Gospel-centred church: becoming the community God wants you to be by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester is a book to get churches moving. This isn’t a theology of church, nor is it a typical catalogue of all the key elements of church. It’s a book designed to get churches looking outward. The authors are persuaded that mission is the central purpose of the church in the world. (p10) The key word for them is ‘central’. Mission is not to be one thing that is done among many others. They’re not promoting mission teams alongside pastoral teams, music teams, and youth teams. They’re not looking at mission as one branch of theology alongside many others, but argue that all theology must be missionary in it’s orientation. (p11)
Along with their other ‘gospel-centred’ books, this is a practical workbook. It’s designed to get people thinking and talking together, engaging with the Scriptures, engaging with their circumstances, and taking action as part of a missional church. Each chapter begins with a short cameo issue facing the church. These are real teasers. I long to see how the authors would address each issue, but they are left unresolved to get us thinking. It worked for me! These are followed by a stated principle, that is then explained with reference to the Bible. Lastly there are questions for discussion and ideas for action. Gospel-centred church can be read by an individual fairly quickly. However, the real benefits will come from reading slowly, working through the issues, making some plans for action, and preferably doing this with others.
No doubt evangelicals (gospel people) will debate whether the central purpose of the church in the world is in fact mission. What about doing everything to the glory of God? What about the worship of God? What about the profound existence of a gathering of people who are one with Christ? There is a need for the authors to spend some time establishing their thesis, rather than simply writing… Who will argue that mission is not the purpose of the church? As Emil Brunner famously said: ‘The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning’. (p10) The central point of the book needs to be better anchored and secured, as they go on to hang so much from this.
Some might argue that this book should be given a different title. Perhaps it could be more accurately called ‘mission-focused small churches’. There is a clear preference for certain types of churches and particular strategies for outreach, that drive the principles in this book. Larger churches, who own their own buildings, have multiple staff, embrace particular outreach strategies, and do things differently to the Crowded House network, might be tempted to dismiss sections of this book. Let me say, I believe it would be a big mistake to ignore this because there are things you disagree with. This book contains much that our churches desperately need to hear afresh.
It’s far too easy for churches to become preoccupied with themselves. We can become isolated from the world around us. Many church people need to do a stocktake of their relationships and time with people. How much time is caught up with church people, church activities, church events? Every now and then I hear Christians bemoaning the fact that they don’t really know anyone who’s not a Christian. They’ve become settled in their Christian ghetto. There’s church, Christian groups, church committees, Christian friends, church responsibilities. If we’re so inclined, we can probably shut ourselves off from the rest of the world all together. And some of the people most in danger of doing this are the pastors of churches. Church takes all their time, so they can’t possibly be expected to relate to anyone else. Can they? The answer is ‘Yes’. And they must!
We forget that we have been entrusted with the news of eternal life that our world so desperately needs. News is for sharing – simple as that. No pastor should be disconnected from the world around them. Every Christian should seek friendships with people who aren’t Christian. In other words, we should live normal lives. Some of my best friends aren’t Christian, even though I’d love them to be. It’s not hard to get out and start mixing with people at school, the shops, in sport, interest groups, in the neighbourhood, with extended family. Wherever you naturally rub shoulders with people. And if you only rub shoulders with other Christians, then it’s time to repent of your monastic attitude. And don’t blame your church for your choices. If your church has such control over you that you have no choice, then it’s time to find another one – one that seeks to honour God in the freedom of the gospel.
This book will get churches and Christians thinking afresh. It will challenge our sacred cows, demolish some of our idols, and question our priorities and practices. It will help you to start thinking, planning, praying, speaking and living as a missionary. You don’t have to get a passport and visa to become a missionary. The need is right around you. The church is called to do more than send and support others as missionaries. We all have a role to play in promoting this great news of Jesus where we are. Let’s ensure that our lives and our words, individually and corporately, bear testimony to our Saviour and Lord.
It would be a big mistake to take this book and simply adopt the practices within. Not every church has to be like the ones the authors are engaged in. There is no ‘one size fits all’ template for gospel-centred churches. Every chapter of this book should be read in the light of the principle in the final chapter: All church structures and activities should be evaluated by how they help the spread of the gospel. (p93)
Also, if the authors are planning a revised second edition, then I’d recommend another chapter and it should be the first one. A book on Gospel-centred church should start with the gospel! The existing chapter 1 needs to be relegated to second place. We need to hear first about what God has done for us in Christ, how Jesus is building his church, about his death and resurrection, before we consider the purpose of the church in the world. A Gospel-centred church will shine a light on the wonder and work of God. And this is where this book should begin.