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on October 16, 2008
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 September 20, 2008
There are many people today who are talking about the major shifts that are occurring in culture and in the church in the West. Many are speaking of the return to a mission-centered approach to the Christian life. The problem is that many (myself included) tend to get bogged down in the talking and thinking phase.

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis live in the UK, which, culturally speaking, is further down the road of secularization than we are in America, but not by much. It's therefore very helpful to learn from them, as they have had more time to work out the implications of what this means for church life. What they've found is that we need to retool our conceptions of what it means to be the church, and once again learn to live deeply as the body of Christ in our local communities.

In Total Church Chester and Timmis propose that the two core components of church life are the gospel and community. They winsomely and compellingly show that the major responsibilities of the church, i.e. evangelism, discipleship, mercy ministry, pastoral care, etc. are all meant to be accomplished in community, specifically communities of Christians that commit themselves to living under the gospel together. So, for example, in the case of pastoral care--when a person is struggling with fear or anxiety the first place they should go is not to a professional, but to their community, where they can be reminded of the truth that they are secure in Christ and can find their rest in him. Or in the case of evangelism--rather than formulaic, lone-ranger evangelism, the life of the community of Christ itself is to be a demonstration of the power of the gospel to change lives, in such a way that neighbors and friends a) wonder why we love each other so much, b) realize that Christianity may not be so freaky after all, and c) ask questions of us to which the only reasonable answer is "Christ."

Chester and Timmis' articulation of how the gospel can and should shape our life together has changed me, for the good. That's why I strongly encourage you to read this book yourself. Let it change how you see your life and the life of the church. And then let it shape how you live...
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on November 26, 2008
Total Church is a book born out of longing: If only there were a different way of doing church!

Authors Tim Chester and Steve Timmis seek to orient the Church around two main principles: gospel and community. The content of our message is the gospel. The context of our message is the Christian community.

Being gospel-centered means we will be word-centered and mission-centered. This book directly challenges the voices of some in the Emerging Church who downplay the Word in favor of community. But Total Church also challenges the traditional's church's failure to produce authentic community under the guise of "biblical faithfulness."

The authors chose Total Church as the title in order to stress that church is not a place we go. Church is an identity that shapes our whole lives. Our life and mission must become "total church." (18)

The book begins with the principles of gospel and community. I am glad the authors do not collapse these two principles into one. They rightly see the gospel as a proclamation. "The gospel is good news. It is a word to be proclaimed. You cannot be committed to the gospel without being committed to proclaiming that gospel."

Reshaping the church around gospel and community leads to a rethinking of all aspects of church life.

Evangelism? The centrality of the gospel word as proclamation is combined with the importance of the Christian community living with gospel-intentionality.

Social involvement? Loving the poor means we will not only help them with physical needs but proclaim to them the gospel of salvation. The church is not to focus on being a respectable club for the upper class. We form a community that believes all worldly divisions are nullified at the foot of the cross.

Church planting? Let's focus on multiplying small churches rather than growing big ones. Church planting is church growth.

Discipleship and Training? The gospel word means that we will learn from each other as we follow Christ. Authentic Christian community sees church discipline as a natural outgrowth of our close relationships.

Apologetics? Intellectual persuasion is not the answer. Our rejection of the gospel is a moral decision. Instead, we must combine rational apologetics with relational apologetics that spring from a community putting the gospel on display.

Success? We must see ordinary Christians who live out the message of God's kingdom as "successful." We are not to seek church growth for our own glory. Character matters more than charisma.

I enjoyed Total Church. It is filled with powerful insights. But the book has a couple of problems. It seems the authors advocate the house church model in a way that echoes some of the arguments of Viola and Barna's Pagan Christianity. The authors believe the monologue-styled sermon was invented after Constantine. The historical record shows something quite different. If the only person experiencing good learning in a sermon is the preacher (as the authors assert), then it is a wonder any education has taken place in the past 1700 years!

The authors also overreact to the current desire for "spirituality." In the chapter on spiritual disciplines, they downplay the importance of silence and solitude. They do not see stillness in prayer as helpful. "When the psalmists do talk of stilling our hearts, it is not the stillness of silence, but the stilling of self-justification or self-confidence." (148) For the life of me, I cannot find even a hint of this concept in the biblical text itself. It seems that the authors conveniently explain away the commands that do not fit with their preconceived notions of active spirituality.

Surely there are ways we can engage in spiritual disciplines in a gospel-centered, community-centered way, without abandoning some of the historic practices of the church. What the authors want to avoid is the substitution of passive disciplines for active involvement. But why should we choose between the two?

Overall, Total Church is an important book. When I first began reading, I was not expecting their vision of church to be so comprehensive. It is indeed total church - in that this book addresses a wide variety of important issues facing the church. This book will lead to fruitful discussion about the church and the gospel. Total Church deserves to be read, pondered, discussed, and practiced.
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on November 3, 2009
If there is one book that has churned me up on the inside this year it is this one.

It wasn't that I finished this book raving about what a great read it was and how I'm going to buy it for fifty of my closest friends (..when I get fifty friends). On the other hand it wasn't that I finished it in a fit of rage and consigned it to the same heretical charred grave as the "The Shack". I think the best way of putting it is that this book really got me thinking - It divided me and challenged me - it riled me and at times it had me agreeing emphatically. At times I felt it came up trumps and other times I felt it came up badly short. But on the whole it challenged me and got me thinking in a healthy way - and for that purpose I recommend it to you...if you are up to it.

Basically the book endeavors to paint a big picture of what a church is - what it ought to look like and how it ought to function. The book is written by two guys who are heavily involved in a house church movement from the UK called "The Crowded House". Knowing this as I started the book I was wondering whether it would simply be a matter of "flying a kite" their own expression of church.

To be honest I did feel that as I finished the book that this did prove to be the case - they were flying a kite. However to be fair I felt that some of their observations on the current ways we "do" church were remarkably perceptive and timely to the current western expression of church and consequently are very helpful to ponder over - and if they illicit Godly change then that's great.

I think this book is timely in that on the one hand it prompts us to look to what Jesus wants the church to look like and on the other hand to compare that with the current expression of church that we are involved in - this is always a good exercise.

Yet in saying that I do not believe this book will be timeless, much of it is couched in terms that are not from the ground up but appeared to me to be reactionary to your typical current westernized evangelical church of the last 20 years. Time might prove me wrong on that one.

However that is not to say it is without merit - it is a decent book worthy of a read and judging by the highly influential names on the back of the book (Driscoll, Vaughan etc) those in positions of influence far greater than mine would appear to concur.

There are some things I disagree with - (more in my full review) I think most of it stemmed from the fact that as far as a meta narrative is concerned this book was more preoccupied with protest than with a comprehensive constructive agenda - in that respect the title of the book was a little misleading - this is not a thorough from the ground up type of book - so perhaps the main title "Total Church" is not the best.

Don't get me wrong though - it's worth the read - as uncomfortable as it was - the Holy Spirit has certainly put it to good effect in my own ministries - to quote Elvis - "I was all shook up

(full review at [...])
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on April 17, 2015
Tim Chester and Steve Timmis aim to present a gospel-centered vision of the local church as a fellowship community oriented towards missions in Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community.

The notion that the church must be community- and gospel- oriented is absolutely central to the whole book. Time and again examples are put forward towards how the house church can make a huge impact on individuals. The authors rightly emphasize the notion that sometimes measuring success by pure numbers is misleading and, yes, misguided. Throughout the book, a commendable call is issued to seek using the gospel of Christ and making missions a priority in church.

Many stories are provided throughout the book to help make these insights into a practical application. They are appreciated because it gives readers some hands-on ways to deal with situations. I also enjoyed much of the discussion on youth groups and "children's church." Basically, it was argued that we cannot simply make the kids a separate unit from the rest of the church. Youth groups cannot just be a game night, because once the youths get past that, "real, adult" church is so vastly different. We need to emphasize the truths of Christianity throughout our children's lives from the very earliest stages.

The book, however, has some deeply problematic elements. First, the view put forward of counseling and psychology was, frankly, disturbing. There's a lot going on in this chapter, but it really seems to come down to the authors saying that "secular" psychological treatment doesn't help, only the gospel can. We just need to embrace the truths of the gospel and all will be well. One representative quote: "The Bible addresses the entire range of problems we experience in living in this world... It addresses all the basic and essential issues of what it means to be human, both in our sin and in our salvation" (Kindle location 1802; all references are to Kindle locations hereafter). Later, this is made into an application that if we just focus on Christ, our sufferings won't seem significant. At the end of all of this, there is a vague reference to how some kind of counseling outside of church might also be needed, but it is too little, too late, too vaguely stated.

I think this is a deeply misguided attempt to describe a "Christian" view of counseling which simply is--ironically--not outlined in the Bible. Choosing a couple quotes about how our present suffering can be alleviated or overcome by God does not mean that going to "secular" [whatever that means--and in exclusion of the reality of Christian] psychologists and therapists is a poor decision. Yes, we should try to deal with and help with these issues in the context of a community of faith. But God forbid that we approach someone who self-harms [one example they used] and just tell them that their problem is reducible to a spiritual problem, as the authors do: "The term 'spiritual' is not simply another category alongside biological, physical, environmental, upbringing, or relationships. Each of those forms of suffering, passive or active, is always and at some point a spiritual and theological issue" (1881). This seems clearly reductionistic and potentially damaging. I felt this whole section was quite disturbing.

Second, there is a very dim view of academic theology put forward. The authors complain that academic theology is often just for academics and compare the probably legendary story of medieval debates over the number of angels on the head of a pin to modern evangelical theological journals as "no less obscure" (2159)! This is another huge difficulty in the book because it ignores the wide implications of "obscure" theology being done in academia for the church at large. By reducing theology to the task merely of the local church (2148), it seems there is something of a denial of the Holy Spirit's work in guiding the church at large, and, yes, a danger of local churches simply deciding that soul-destroying heresy is sound theology without any support from those "obscure" academics. A blithe dismissal of this enterprise relegates authors like Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and more into the scrap heap of obscurity.

Third, the book largely dismisses the enterprise of apologetics as dealing with issues of the mind and instead argues that "The problem is not that we cannot know God. The problem is that we will not know God. It is a problem of the heart rather than the head" (2344). Later, this leads the authors to the claim that the goal of apologetics must be to "demonstrate that unbelief is a problem of the heart rather than a problem with the head" (2419). Apologetics is envisioned as not being intellectually engage but rather engaged with trying to show people the relational problems they have with God (2467). Not only does this reduce apologetics quite a bit in scope, but it also performs some serious psychoanalysis of those who do not believe by saying that the ultimate problem with every non-Christian is that they somehow have some passionate anger against God.

Now, unless we are to assume that all of these people are lying to us, plenty of atheists throughout history have grounded their rejection quite clearly in intellectual issues. Numerous modern studies have shown that the people leaving the church often do so because of perceived anti-intellectualism or a failure to engage the mind. The task of apologetics can not, and dare not do this, be reduced to vague exploration of the heart rather than the mind. We must engage with the intellectual attacks on Christianity and put forward our position in a winsome manner.

Fourth, the Chester and Timmis often say they are not saying their position is the only way to do something, but then continually pound the notion that their way is the only biblical or gospel-oriented way so often that one wonders whether they do believe other approaches might work. The discussion of the biblical warrant for house churches is but one example, where, after asserting that there is nothing inherently wrong with larger churches, the authors compares them to pagan temples founded due to Constantine's making Christianity the civil religion of the Roman Empire [a historical reality that should be questioned, as it was not the official or exclusive religion until Theodosius I, though this is a complex topic not worth getting deeply into here] (1255). If one approach is "biblical" and other other is merely capitulation to replicate paganism, which one is acceptable? Speaking inclusive approaches but following up with things like this makes me wonder whether there is much generosity happening towards those with whom the authors disagree.

The kindle edition of the book also has some typos, such as replacing "initially" with "Initial" (yes, capitalized in the middle of sentences) at several places in the text. Another one is this portion: "I have used the Initial person, but not to trumpet my experience... I have used the Initial person to show that what I am describing is not impossible rhetoric or unrealistic idealism... At Initial they expressed concern that we did not have an accountability structure over and outside us..." (2782). Looking at the print edition on Amazon, I find that it says "first" in all these places. I don't know if this is the same with all Kindle editions or just the one I received for review.

The Good

+Several good insights into how we might build communities in church
+Emphasis on holistic approach to youths and children

The Bad

-Extremely problematic discussion of counseling
-Often paints an inclusive picture, but then contradicts it with exclusion
-Some questionable exegesis
-Largely dismisses academic theology
-Largely undermines the majority of Christian apologetics

Conclusion

Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community was, unfortunately, not what I had hoped for. Will readers get insights into founding house churches and making communities therefrom? Yes. But unfortunately there is an awful lot of baggage to go along with those insights, including, but not limited to, rejection of massive amounts of Christian academic theology, undercutting Christian apologetics, distorting a Christian view of therapy and psychological treatment, sometimes questionable exegesis, and more.

Crossway provided me with a copy of the book for review purposes. I was not obligated by the publisher to write any kind of review whatsoever.
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on May 28, 2009
I began reading this book having already heard Steve Timmis speak (via podcast) and already having an idea of what the authors were proposing. However, I had no idea that within a week I would be recommending this book to everyone I know. I may not agree with every single claim or proposition, but the thesis of this book is so strong and needed, that even if I disagreed with many of the particulars, I would still recommend this book. However, since I concur with the vast majority of the details, I truly cannot help but herald the need for this book in our local churches. IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THIS BOOK, THEN STOP READING MY REVIEW AND GO READ THIS BOOK.

The thesis can be found on the cover of the book as the subtitle: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community. They propose that "church" should be focused on the Gospel and should be done in the context of community. As they state:

"This book argues that two key principles should shape the way we "do church": gospel and community. Christians are called to a dual fidelity: fidelity to the core content of the gospel and fidelity to the primary context of a believing community. Whether we are thinking about evangelism, social involvement, pastoral care, apologetics, discipleship, or teaching, the content is consistently the Christian gospel, and the context is consistently the Christian community. 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 community."

This idea seems commonsensical as you read the New Testament, but the Western Church has lost this shape and reshaped itself primarily around the mold of programs, meetings, and buildings. The wake up call of these authors needs to be heeded by the American church.

Another theme that runs throughout this book is missional living in our communities. They challenge all Christians to live as missionaries in their communities, because God has sovereignly placed each one of us in our exact location. This missional living means doing the same cultural exegesis, lifestyle sacrifice, and community invasion that a foreign missionary undertakes. Many stories from members of their church are included to support their claims and lend credibility to this model (although, they would hate that I just called it a model). These stories not only prove that this way of "doing church" is more than simply an idealistic model, but also put flesh on the principles espoused throughout the book.

I could find a few minor details that I disagree with or find concerning, but those instances were few, far between, and ultimately overshadowed the grand message of this book. Timmis and Chester are calling the church to reconsider the definition and purpose of the church, and they have done much of the work for us. I cannot think of a church leader, pastor, or member who would not benefit from reading this book. Every pastor should be promoting this book to his flock. If I were a pastor, I would make this book mandatory reading for the leaders of the church.

The primary complaint I have heard concerning this book, is that their model is idealistic and "won't work in my situation or church." The people that make this comment probably also find the Bible too idealistic and, in their minds, Scripture probably won't work in their situation. This pervading mindset explains why the American church has strayed so far from the New Testament picture of the organized church. It seems that most pastors believe that being biblical won't work, but being entertaining, materialistic, and timid will work. This explains what we see whenever we walk through the doors of most church buildings. The disturbing part is that no one has told these pastors and leaders that what they are doing in the name of pragmatism isn't actually working. They aren't building the church, they are building buildings and community programs. They aren't even what the Bible defines as pastors/elders, they are country club directors. I am begging everyone to read this book and compare it with the New Testament picture of the church. Don't trust these two men anymore than you trust your local megachurch pastor; trust Scripture.
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on May 27, 2009
The other reviews nailed it on this book. It has been one of the best books on the church I have read! It is very challenging and thought provoking on how we do church in the USA. While I don't agree with everything in the same way as Tim and Steve... I found the book VERY helpful. I would encourage anyone in the body of Christ, and especially elders, pastors, and church planters to read this book.
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VINE VOICEon January 29, 2010
This book, front to back, keeps saying the same thing over and over again:

"These things are not just for the offices of Christ. These are the things for the saints!"

Things like Gospel and Community are a given but what about things like Evangelism, Pastoral Care, Apologetics or even Theology? Yes, these things are for all the saints.

Most of the chapters are dead on and the authors work really hard to try to get the mindset switched from "oh, that is for those who are called" to "I am called to the Great Commission."

The ONLY beef I would have is with the Spirituality and Theology chapters.

Spirituality - Authors prooftexts (an all too common mistake in the Evangelical world) Matthews 18:19-20

Theology - While otherwise very solid, it is the way that the authors put theology into practice at their own church. Each of the house churches come up with their own theology and... that is it. No verification by elders. No checking for heresy. No emphasis on clarification. Certainly, we cannot follow suit.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this for any small group. Open it up to discussion and see what your people would push back on. But if you do so, you have to walk with them and guide them along.
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on February 6, 2008
Better than most of the emerging/emergent books out there on the missional church, this book is a challenging and readable argument for a return to a Church grounded in Grace, Community, and Mission. You may not agree with every assertion (and the authors assume that you won't), but you will definitely be challenged to re-think many of the presuppositions of American evangelicalism in more Biblical ways. These guys are clearly as well read as any author writing Christian books today, and more thoughtful than most. Not a perfect book, but thorough and biblical.

If only more books like this were popular in the church, and less books telling us how God wants us to have our best life now, or the Cadiallac Life Today.
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on February 10, 2015
This is probably the best book I have read on what the church should be. It is refreshing to see how Chester has done church planting in England and how it has strive to shape it around what the Bible teaches about the church. It is very practical and refreshing (again). Any pastor, church planter or leader would benefit from this book. Your perspective on the church will change.
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