This review was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.
Aliens and strangers. While these words may conjure images of space battles and horror movies, the apostle Peter uses such terms to describe a marginalized community of Christians living in the Roman Empire during the first century (1 Pet. 2:11). Struggling under the weight of social ostracism, family rejection, and widespread hostility on account of their faith, Peter’s first readers understood what it meant to be on the fringes of society.
In Everyday Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis argue that American Christianity is headed in that same direction. From our inflexible standards of morality to our exclusive claims regarding salvation, evangelical Christians are increasingly viewed as intolerant and irrelevant. Drawing on the paradigm-shattering research of sociologist Peter Berger, the authors note that modernity has resulted in a pervasive pluralism fundamentally intolerant of any and all intolerance (the irony is palpable). The consequence of this steady shift in worldview is increasing marginalization of the church in the West.
Everyday Church follows up on the authors’ earlier book, Total Church (Crossway, 2008), in which Chester and Timmis, founders of The Crowded House church planting network in the U.K., seek to reshape “church” around two key principles: gospel and community. In many ways, Everyday Church elaborates on one of the most memorable lines from Total Church: “Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality” (63).
From pastoral care to evangelism, Everyday Church continually emphasizes the fundamental importance of ordinary life, resisting the all-too-common mindset (sometimes verbalized, but most often just noticeable in practice) that considers Monday through Saturday unimportant compared to the “real stuff” that happens on Sunday. Rather, Timmis and Chester argue, we must “shift our focus from putting on attractional events to creating attractional communities” (10). The authors are careful to ground their arguments and suggestions in Scripture, primarily through missional reflections on 1 Peter.
Armed with a robust assortment of facts and figures, Chester and Timmis open the book by examining the church’s place in our post-Christian, Western context. As in Europe, the church in America is increasingly reviled in the realm of public discourse, no longer accorded the widespread respect and admiration enjoyed by previous generations. This shift, the authors argue, must be considered when thinking about the church’s community and mission.
In the next four chapters, Chester and Timmis discuss the day-to-day reality of their renewed vision of church, exploring the nature of “everyday” community, pastoral care, mission, and evangelism. These chapters, full of biblical wisdom and practical suggestions, continually challenged my thinking and stirred my imagination. For instance, Chester and Timmis remind readers that the “Christendom mentality” that tends towards surprise when faced with, among other things, legislation that doesn’t line up with biblical values or unfavorable portrayals of Christians in the media, is quite foreign to the perspective of the New Testament. They write, “We need to discover or recover the sense that if this year we are not imprisoned, then it has been a good year in which by the grace of God we have gotten off lightly” (38).
From suggesting that Christians join pre-existing social groups instead of creating new evangelistic ministries to offering lists of challenging questions for reflection and self-analysis, these practical chapters encouraged me to think carefully about my church as a community of interdependent believers living as ambassadors for Christ each and every day. Yet Chester and Timmis never stop reminding readers that the goal should not simply be “doing” community and mission better. Rather, the move is always from “identity to action,” with biblical ideals realizable only “because of the new reality God has produced in our lives through the gospel Word” (60). This gospel backbone, bolstered by the authors’ obvious dependence on Scripture, keeps Everyday Church from devolving into a list of do’s and don’t’s designed to make the church more palatable to the outside world.
In the final two chapters, Chester and Timmis explore the nature of Christian hope and share details related to how they shepherd their church. These chapters are the book’s strongest, addressing practical issues such as money, church leadership, and prayer. The authors also address two common accusations often levied against them, namely that they oppose “big church” and “monologue preaching” (156). Chester and Timmis reject such charges, noting that what concerns them is simply a “privileged status” that often distracts Christians from living as family and proclaiming the Word in the everyday. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not they agree. Additionally, some readers may be uncomfortable with the fact that the authors apparently don’t confine baptism and communion to the church’s corporate gathering on Sunday (155).
My biggest critique of Everyday Church is that the authors’ claims and arguments occasionally lack nuance. At times Chester and Timmis make statements that seem ambiguous and simplistic, from their use of undefined terms such as “church” (17) and “institution” (20) to overly negative portrayals of various church programs (50). By the end of the book, however, it’s clear that Chester and Timmis are reacting against an overemphasis and overreliance on “attractional” meetings and events, rather than against the meetings and events per se. Christians coming from “traditional” church backgrounds would do well to read Everyday Church with this in mind, remaining open to the possibility that, at the very least, re-evaluation of pre-existing church structures and priorities may be in order.
Context of Community and Mission
In the final analysis, Everyday Church is an insightful addition to a growing corpus of literature focused on helping Christians become more intentional about living gospel-centered lives with fellow Christians and among the lost. Although not as groundbreaking as Total Church, Chester and Timmis’s latest contribution is more practical and, in that regard, perhaps more helpful for those seeking to practically apply the principles the authors so passionately proclaim. Their vision—simultaneously robust yet simple, convicting yet compelling, sober yet optimistic—demands reflection and deserves a response.
At the heart of our vision is not a new way of doing events but the creation of Word-centered gospel communities in which people share life with one another and with unbelievers, seeking to bless their neighborhoods, “gospeling” one another, and sharing the good news with unbelievers. The context for this gospel-centered community and mission is not events but ordinary, everyday life. (50)
By God’s grace, that is a vision that I, for one, hope to cultivate in my own life, family, and church.