Tag Archives: books

Total Church (iv) – social involvement

The 4th chapter of Total church concentrates on social involvement. How much should a church be socially involved. Often in the past, doing good works has been seen as an either/or with evangelism.

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis point out that Jesus not only went to the poor and marginalised, he considered them equally worthy to have community with him as anyone else. By sitting and eating with, say, Zacchaeus the tax collected Jesus invited him into him community. The poor don’t just need their lived improved, they need the gospel. Cleaning up someone’s house, for example, is a great example of how communities can love the poor, but this act needs to point to something. Without the gospel of grace it would equally point to a gospel of works or social betterment. This is not the gospel that Jesus taught. All need to hear his words and respond to him in repentance and receive grace. The poor are poor for all sorts of reasons, and very few of them have to do with lack of resources. By introduction to and welcome into an authentic Christian community, they will have the support they need.

However, Christian community has not always been welcoming to the poor. Timmis and Chester are also critical of how churches in the UK (particularly evangelical churches) have traditionally neglected problem areas. The successful ones are full of middle class, upwardly mobile, wealthy people – people just like each other. For some reason, the working classes have not been welcomed or have not felt able to go there. The Christian community was lacking. This, they claim, is not only doing the poor a dis-service, but the rich too, as it communicates a message that Jesus wasn’t teaching – one where status and wealth do matter (even if this is unspoken). The gospel of grace is a gospel for all, rich and poor, and I can’t help thinking we are lacking something of authentic Christian community if we neglect either group.

Total Church (iii) – whole community evangelism

Continuing on their discussion of church being a place where gospel ad community meet, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis move on to talk about evangelism in their book Total Church.

Too often evangelism is seen as something difficult, for individuals to engage in, and as something else that a Christian needs to slot into their life. They argue that if the church took the call to be a radical loving community seriously, this needn’t be the case. People become Christians and start asking questions, they claim, when they see the intersection between faith and the community of faith.

They see a three-strand approach to evangelism: Building relationships, sharing the gospel, and introducing to the community. And, they claim, it doesn’t matter which one comes first. This makes evangelism a role of the whole community, not just of the individual who first meets the seeker.

Some people are simply not good at speaking to strangers and forming new friendships. One of the practical benefits of the three strand model of evangelism is that it gives a role to all of God’s people. By making evangelism a community project, it also takes seriously the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in distributing a variety of gifts among his people. Everyone has a part to play: the new Christian, the introvert, the extravert, the eloquent, the stuttering, the intelligent, the awkward. I may be the one who has begun to build a relationship with my neighbour, but by introducing him to community, it is someone else who shares the gospel with him. That is not only legitimate; it is positively thrilling!

If this is the model, evangelism does not become an extra thing that an individual needs to do, but it is a gospel intention in the way a community lives out its life. As it goes about what it usually does, inviting people into the community should become second nature.

The Gospels as eyewitness testimony – Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham, a professor in theology in Cambridge has written a little booklet on the reliability of the eyewitness accounts of Jesus contained in the gospels, The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony published in the Grove series. It is based on his longer book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. He is primarily writing against form criticism, the predominant method used by some scholars to deconstruct the gospels and test for authenticity. They often hold up a dichotomy between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of Faith” – one can be known from the gospels, but the other cannot. Bauckham reconciles the two by looking for the “Jesus of Testimony” – the Jesus who is described in the gospel by those that were there.

Form criticism relies on the fact that the stories contained in the gospels were handed down through oral tradition – a community telling the stories of Jesus to each other for a few decades until it was eventually handed on to those who wrote them down in the gospels, having forgotten who originally told them. With such an method, adherents of form criticism would say that surely many details got changed or forgotten!

There are many communities that practice handing down stories through oral tradition over several generations, but the early Christian community, Bauckham asserts, was not one of them. The gospels were all written within a few decades (30-40 years) of Jesus’ death, within the lifetimes of people who were there with Jesus. The stories, therefore, never needed to be handed down through many people, but came directly from the eyewitnesses themselves. This adds an authenticity to the stories of Jesus as they came from people who were there at the time (and we often rely on eyewitness accounts to describe details of history now – for example, details of the horrors of the Holocaust are only known through the testimony of survivors).

Bauckham later hypothesises about the inclusion of names of particular minor characters in the gospels, when so many others were left nameless – that these names were pointing to well known Christians who were alive at the time of writing who were the eyewitness source of the event:

Why is it that in Mark’s gospel Jarius and Bartimaus were named, while all other recipients of Jesus’ healings are anonymous (Mark 6:3; 10:46)? Why does Luke, in his narrative of the two disciples who meet the risen Jesus on the way to Emmaus name one of the two (Cleopas) but not the other (Luke 24:18)… The only hypothesis I know that accounts for the evidence is that in most of these cases the names persons became members of the early Christian communities and themselves told the stories in which they appear in the gospels.

One could derive from Bauckham’s conclusion that the Jesus of history can be found through the pages of the four gospels found in the Bible. And once we stop picking him apart we can start to know him as the Christ of Faith.

Total Church (ii) – authentic community

I started taking God seriously whilst at university. There were plenty of questions about faith that were going around in my head at the time, such as how do we relate to God, etc. But the thing that made a difference in my faith was finding a community (in the form of a student group) in which I could ask these questions. Since then, I have been drawn to churches where there has been this sense of community in some way, be it in the whole congregation or in small groups.

Tim Chester and Steve Timmis address this issue of community in the second chapter of Total Church. They claim that community was at the heart of God’s covenantal dealings with us and his mission in the world – from the law that governed the community given by Moses at Mount Sinai, the nation that was to be a kingdom of priests to the surrounding world, to the small community that Jesus drew around himself to redirect  the mission of God.. This community was centred around Jerusalem to draw people in, now it is centred around Jesus a goes out. But community is still key. As the early apostles went out they planted communities in each city, not just a place where individuals could come and perform acts of worship. The church (that is, the community of believers) is still at the heart of God’s dealing with the world

Chester and Timmis also claim that too often church has been seen as just that place to come to deal with an individual’s worship needs. It is seen as one more thing to juggle in a busy life, alongside work, family, social activities and the like., So, when something else, say, a new born baby comes along to make life even more busier, church is often the thing that gets dropped.

What is the alternative? Well, in a truly supportive loving Christian community, the Jesus-centred community is the focus, not the individual. So when one person suddenly has more responsibility or less time, the rest of the community gather round to support. Similarly, when more time is gained, it can be offered to the community. So when, say, church members Bob and Mary have twins:

When babies are born [or anything else] it is an issue for the whole church. The congregation takes on some of the responsibility because their identity and life is that of persons-in-community. So, perhaps a couple of people go round early each morning to bath the babies so Bob and Mary can have time together over breakfast. Or someone offers to take Bob to work for  a few months so that on the way he can sleep… Bob and Mary may not be as involved in the church meetings, but they are more involves than ever in the life of the community.

That sounds like an attractive vision to me.

On Chesil Beach – a book review

On Chesil BeachI have just finished reading British author, Ian McEwan’s latest novel, On Chesil Beach. I have read two of his novels before –  Atonement, which I enjoyed mostly (the middle section languished a little), and Saturday, which I loved.  In Saturday, McEwan writes about one family during one event packed day in London. In On Chesil Beach, McEwan bring the focus in even further, concentrating on just one evening and one couple. He doesn’t miss a detail. As McEwan’s writing focusses on a more closely defined moment, his writing seems to get better. There are spoilers in this post.

The setting, Chesil Beach in Dorest, England, is a spit created by the action of the tide over many centuries –  long expanse of sand and stones which stretches for 18 miles along the Dorset coastline. It creates numerous lagoons behind the strip of sand and pebbles and it is considered a World Heritage site.

So, a lovely backdrop for a novel. On Chesil Beach is about a young couple, Edward and Florence, on their wedding night, in 1962, who take their honeymoon in a (fictional) guest house near Chesil Beach. 1962 was a time before the sexual revolution and societal freedoms that came at the end of the 1960s. McEwan artfully describes their thoughts and actions that come out of an English stuffiness, some would say, repression. As the couple eat their evening meal on the day of their wedding in the dining room of their private suite in the guest house, their attention is drawn to the bed in the adjoining room. Interspersed with flashbacks from their childhood and courtship, McEwan gives the background that leads to the events to come, fleshing out the characters of the two honeymooners. But it all goes terribly wrong. As expectations are dashed, sexual disappointment is confounded by blame, and the way they react.

There are many ideas in the book, some to do with the sexual freedoms of another age, which McEwan implies lies behind the difficulties. But these could have been overcome had the characters reacted in different ways. Edward chooses to be offended with Florence near the end of the book after she runs out on him. He could be seen as rightly offended, but he chooses not to forgive, but to allow his anger and hurt build up inside him. At the end of the book as Edward looks back on his life, the reader can’t help but wonder if he regretted it. Florence likewise – it could be argued that she was at fault, but then she chooses to run away from her problems. Again, as we hear about her later years. there is that lingering regret.

Granted, the characters are young – dealing with such events like these takes a certain maturity and is always easier in the cold light of day, when emotions are more detached. But both characters, moreso Edward than Florence, had to try and save face in front of each other and we unable to show the humility that would have led to them being reconciled.

I guess, like Atonement, McEwan has described an event which requires forgiveness, but which, within his worldview, is not possible. On finishing the book, I was left with a cold disappointment for what became of the characters. Somehow, It all seemed so avoidable.  A wonderfully written book.

BTW: If you want to know what the hissing and clattering of the waves on the stones sound like at Chesil Beach, which McEwan describes well, watch this video:

Total Church (i) – Whole life discipleship

I’m currently reading Tim Chester and Steve Timmis book, Total Church, so I thought I’d blog my way through it.

The first chapter mentions the role of the Word and the Spirit in the church. They quite rightly point out that not all that is remarkable is from the Spirit, but that the Spirit convicts through the Word. God has acted through Word and Spirit together  all throughout the Bible, from Genesis, to Jesus (the Word), on through Acts and the early church – the word continues to spread through the power of the Spirit. Even today, Christians are convicted through the words of Jesus brought to them by the Spirit through the Bible. One required the other. (Perhaps there is stuff here to say about Todd Bentley and Lakeland – is it word centred or is it entirely amazing spirit based show. – That is another topic)

At the end of the chapter, Chester and Timmis question the role of churches in enabling regular congregants to be a part of the mission of God. Oftenw e think of mission as an add on, only for the super keen. This, he claims, comes from a tendency for churches to convert and retain new members, rather than train and release. He cites the example of overseas missionaries. When they are sent, sometimes to be full time, but often to do secular jobs in other countries so that they can engage in mission in that place (this is often called tentmaking after Paul the apostle’s example), the church (rightly) makes a big deal of it. We test their vocation, pray and commission them before they go, expect regular updates so the prayer can continue. Sometimes groups from the church visit and encourage them in their new setting.

But what about the Christian teacher who is the sole Christian member of staff responsible for 40 mostly non-Christian children? What about the Christian electrician of plumber who spend every day in other peoples houses, fixing essential services and making conversation? What about the Christian lawyer who ends up counselling or defending victims or perpetrators of crime? Don’t they deserve prayer and attention from the church?

This is one of the big problems of western Christianity, Chester and Timmis say. We don’t train and equip people to live as Christians in their whole lives. We have a two tier heriarchy of what ‘Christian mission’ means – namely, those people in other countries or in full time paid Christian work. We are all Christian missionaries and the church must take ‘whole life’ discipleship seriously.

Douglas Coupland on the inner voice

A great quote from a novel I’m reading:

I’m sitting here and my inner voice won’t shut up. Do you ever get that? All you crave is silence, but instead you sit there and , against your wishes, nag yourself at full volume? Money! Loneliness! Failure! Sex! Body! Enemies! Regrets!

And everyone’s doing the same thing – friends, family, that lady at the gas station till, your favourite movie star – everyone’s skull is buzzing with me, me, me, me, me, and nobody knows how to shut it off. We’re a planet of selfish me-robots. I hate it. I try to turn it off.

From The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland.

Do you ever feel like that?