In their book Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community, authors Tim Chester and Steve Timmis present a radical and daring approach to the church and ministry. They dare to return to the biblical definition of the church and use the New Testament church as an example of how to “do church.” There are no Christians anywhere on the spectrum who would argue that their local church or approaches to church are perfect. From Reformed circles to the “emergent church” movement, we all can agree there is need for reform in the church, particularly with regard to how the church reaches the lost.
Chester and Timmis have much experience with this in their church-planting ministry, The Crowded House. While attempts at church reform are far from simple and indeed carry many complex issues with them, Chester and Timmis show that the only hope for church reform is to return to the basics, to radically “reshape around gospel and community.”
When we contemplate the best ways to reach the lost, we tend to automatically jump to programs, methods, and approaches. While programs, methods, and approaches are inevitably necessary to consider and employ in our efforts to reach the lost, there must be two pillars present in order for all outreach ministry to be anchored. In fact, I believe unless ministries in the church are anchored by these two pillars, they are ultimately futile. They are gospel and community.
This makes me think of my pastor and what he is trying to instill in our church. This year he has essentially been emphasizing these two pillars–gospel and community. He has infused a phrase that expresses the latter: “Together is Better.” Like a battle cry, this is a catchy phrase that induces feelings of unity and community. However, I hope our church family (myself included) has not overlooked the dual partner with this emphasis on community–the gospel. Together is not better if we are not together for the gospel. Together is not better if we are not actively seeking to reach the lost with the gospel. Together is not better if we lose sight of the gospel and focus solely on community. Pastor Norm gets it. He has a vision for ministry and evangelism that fuses gospel and community in an inseparable way. While our summer feeding program is designed to take care of physical needs in our community, which we meet together, the ultimate purpose of this ministry is to actively share the gospel and see children and adults trust Christ. I have noticed that his desire for the propagation of the gospel has fueled his desire for a tightly knit community of believers, and vice-versa. Oh, FBCEB may we stay the course, continue to catch this vision, and sink our feet deeply in the pillars of truth and unity, gospel and community.
If we are not careful, we can easily abuse these two pillars. It is possible to be focused on the gospel while forsaking community. It is of little benefit to know our Bibles through and through, yet not love one another and love the lost. We can become premier theologians, but if this focus on the gospel does not spur us on to love each other deeply in community for the sake of a unified effort to reach the lost, there is a serious disconnect within our hearts.
Similarly, though dangerous and even frightening, there is the possibility that we can have a kind of community without the gospel. We can forsake the gospel for community, which is the most prevalent option in many local churches. When we try to reach the unchurched by watering down the gospel, not preaching the Bible, and relying solely on an attractive community, we will be reaching them with a sense of belonging, but leaving out the one thing that created the community that we have. We are not after a large group of people who like each other. We are after a community of believers, seeking to glorify and enjoy God in every area of life. We are after the picture we saw yesterday; a new believer confessing her faith and expressing a desire to be baptized. The unity we felt when we hugged and welcomed her was worthwhile because it was unity in the gospel.
At the end of the day, we can fearlessly pursue various ministries and even new ways of “doing church” so long as these two pillars are anchoring our motives and guiding our vision–gospel and community. When we lose sight of either, our ministries will ultimately fail in either effectiveness or significance. Any ministry that is gospel-centered, yet lacks community will send a confusing message. Any ministry that is community-centered, yet lacks the gospel is a waste of time. If we want to be a “total church” or a church that mirrors the early church, above all else we must keep the gospel central within the confines of community. Change in the church is good, as long as we never change our focus on the gospel and our lives in community. Together is definitely better when we are together in the gospel and for the sake of Christ in our neighborhoods and in the nations.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife Erica and their dog, Simba.