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on 24 March 2010
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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on 16 August 2012
This challenging book has one simple thesis at its heart: Church = Gospel + Community.

Some churches, they say, typified (or you might say stereotypified) by larger conservative evangelical churches, have been strong on truth but weak on community. Others (typified by recent 'emerging church' trends) have been strong on creating community, but weak on teaching truth.

But, the book pleads, the bible insists that truth will only really engage society when it is lived out in community as God intended. As Jesus said at the Last Supper: "By this will everyone know that you are my disciples: if you love each other." So the churches that think they 'do truth' well may not actually be using it in a way that bites effectively. Likewise, 'community' will have little real transforming effect unless it is a community where people are constantly discussing and living out God's message, as in Deuteronomy 6: "Teach these words to your about them at home and on the road..." So the churches which count themselves 'strong on community' may not actually be creating much in the way of genuine, effective Christian community.

The first part of the book develops these principles more fully; the second part seeks to apply them to subjects such as evangelism, church planting, pastoral care, theology, apologetics, and children & young people. These applications are strongly based on the authors' experience in leading The Crowded House church network which has spread out from Sheffield over recent years.

There is much stinging wisdom in these pages. They critique the 'compartmentalised' nature of modern western life (work time / family time/ leisure time) and the way that for many "God time" has become just another compartment. They critique the way churches can easily move from 'mission mode' to 'maintenance mode'; the problem of professionalism and a purely middle-class leadership culture; and of thinking that being sermon-centred makes a church Word-centred. They talk about how we must teach a morality of positives as well as a morality of negatives. There is a great analysis of youthwork which will make you think hard over the conventional wisdom that entertaining meetings and a peer group are what's most important for teenagers. There is plea that the traditional 'spiritual disciplines' of contemplation, silence and solitude are barely biblical. Instead we should seek the converse spiritual disciplines of scripture meditation, petition to God, and community.

So, there is much good and much that made me think.

My main criticism of the book would be that the authors are unduly scathing of (1) larger churches, and (2) the idea of an 'established' church (such as the Church of England). The latter never gets a mention as being a context in which any serious missioner would be operating. And the former really get sharp shrift. Though the authors several times say that, of course, large churches are not necessarily bloated and ineffective, this comes across simply as a concession to the general rule that they will be. And that ignores the way many larger evangelical churches have recently been effective in building gospel through truth and community, along the lines of Rick Warren's dictum that 'the church must always be growing larger and smaller' ('larger' through celebrations, and 'smaller' through cell groups). This is a shame; because as far as I can see the 'gospel=church+community' thesis has nothing as a matter of principle which excludes either larger congregations or an established church.

The authors clearly have a particular view of the relationship between church and state, and are surely too dismissive of other approaches. It is assumed (p100) that 'so-called evangelical groups' who 'campaign to defend Christian influence in state education or a distinctly Christian coronation oath' have fallen into the trap of thinking that 'the cause of Christ...should be pursued through political means' and of seeking to extend Christ's kingdom 'through the sword...rather than through the word'. This is naive, simplistic, and unfair to others who sincerely, biblically and fruitfully hold a slightly different view.

To that extent the authors have perhaps been just slightly blinkered by their own experiences and context. And, along those lines, finally, I would be fascinated to know if they would write any of this differently, in the light of 5 further years' experience of leading The Crowded House (the book was published in 2007). For example, having read a paragraph in which they are fairly dismissive of 'a 45 minute monologue delivered from a pulpit', saying that 'there is little New Testament evidence for the sermon as we understand it today' (p112), I was interested to find on The Crowded House website a recent Sunday talk from one of the authors lasting around...45 minutes!

Their more recent book Everyday Church has already gone on my wish list.
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on 31 August 2011
Currently my wife and I are "between churches". We're looking for a church. The usual reaction from our friends and acquaintances is, "You won't find the perfect church." And my usual tired rejoinder is, "If we do, it won't be once we join."

Currently a lot of Christians are dissatisfied with "church" and more than a few books have been written about it. George Barna's "Revolution" and Michael Frost's "Exiles" are just two excellent examples in this area.

Total Church is a worthwhile addition because it adds further Biblical understanding together with "how to" practicality. Chester and Timmis explore what church is, and then show how it can look in practice. It highlights the connection between a living, growing (in understanding and relationship with God) organic community and the task of being God's witness to the world, and how the two are inseparable.

Coming from an evangelical/reformed perspective, they correctly, in my opinion, highlight the centrality of the Word of God in proclaiming the gospel. However, they emphasise that this needs to be done in community and relationship. That is why the organic church is such an important instrument of God in this world.

If anything, in their attempt to counter the wishy washy-ness of the social gospel they overstate the case. Psalm 19 is used as evidence for the centrality of the Word, but in the process they omit the first 6 verses in which the psalmist declares that the glory of God can be read in the heavens. We know that this is not a salvific Word but it is still God revealing Himself, and the apostle Paul reminds us that leaves us without excuse (Romans 1:20).

But why quibble! I found this book an encouragement as to what church could be in a church world of institutions, programmes, mega churches, church orders and constitutions. The irony is that their view of church is far less tangible as it is not about buildings and programmes but relationships and community, and yet, in an Acts/New Testament sense they have painted a picture of church that is far closer to the maker's intentions.

They do not dismiss other models of church, but they do challenge them to be aware of the pitfalls and not to take their eye off the main game - the revelation of Christ.

If you are looking for a living, breathing community desiring to serve and proclaim God in this world, this book gives you some great ideas for your search. One the other hand, you may need to gather like-minded people to grow this living expression of God in this world. As for me, my view and expectation of "church" has been irreparably altered.
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on 2 February 2011
Reading Total Church was an exercise in not getting carried away. Timmis and Chester write with such conviction that it is often difficult to distinguish between their pragmatic, experiential and exegetical reasonings.

The aim of the book is betrayed in the sub title: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community. Having observed a discontent in how we `do church' in the UK and identifying the tendency to swing to either Gospel fidelity (conservative) or Community fidelity (emerging) the authors lay bare the fact that the two, far from excluding each other, require each other. They call the reader to a dual-fidelity.

The essence of the book is that we all, young Christian, mature Christian, struggling Christian and non-Christian need the Gospel in regular doses, applied to our lives. How do we get this kind of Gospel hit as regularly and as suitably as we can? Through community.

The book is divided into two sections, firstly setting out the foundation of Gospel (Word and Mission) and Community and then secondly seeing how such a dual-fidelity impinges how we `do church.'

Whilst being pragmatic it is not dogmatic. You wont find any, `once your church is X big you have to plant.' But you'll find plenty of , `as a loving community we should demonstrate the power of the Gospel in such a way people want it to be true and then we can explain to them it is true.'

Whether a Church leader or member this book will help you if your desire is to make as large an impact for the Kingdom of God as you can.
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on 12 September 2010
This book is about an important subject. In essence, the authors are arguing that there needs to be a deeper level of community among church members without it being a self-indulgent thing and without falling into some recent traps in which churches have compromised on the preaching and teaching of the word and on the authority of scripture. I am completely on board with the books message. Our culture is shot through with family breakdown, is individualistic and there is a great deal of loneliness to which the church needs to serve as an antidote. Frequently, however, the church doesn't.

I am giving it three stars because it is a good book for people who are asking deep questions about what type of church will work and thrive in the 21st century there is a lot of wisdom and guidance.

I give it less than five stars for two reasons.

Firstly, I think it could have been written better. There lacks a clear definition of what is meant by community. I found the book a bit too `wooly'. I was about 2/3rds into the book before I began to get a taste of what the book meant by community. I kept asking, What exactly are you advocating? Christians living near to each other? Extended households? Bulk purchasing? Car sharing? Families taking in single people? Church based small businesses? `Acts 2' levels of sharing goods? How far can and should local churches facilitate or `push' this? Is it through simply leading by example, a membership covenant, teaching, strict rules or what?

Secondly, I felt that there were a couple of `blind spots' - subjects I think are absolutely crucial to the book's theme, but which were not mentioned.

One is the issue of education. While there was some discussion on teaching and discipling children and youth in a church setting (which is only going to be for a few hours a week), what about the the rest of the week? I would have liked a discussion on how we educate our children, i.e. State schools, independent schools or Christian schools - or at home? The simple reason being that churches are often left rather amateurishly trying to `unteach' our children a secular worldview which they are being taught at school for 30+ hours a week. Unsuccessfully too, as we are losing our youngsters in droves.

The other is the subject of families, fatherhood and marriage. I think this should have been emphasised more. There are nods in this direction, I take the view that unless men are taught to be strong husbands and fathers, and unless we know how to build godly families, we are not going to build the level of community that is envisaged here.
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on 24 January 2011
This book tries to suggest a way to make Christianity more relevant today without losing the basic gospel, by stating that church should be both Gospel-centred AND Community-centred. This seems to be an excellent third way between boring traditionalism and possibly dodgy emerging church movement.
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on 6 April 2014
really good to develop the concept of church and community; easily readable with good and practical illustrations and stories; thought provoking
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on 4 February 2008
I really enjoyed this book, which is not primarily about household church, which is Steve's and Tim's passion, but about being a missional church. In fact it was much better than Hirsch or Frost in putting some meat on what it means to be church engaging the 21st world. You won't agree with everything, but I dare you not to be indifferent when reading and considering this missive.
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on 6 October 2009
This was an excellent purchase and a radical challenge for the Church today, I believe that our mission can be summed up with a quote from the book ...."When the Word of God is successfully applied by the Spirit of God amongst the people of God"
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on 26 December 2014
not what I expected
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