So I spent a couple of good days last week at the Total Church Conference (the conference was well hosted by The Crowded House in an incredibly disabled-unfriendly building – lots of stairs) in Sheffield. 2 days, 6 plenary talks and two breakout sessions, with the main talks split between the authors of the book, Steve Timmis and Tim Chester. I’m hoping that the audio’s of the talks will be soon be made available, so I’m not going to regurgitate the content at this point but give some personal highlights and observations.
I went for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’d read and enjoyed the book and hoped I’d learn something that would help our church grow in community and discipleship. Secondly, I went because it’s good to listen to people beyond your own network, the exposure makes you think through not only what they say and do but what you say and do (which we can easily take for granted). I wanted some fresh things to think about and be provoked in new ways. On both those grounds, the conference was a success and worth the £60.
The conference had followed on from a leadership gathering of those in the ‘crowded house’ network of churches and it seemed was largely made up of those sprinkled with a healthy dose of outsiders like me from the UK and further afield. Maybe a 100 or so were present in total. The ‘crowded house-rs’ were largely in the 20s and 30s and mostly seemed to be in the pre-children phase. Life will get interesting for them in the next decade.
The model of church is based on a collection of small household churches of 15-30 people called ‘Gospel Communities’ who then ‘gather’ together regularly (but not always weekly) in a larger group for teaching and worship and so differs markedly from any church I’ve ever been to in 34 years of going to church. Of course even the phrase ‘going to church’ betrays my misuse of the word.
There were two main observations that I’ve come home with. Firstly, these guys have a much deeper sense of community than most churches. They’re not only friends but actually share their lives with each other more than I’ve experienced or heard elsewhere. It’s a healthy mix of the spontaneous and the planned, the scheduled and the surprising. They’ve worked hard at learning to love one another and ‘be church together’.
The second thing was that they made the Gospel a regular theme of life, it was talked about over meals, while walking the dog and washing up. It wasn’t a topic of conversation saved only for ministers, small groups and Sundays but for all of life. They worked hard at being gospel-centred. These guys are working hard at discipleship.
I noticed a number of similarities with my own network, Newfrontiers. They share similar influences with leaders like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller. They do training on the job not in colleges, they prioritise church planting, they believe in doing mission together, they are complementarian and most importantly they are gospel-centred. The teaching we received was meaty, biblical, challenging and well communicated and there were some highlights and phrases that have stuck and I’ll share in due course.
There were a few differences though. For example in the first session Steve Timmis quoted Jonathan Edwards saying, ‘The reason why we sing is to excite the affections’. It was great to sing songs I didn’t know, all cross centred and sung with some gusto but sadly, we didn’t do much singing nor get very excited. It’s been a while since I’ve been in an environment where the raising of hands in worship has felt a bit out of place, uncomfortable and a bit risky. After some of the great teaching I ached to spend some time delighting in our God of grace and worshipping him but that opportunity really wasn’t there.
Secondly, on a couple of occasions both Timmis and Chester (both gifted communicators) called into question ‘the privileged place of the prepared monologue.’ Not the importance of the learning of the Word but the method in which it was taught. Fair enough, but my observation from the conference was that we had 6 sessions of ‘prepared monologue’ each close to an hour long. So as an insight into how they teach the Word in ‘Total Church’ the conference failed to deliver. They ironically preached what they practiced but didn’t practice what they preached!
Thirdly, there was a real shortage of stories and testimony. Not a total absence but a lack all the same. A few examples were given, but I was hungry to hear of salvation and effective mission which is essentially their goal and I left with no clear idea as to what fruit they’ve seen. I talked with several guys from different ‘crowded house gospel communities’ and churches and left with the same vague impression from all. I’m not saying there aren’t any just that I didn’t hear about them.
Fourthly, the two break-out sessions I was a part of were mostly extended Q&A, back and forth with the session convener. Nothing wrong with that, but just felt like a missed opportunity to get a sample of what ‘crowded house’ church is really like by doing something creative in those sessions.
The overall result of that meant that the conference felt a bit theory-heavy for something that was so relentlessly focused on every-day life but what was missing was precisely those stories from every-day life that flavour the whole dish and by the end of day 2 my brain was full.
It was a privilege to be there and God spoke and gave me some good food to digest from His word and in seeing how much more there is to learn about discipleship in community.