the idea of finding the missionary implications of a passage. I have experienced that at CIU (seminary I attended). It has enlightened me about how much God is on mission.
“Authentic theology must be shaped by what we might call a missionary hermeneutic.” (p. 156)
“Our Bible teaching should always look to explore the missionary implications of a passage—to make the truth plain and to make it real. To that end we need to explore how the text speaks to contemporary culture.” (p. 157)
Theology is also communal (“community hermeneutic”). It is the task of the church, and not reserved to scholarly experts. Academic work is important, but it cannot become the authority for interpretation Scripture because doing theology is what leads to living under God’s rule. “Hermeneutics of community” imply “hermeneutics of obedience” (p. 159). One cannot understand Scripture correctly if he is not willing to obey it.
“Theology is also the task of the church because the only theology that matters and is worthy of the name is practical theology. Theology is the stuff of life. Theology is a service of worship that extends over the whole of life.” (p. 155)
“Bible interpretation is not just about me and my Bible. It is about God’s word to his people, a people with a responsibility toward the world.” (p. 158)
“The readiness to obey Christ’s words is prerequisite to understanding them.” (p. 159)
I particularly appreciate the following quote because I have experienced it.
“Time and again we find that we spark one another off, gaining a level of understanding far beyond anything we might have achieved individually.” (p. 160)
I recall being in a Bible study with a few other fellow Christians. As we tried to understand the passage, I said something I honestly found enlightening. But I remember thinking: “Bible studies in group are so great… not because I have said something bright, but because I would have never ever thought about ‘it’ without others!” Sorry for those [including myself – how pitiful!] who use Bible studies to show off their knowledge. In reality, they might have never gained insights without others! We are far richer in understanding – and practice – as a community than as individuals.
Apologetics is not often cited in what a church does, but it is inevitable if the church is missional. Can we question our church’s involvement in mission if apologetics is not part of the church’s reflection?
This said, “rational” apologetics has its limits. It has often sought to convince people of God’s existence through logical arguments but it has not been very effective. The reason is simple. We are trying to answer the wrong question. The Enlightenment rejected Revelation (God’s Word) for Rationalism. So we think that we may be able to convince the world back to God if we present the message of the cross through a rational presentation. Though it might have happened, the problem is not a lack of knowledge, but unbelief and rebellion. The question we try to answer is an excuse not to bow down before God and acknowledge sin.
“The rejection of revelation is only a symptom of an underlying problem. The real problem is the rejection of the idea of reconciliation and all that is implicit in that idea—moral accountability to the Creator, human helplessness, and reconciliation with God through a substitutionary sacrifice.” (p. 165)
“To explain how a philosopher’s most remote metaphysical assertions have actually been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to ask oneself Initial: what morality does this (does he) aim at?” (p. 166, quoted from Stephen Williams, Revelation and Reconciliation)
“The point is that people reject God not because of reason but as a presupposition and sometimes despite reason.” (p. 168)
“Pascal ‘insists that the essential problem is not primarily epistemological [to do with knowledge], but soteriological [to do with salvation]. It is not a failure to understand God, it is failure to love him.’ […] God hides himself from those who would know him without loving him. Pascal glories in the obscurity of Christianity, its ‘folly’ as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 1.” (pp. 168-169)
In fact, a rational approach does not lead to know God. You will hit a wall. The reason is simple. Knowing God is only possible through faith… and faith requires humility. Faith is bowing down and coming before God in His terms, then we receive Him through Revelation – the message of the cross. If there is a God who is all knowing and all powerful, then doubting his existence is no humility. Think about it: you are saying that you would rather doubt than acknowledging your limited understanding of the world.
“Luther says ‘humility’ or even ‘humiliation’ is the precondition for knowing God. Only someone who is humbled or crushed before God can truly know him.” (p. 170)
“God is known only by faith.” (p. 171)
“We do not know God because we are cleverer than other people or have greater spiritual insight or have spent more time in contemplation. We know God because God graciously reveals himself to us in the message of the cross.” (p. 171)
“The role of rational apologetics is to demonstrate that unbelief is a problem of the heart rather than a problem of the head.” (p. 172)
Now our western world has drifted away from the Enlightenment to Postmodernism. Truth claims were used for power abuse. So our society has rejected truth. And though those abuses were real, the solution is not less truth, but more truth – more Gospel Word.
“Postmodernity rightly discerns that truth-claims are often as much a function of power as of knowledge. […] This rejection of truth did not come out of nowhere. The suspicion is that truth is a function of power. Truth is shaped by those in power to maintain their status and wealth. Inside the glove of truth is the fist of power.” (p. 173)
“To resist the misuse of truth by the powerful, we do not need less truth—we need more truth. We need to rediscover the ultimate truth—the lordship of God.” (p. 174)
It is not only a need for more truth, there is even a greater need for relational apologetics.
“We reject God. It is a relational problem. And if it is a relational problem, it requires a relational apologetic.” (p. 175)
What demonstrates God’s existence is His people. That is what the Bible says, and it is also true by experience. What has drawn people to local churches is a loving community. Our only hope as a church is for everyone to see that our genuine love is the results of the Gospel Word.
“As Francis Schaeffer said, ‘Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful. Christian community is the ultimate apologetic.’ ” (pp. 175-176)
“Apologetics is answering the questions raised by our lives.” (p. 178)
Children and young people
This is a difficult topic. We may have many ideologies, but the practice challenges them all. I believe there is room for growing and contextualizing what Total Church suggests.
First, young people needs the true Gospel – not sugar coated stories – even for children. I personally know it by experience. My son who is soon to be 7 is not so interested in Bible stories. He has heard them many times since his birth… but he pays attention when we talk about how real it is, and how it impacts all of us. He knows in the back of his mind that they are things that sound like fairy tales. He may not say openly – anymore – but we know he knows. My hope is not that he becomes a Bible expert, but that his worldview is shaped by the Gospel word. Young people need to the truth of the Gospel.
“The key to successful youth work is the Bible. This is how God does his work in young people. And the measure of success is not attendance but gospel fruit in their lives.” (p. 184)
Concerning community, Total Church advocates for a multi-generational church – not just in words, but in practice. What it means is avoiding splitting generations. Churches tend to separate to minister to each generation’s needs better. Though it has its pros, the authors indicates that they have seen the benefits of integrating generations together.
“Our experience suggests that more significant than peer relationships are relationships with Christians who are older than the teenagers but not as old as their parents—adults who may not be “youth workers” but who are committed to young people just as they are committed to other people in the church and who model gospel living and make young people feel part of the Christian community.” (pp. 185-186)
“Part of the discipleship of young people is encouraging and equipping them to be willing participants in a diverse congregation.” (p. 186)
It is much difficult with younger children. I love this quote:
“If your church manages to keep children quiet during sermons, that is probably because you are failing to bridge other social divides!” (p. 188)
So true! Children cannot be expected to be quiet. It would be contradictory to say they are welcome in the church, but at the same time, pressure the parents to keep them “nice and clean.” Kids are NOT “nice and clean.” They come with their messiness which can drain everyone. It can be loud and distracting. Meals are messy. Focus is not easy, but it is the reality of family. It is actually good to have young adults see what it is like, and learn from the way the parents discipline their children… and even better, they can participate – somehow – in this process. Moreover, it encourages children to see how their parents and others try to understand and apply the Bible. Children will be the first to keep us accountable!
The important thing is to maintain the dual fidelity to the gospel word and the gospel community in working with children. (p. 188)
“It is helpful for children to see their parents and others taking the Bible seriously and grappling with it at both the level of understanding and of obedience” (p. 188)
“The integration of children into the life of the church is consistent with an understanding of the church as an extended family.” (p. 189)
“The principle of church as family is primary.” (p. 190)
The last chapter of Total Church is consecrated to what success looks like.
Two models of growth: larger vs more
A larger congregation does not necessarily mean success. It might even mean Gospel and community failures. Growth may be healthier through multiplication of smaller communities for the reasons previously cited.
Two models of growth: performance vs enabling
This paragraph deals with leaders. The professionalization of pastoral ministry has unfortunately impacted the kind of leaders churches have. I know this issue too well . The gap between what is professed and what is practiced is unreconcilable. Here are the best quotes of Total Church on the topic:
“Leadership as performance reflects a professionalization of leadership.” (p. 195)
“Character, not charisma, is central to biblical criteria.” (p. 195)
“Leaders are those who believe, teach, and live the gospel in the daily routine of their lives. That can only be discerned through prolonged exposure to their lives. They are recognized rather than appointed. They are people already taking initiative in the life of the church—building relationships with non-Christians, encouraging others, setting an example of godliness, praying in the prayer meeting.” (p. 196)
“I model the grace of God rather than the goodness of me. My leadership is in no way undermined as a result. Rather it is enhanced. People approach me with their struggles because they know me to be a fellow struggler and a fellow recipient of grace. I don’t feel the pressure to “perform” for two reasons. Initial, “success” and “failure” are common property.” (pp. 196-197)
“True accountability is more about relationships than about hierarchies.” (p. 197)
“The real tragedy of leadership as performance is that it devalues the work of Christ. Our identity then is not rooted in grace but in the success of our ministry.” (p. 198)
“Our practical theology has become disconnected from our confessional theology.” (p. 198)
Two models of success: Glory vs the Cross
“Success is to be faithful to Christ and his word.” (p. 200)
What unfortunately has driven many into pastoral ministry is the syndrome of celebrity. We imagine ourselves preaching, telling nice wise smart things, etc. What drives success is glory rather than the cross… which may be the reason why church gets larger than giving birth to other churches, and why leaders seek performance / enslave rather than enabling. When the cross becomes the model of success, those things go dim. We quickly realize our foolishness trying to lead organizations with the mission of saving the world. We give up our professionalism and the niceness of having things done well to realize that the world is rather impacted by our church members’ small acts of love than our big campaigns of evangelism. What matters is not making a name for ourselves, but it is finally Christ’s.
“A Christian friend of mine was talking with a social worker in a poor area of London. This social worker is a Marxist, so he has no particular sympathy for Christianity. My friend asked him whether the church made much of an impact in the community in which he worked. The social worker said, ‘If you mean the public face of the church—its pronouncement, its projects, and its initiatives—then the answer is resoundingly no. But if you took away all the kindnesses and neighborly acts that Christians do—visiting the sick, shopping for the housebound, and so on—then this community would fall apart.’ ” (p. 200)
A conclusion: A Passion for God
“The gospel word and the gospel community must be central to Christian practice.” (p. 203)
“Community may sound exciting in theory, but in practice it is also painful and messy. When you share your lives with people, you can be sure you will annoy one another! But grace makes us humble.” (p. 203)
“All of these, in and of themselves, indicate nothing unless they are a heart response to the deep, passionate love of God” (p. 204)
A thought about Steve Timmis
When I started to read Total Church, a CT article detailed the removal of Steve Timmis from the position of CEO for Acts 29 (1). Steve Timmis is known for the Crowded House and his house church model described in Total Church. A few years before, Acts 29 former president Mark Driscoll was exposed for the same authoritarian issues. Mark Driscoll was the lead pastor of the Mars Hill Church empire (Megachurch and satellites). This was clearly a sad news, but it was also a reminder that we cannot put our hope in neither church models nor leaders.
It is personally sad for me since I have been drawn by that kind of church model hoping not to encounter that kind of leaders (2). Unfortunately, Timmis’ case shows it happens no matter what the settings are. I do not believe that his failures discredits his church model. Structure and model can help minimize some issues, but at the root of those issues are men and women corrupted by sin and in need of redemption. Sin is perverse, and nothing can truly destroy it apart from the Gospel. That is why we need Jesus so much… so much more than figuring out the right church model or format of discipleship.
And we need pastors who truly live out what they preach. What I mean is not perfect pastors, but on the contrary, imperfect pastors who confess their weaknesses, their need for Jesus and who display the power of the Gospel in their lives: “Not I, but Christ!” Let it be our motto, our philosophy of ministry and lifestyle.
I was also stupefied at the discrepancy between what is written in the book and what happened. I do not know the exact facts, but I want to acknowledge the spiritual abuse done to the “crowded house refugees” and to the Acts 29 workers. The number of victims reflects a distorted situation. I am not minimizing what happened to them knowing way to well how it feels to be under an authoritarian leadership and how damaging it was and still is. However:
- We ought to measure what was written in light of Scripture. I acknowledge this is difficult to hear for those who have endured abuse, but for those who are not impacted emotionally, we must analyze Timmis’ – and Chester’s! – writings objectively with the Bible at hand. His failures do not necessarily mean unbiblical work.
- We are prone to be like Timmis if we dismiss all of his work. We must be honest with ourselves. If we throw him and his work away, then we embrace a behavior of performance. We expect pastors and writers to be perfect to be willing to hear what they say.
- We ought to hope for disciplinary action leading to repentance and restoration. These words are heavy on my heart because I know what it means for the victims. I know how much they want justice and punishment. I know how badly they might have been damaged by the bullying and constant micro-management. But we cannot escape God’s calling to forgive our enemies just as He forgave us in Christ (Eph 4:32). It will take much time and tears, but our hope is the repentance and restoration of Timmis and all the authoritarian church leaders – even if it takes tough discipline. Did Jesus not yell the most on the religious leaders of his time – possibly with the hope to see them coming to repentance?