My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The times they are a changin’. If America ever was a Christian nation, it certainly isn’t one now. It would do us good, therefore, to listen to conservative Christians whose nation is much further down the road we’re on. Tim Chester and Steve Timmis are two such men from one such nation: Britain. And they are here to tell their fellow Brits—and warn their brothers in America—that old methods of outreach which traded on the social cachet of the church will bring diminishing returns over time.
But this book is not an apologia for more seeker-sensitive, church growth outreach models. At its heart, it’s quite old-fashioned. As in 2,000-years-old-fashioned.
Simply put, the lost will not come to our churches in this post-Christian culture. We must go to them. “Sunday morning in church is the one place where evangelism cannot take place in our generation, because the lost are not there.”* We are missionaries to a foreign culture in our own land.
It does no good whining about our loss of cultural influence:
Often Christians complain about the treatment of Christianity in the wider culture. They bemoan legislation that does not reflect Christian values. They lament the representation of Christianity in the media. They decry politicians who profess themselves atheists. We do not welcome any of these things, but none of them surprise us. We cannot expect the world to be like us. Indeed we are surprised whenever we do see the culture conforming to Christian values or reacting positively to the church. The tradition of nonconformist dissent has been replaced by middleclass conformity. 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.
The changed cultural situation makes the New Testament epistle of 1 Peter peculiarly appropriate for modern Western Christians. The marginalization and suffering faced by Peter’s readers is already here, though in less violent doses than in Peter’s day (equally violent in the case of the majority world). So Chester and Timmis’ book is structured around an exposition of 1 Peter, an intriguing idea that does yield many insights.
And the authors’ recommendations are a direct application of Peter’s. They tell us that “mission takes places not through attractional events, but through attractional communities.”
This calling on God’s people to attract the world to God through the quality of their life is precisely how Peter goes on to apply his allusions to the Old Testament: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:11–12)…. This does not mean that good works on their own are sufficient. Proclamation matters. We are called to “declare” God’s praises (1 Pet. 2:9). We are to be ready to give “an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” (1 Pet. 3:15). The gospel is a word, but the primary context in which that word is proclaimed is everyday life.
The authors proceed to recommend various ways in which we can use our normal, daily routines to make natural connections with the lost (and saved) people in our communities. And various ways in which we can set up our communities to facilitate and create such opportunities.
The authors are not under any illusions that a new method will solve all the difficulties in evangelism. But they do offer much wisdom about how to handle those difficulties.
Enthusiasm for evangelism does not begin with evangelism at all. Exhortations to evangelize just leave us feeling useless. Driven by guilt we try turning the conversation at work around to spiritual things with horrible, crunching gear changes, or we knock on a few doors to little effect. So we give up. Again. And feel guilty. Again.
They give humorous examples of such gear changes (“So you are watching [soccer] and you resort to saying things like, ‘At last a substitution. Did you know that Jesus could be your substitute?’ ‘Great goal. What about you? What’s the goal of your life?’ ‘Come on referee! That was never a penalty! Did you know Jesus paid the penalty for our sin?’”), and then they make the simple suggestion that the way to avoid them is not necessarily to learn better gospel pick-up lines but to 1) have the kind of love and 2) practice the kind of good works that get you a hearing.
People may not come to you to ask you a reason for the hope that is in you. And, increasingly, they won’t come to church to see the show you put on. They’ve got TV. But the church does have something to offer the watching world, something the world (and especially TV) doesn’t have: a harmonious community of love. Christians collectively can cause people to question the reason for our hope.
The book ends with suggestions on how to turn a church whose sole focus is Sunday services into a church which functions every day as a community.
The authors are not “emergent.” They are not opposed to monological preaching or to teaching authority. They don’t say anything about soul patches. They are clearly theologically conservative. They also make good use of the resources of biblical scholarship in their handling of Scripture. And they don’t write with the kind of pride that true innovations (emphasis on the nov-) can bring, but rather with the kind of confidence brought about by a recovery of scriptural emphases. And it’s understandable that such a recovery might be taking place now, because our cultural circumstances have moved Westerners closer to those faced by Peter’s readers. That insight alone was likely worth the price of the book, and it’s one I’ll explore as I read Peter’s book in the future.
I did feel at a few points that I was losing the 1 Peter thread, that he was trotted in when helpful and trotted back to the sidelines when not needed. But this is a relatively minor criticism; the book is not a formal exposition.
My only other complaints center around a (very) few of the recommended activities for sharing life with non-Christians (and other Christians). The television shows they mention watching and at least one of the venues they recommend using for evangelism (namely a pub) seem to run counter to gospel purposes. The medium is the message, and those choices would, I believe, send a mixed one.
And one last minor, quasi-complaint: It’s a little difficult for me, having read the authors’ first book, Total Church, to distinguish their two works. Their newer work seems to be rehashing a lot of the same themes. It was, perhaps, a bit less punchy. But a bit more convincing—largely because it made such insightful use of 1 Peter.
I believe that Chester and Timmis have hit upon a vein of truth that we in our post-Christendom era would do well to mine.
*Sorry, no page numbers. I read this book on my Kindle in a galley provided by Crossway through NetGalley.