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5.0 out of 5 stars A stimulating read on the nature and purpose of the Church, 16 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community (Paperback)
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 children...talk 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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Location: Crowborough, East Sussex, UK

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