This week I’ve been reading the latest offering from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis called Everyday Church. It’s an interesting and stimulating read which is a follow-up to Total Church and deals with the practical realities about churches being gospel-centred communities. They start with the vital question of how we reach the 40 million people in the UK who are not open to attending church as it is. That is certainly a question which the wider Christian church should be asking. There are a number of helpful and thought-provoking comments. Here’s one:
One of the common assumptions when people fail to turn up to church is that we need to improve the experience of church gatherings, the “product”. We need better music, more relevant sermons, multimedia presentations, engaging dramas. Or we need to relocate to pubs, cafes, art centres. We need cool venues with cool people and cool music. The problem with this approach is the assumption that people will come to church if the product is better. But remember that 70% of the UK population have no intention of attending a church service, and these figures are even higher among young people….Sunday morning in church is the one place where evangelism cannot take place in our generation because the lost are not there – not until we go out to connect with them where they are, where they feel comfortable, on their territory. We need to do church and mission in the context of everyday life. We must think of church as a community of people who share life, ordinary life.
It seems to me that many ministers and elders are still stuck on the idea that we need to get people into church before we can share the gospel with them. In some cases, church members who attend church regularly think that the main goal of pastoral visitation is to lay a guilt trip on non-attenders to get them to “come to us”. And in many evangelical churches, committed members and elders want their preacher to “really preach the gospel” every Sunday and they express their frustration when they think that doesn’t happen. “Preaching the gospel” in the narrow sense of calling sinners to repentance and faith in Christ continues to take place in some meetings even when there are no “unsaved” people present, and it is taken to be a sign of one’s evangelical “soundness” and of remaining faithful to the gospel.
So Chester and Timmis make a good point, and help us to see that the “come to us” mindset needs to be replaced with a more relational, living out the gospel in the context of ordinary, everyday life. By advocating this model of everyday church, they also take the pressure off pastors and preachers who have been persuaded by the mega-church gurus that they must improve their Sunday morning “worship experience” by making it more relevant and more technologically sophisticated.
Must we then give up on trying to get people to come to us? In his continuing reflection on Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers, Tim Keller doesn’t disagree with the thesis promoted by Everyday Church, but he makes an important point that preaching, done properly, will be attractive.
When Lloyd-Jones says that people still will come to hear preaching in our contemporary culture, he adds two qualifications—or you might say he has two underlying assumptions. He says: “The answer is that they will come, and that they do come… when it is true preaching. This may be slow work… it is a long-term policy.”
First, he says, it must be “real preaching,” and he later explains that this means preaching done by someone who is gifted to speak to larger groups. And that is a rub. As someone who taught preaching in seminary, I know that only a fraction of the students coming through seminary showed promise of having such gifts.
There are indeed many “incarnational” approaches to ministry that do not require a gifted speaker, and we should use them all. In fact, I would argue that in a post-Christian culture, preaching will not be effective in the gathered assembly if Christians are not also highly effective in their scattered state. In our times, people will be indifferent or hostile to the idea of attending church services without positive contact with Christians living out their lives in love and service. Therefore the incarnational “dispersed” ministry of the church is extremely vital and necessary.
Nevertheless, it is a mistake to argue that people in our society will not come to hear “real preaching.” The fact is that, even in a very post-Christian city, if the preaching is of high quality, people will be brought and will come back. They will be shocked at how convicting and attractive the gospel message is, and they will feel like they’ve never really heard it before (even if they have been raised in a church).
The point which Keller makes is that some of us preachers are not that great or gifted when it comes to preaching, and that we may not manage to meet the Doctor’s criteria of “real preaching”. Tim Keller may be able to deliver the goods in his own congregations in New York, as Lloyd-Jones did in London fifty years ago. But not all of us are as gifted or able. And the anecdotal evidence reveals that when people turn up for a service at Redeemer in NY to discover that their favourite preacher isn’t preaching, they quickly re-convene in the nearest coffee shop.
Chester and Timmis deny that they are against big church and monologue preaching. Rather, their focus is not so much on what happens on Sunday mornings, but on gospel communities living out their faith together at street level. Big events simply distract from the everyday activities of the church and switch the focus from everyday church to a weekly performance. The Word can be taught in a variety of ways, not solely through a monologue.
“What matters is that the Word is central to our lives and our life together. We want to equip and liberate people to proclaim the Bible to one another throughout the week. We want the Word pushed down into everyday life.”
For someone who was raised to believe that what the church needs is Christ-centred, Spirit-anointed, grace-filled preaching, and who still believes that, Everyday Church spells out the important dynamic of allowing that Word preached to be incarnated in our lives and fellowships.
“Everyday church will either witness to God’s grace in our lives or it will fracture. We cannot “achieve” it, for it grows out of God’s grace to us and to others. It is the fruit of grace and therefore a testimony to grace. When people see us living life together, loving, serving, forgiving, forbearing, supporting, encouraging and proclaiming the gospel to one another, it cannot but provoke questions.”