Steve Timmis on the nature of local church ministry

Communications Staff — January 25, 2010

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Imagine four men, all members of the same church, having dinner at a local restaurant. Dinner has been ordered and the men are waiting for their food. The conversation turns to work. One man, Dave, begins to harp on his boss, grousing about how difficult he is to work with. Two of the others readily join in, eagerly divulging the weaknesses they see in their own superiors.

The fourth man, Matt, takes in the scene for about five minutes. As Dave is about to launch into another salvo, Matt suddenly interjects, “Guys, I thought we all believed in a crucified and resurrected Christ, but from the looks of things here maybe I was wrong.”

Silence reigns.

Then Dave responds, somewhat begrudgingly, “Matt, you’re right: I’m not reflecting Gospel hope. How do you guys think I can best represent Christ to my boss?”

Such a situation represents the crux of Steve Timmis’ passion: teaching people how to live daily life with Gospel intentionality.

Meet Steve Timmis

Timmis is the co-founder, with Tim Chester, of The Crowded House, a church planting initiative in Sheffield, UK, and the co-director, also with Chester, of the Porterbrook Network, which trains and mentors church planters. Timmis and Chester are also the co-authors of “Total Church,” a book on local church ministry that presents their ministry philosophy.

What is The Crowded House? Timmis described it as “A network of churches that are being planted that are committed to communicating the good news about Christ by word and deed, by the shared life together and the way that they impact the communities that they are a part of.”

Gospel word and Gospel community

The Crowded House, and Timmis’ overall ministry philosophy, centers on two foundational pillars: Gospel word and Gospel community.

“We take seriously the Gospel word — we are confessional evangelicals. We have a number of values and a statement of faith that reflects that,” said Timmis, who also serves as Western Europe Director for the Acts 29 church planting network. “We believe the Gospel word is a word to be spoken: we try and argue that very clearly in church (life). So, you can’t talk about living a life without speaking the Word. If you do, then whatever you are doing, you are not evangelizing; you are selling the Gospel short. So, the Gospel word is very important to us and it is a word that focuses upon what God has done in Christ in redeeming a people for Himself who will enjoy Him for eternity.

“We also take seriously Gospel community in a way that, traditionally, confessional evangelicals haven’t. Gospel community is a group of people who are being rescued by King Jesus and who live as His subjects together to demonstrate to the world what a great King He is. So, Gospel community is a demonstrating community: it demonstrates the nature of the Kingdom of God, the nature of Jesus’s rule.”

Fleshing out Gospel community

When Timmis says he and The Crowded House take Gospel community seriously in a way that confessional evangelicals have not traditionally, he refers to an emphasis on living out one’s theology in the crucible of relationships with others who are seeking to do the same.

In “Total Church” Timmis and Chester make the statement, “The theology that matters is not the theology we profess but the theology we practice.” Later they say what counts is teaching that leads to changed lives.

“As I look at the church and look at my own life, my problem isn’t the theology that I know or the talks that I have listened to, it is the life that I live,” Timmis said. “It is actually living out that life and being obedient as a child of God.

“So, I can talk about the sovereignty of God in lofty theological terms and I can cite Calvin and the ‘Institutes’ until I am blue in the face. But if I don’t submit to His sovereignty in the intimate details of my life then I know nothing of sovereignty. But (rightly understanding and living in light of) His sovereignty is that which, when my five-year-old is dying in the hospital, that His truth sustains me. That I fall back into His sovereign arms with my heart breaking because I know that He is a God who is good. So, that is what we mean by it (the theology that matters is the theology we profess).”

Timmis said that while confessional evangelicals have done a good job of teaching sound theology, their work at seeing people live out such theology has been lacking.

“What we want to do is equip the people not to be theologically smart so that they can pass exams, but people who are intentionally godly, who are radically godly in how they live their lives,” he said. “So, we have got to place as much emphasis upon Bible learning as we have upon Bible teaching. We have been satisfied with preaching a good sermon. We have told the Bible well and we go home and we have a sense of satisfaction, patting ourselves on the back and that is just very dangerous. We have got to find a way to take that word and massage it deep into people’s lives so it changes life.”

Doing total church

What does Timmis think should come to mind when people think “church?”

“I think that what does come to people’s mind is a building very often,” he said. “If they are a bit cuter theologically it might be a meeting. But what I think should come to people’s mind is a people, a people in relationship with one another living under the reign of King Jesus. It is a dynamic community of people in and out of each other’s lives and loving God and loving others.”

The Crowded House follows a unique church structure. Timmis, who said he could only speak for his section of The Crowded House network (each section is unique), described the structure as “modified Presbyterianism.”

“The part (of The Crowded House) that I am part of is made up of seven Gospel communities,” he said. “Our Gospel communities are our basic building block of church. That’s church, just by another name. I reckon that if I was translating the New Testament I would take the word ecclesia and I would translate it Gospel community in terms of how Paul uses it in his letters.

“Those seven Gospel communities meet together on a weekly basis in a (combined) gathering. There the Bible is taught, we sing songs: it is church pretty much like people will recognize it. But the real life of church, life-on-life stuff, goes on in those Gospel communities day-by-day throughout the week.”

Each Gospel community, which Timmis said is made up of 15-25 people, also meets weekly. At these meetings, someone leads a dialogical discussion/lesson that seeks to flesh out the sermon from the Sunday combined meeting. Timmis said they teach the men who lead those discussions to prepare for them just as extensively as they would a sermon.

The Lord’s Supper, baptism and church discipline take place at the Gospel community level. Church discipline happens in each Gospel community, but then is shared between Gospel communities, Timmis said.

“We might (sometimes) do baptism in the larger gathering, but that is a decision that the Gospel community that that person is being converted in would make,” Timmis said. “So the person being baptized might say, ‘Actually I have a lot of family who might think doing church in a house is a bit weird’ (which could lead to him being baptized in the gathering).”

The combined gathering has several elders who are then each responsible for one or two Gospel communities. Timmis is an elder who oversees two Gospel communities, though he does not lead either one.

Does Timmis think smaller churches are better positioned to carry out Gospel community than mega churches? Not necessarily.

“One of the things that I am not saying to people who have got large churches is ‘You need to dismantle,'” he said. “One, that would just be silly: it wouldn’t happen. Two, if they tried it would just be so disruptive it would deflect them from Gospel ministry and three, there is just no need.”

Timmis sees significant freedom for how churches choose to organize, but he does believe every church must have a context where people grind out the messiness of daily life with Gospel intentionality on a one-on-one and Gospel community level.

“If people turn up at our gathering on a Sunday morning we will use the term church for that. And people will look at it and think ‘This is church,'” he said. “But if they turn up and do stuff that we do as a Gospel community then that is church also. So, what I would say is that people have got to do church at that small level. You have got to do it at the Gospel, missional, community level. Life on life is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian.”

Organized programs can play a role in enabling church members to help each other work out the implications of the Gospel in each other’s lives, but such programs should never become ends in themselves, Timmis said.

“I don’t mind organizing yourselves as is appropriate, as best serves. I am not anti-structure at all,” he said. “But structure has got to serve the mission and it is only valid so long as it serves the mission, so long as it helps you do what God has called you to do.

“The great thing about devolving Gospel communities and doing the life-on-life thing is you don’t need to run complicated programs where you need specific staff servicing those. But because the Gospel communities are related to each other you also might decide ‘We are going to have somebody who is going help all the guys who are working with other guys do it better.’ There is some benefit in it being organic, but there is also some benefit in resourcing the organic. We are sometimes viewed as being anti-structure, but we are not and it is important for people to know that.”

For Timmis, success in ministry is seeing the fruit of the Spirit manifest itself in people’s lives.

“I think success is being in it for the long haul with people and seeing the Word of God taken by the Spirit of God in the lives of the people of God and just changing them, making them more like Christ,” he said. “And (non-believers) being attracted by the kind of corporate lifestyle (I have described) and seeing the Gospel as the only explanation for what is going on and them responding in repentance and faith. That to me is success. In some contexts, that will mean tens, twenties, hundreds, thousands. In other contexts, it will mean ones and twos. The Spirit blows where He wills.”

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