Many Christian books are excellent and reading them in pairs can be even more helpful than reading them on their own – that’s my recent discovery reading Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis and The Living Church by John Stott side by side.
I’ll compare them in more detail later on. But first of all, just to say very generally what I like about each book. The idea of doing “mission by being good neighbours” is certainly not new, but Everyday Church presents it in a fresh and attractive way. I do not agree with everything it says, but I do like its principle for “people to catch a vision and learn how to live that out day by day”. The Living Church stands on a higher vantage point. The teaching is more comprehensive and general. It lays out the biblical guidelines of a church which gives freedom for readers to apply them to their specific time and space.
You start to see interesting things just by comparing the table of contents:
This is not a chapter to chapter comparison with ALL the content covered in each book. It’s just to give you a general idea what each chapter covers. I couldn’t see what’s missing before I compared the two. The most obvious thing is Everyday Church hardly says anything about worship and preaching, which are both essential to my idea of a church. The Living Church has a particularly small chapter on fellowship (only nine pages). Although they both start by sketching the post-Christian modern age, the conclusions are different.
Worship. John Stott says straightforwardly on the first page of the Worship chapter, “it is often said that the church’s pre-eminent responsibility is evangelism. But this is not so…” with three reasons following, and concluding with “worship is the church’s pre-eminent duty”. You might instinctively say, “but wait, isn’t doing evangelism is a part of worship?” I don’t think that’s what Stott means here. By worship, Stott means Sunday worship. In comparison, that word is virtually non-existent in Everyday Church (however I couldn’t do a search to back up my claim, so sorry if I’m wrong). When it comes to Sunday worship, EC says, “our meetings are very ordinary. The teaching and music are OK, but nothing special. If you visited you would probably be disappointed”.
Preaching. From Acts 2:42-47, one can also come to the conclusion that preaching is at the centre of the early church. It’s telling that Everyday Church does not include it either. The type of word ministry in Everyday Church is focused on everyday pastoral care (a brilliant chapter), not the traditional type of upfront preaching. “… It is not true that we are against monologue preaching… What we question is the privileged status of the monologue. It is a good way to teach the Bible but it is not the only way nor a necessary way.”
Evangelism. Everyday Church is also not a fan of event-based evangelism, with the reasons that firstly, people are not coming to church events, secondly, church events are not effective because they often only offer a lame copy of the world of entertainment. I do not agree. However, I do agree with it to a certain degree when it says church programmes are doing the job Christians are not doing in everyday life: an invitation event instead of sharing the gospel during lunch break; creating a church reading group instead of joining an existing local reading group. Stott also warns about the dangers of an “overfull programme of church-based activities” and suggests “we would gather on Sundays and scatter for the rest of the week. We would come to Christ for worship and go for Christ in mission”.
John Stott was the minister of All Souls Church in London, which is a very similar church to the one I belong to. So on one hand, I agree with and love the teaching in The Living Church. But on the other hand, I might be too comfortable with it. The book gets a bit boring later on (but still fires challenges!). Don’t get me wrong, I love the clear structure of each chapter – I wish every book was as logical as this one – and I love its comprehensive teaching. It’s purely because my church teaches almost exactly the same things, I feel like I know 80% of it already.
Everyday Church, however, is a different book almost in every way. When I first started reading it, I was a bit shocked by its statements like, “we cannot claim to be faithfully proclaiming the gospel to the lost through our Sunday preaching when most of the lost do not attend church”, and “Sunday morning in church is the one place where evangelism cannot take place in our generation because the lost are not there”. I can see its point, but it’s harsh! Another example, it observes people misuse the word ‘church’ as the Sunday service / the institute / the building, and proposes to not use the word to “remove every other offence”. But why not challenge people’s idea and show them God’s good design?
I “passionately” disliked the book until I reached chapter 3 (which I loved). I’m really curious which author wrote which chapters. I liked Tim Chester’s book before (A Meal with Jesus, see my book review here), so I was a bit surprised how much I didn’t like the first two chapters. But when I read the whole book the second time, in parallel with The Living Church, I could see it in a better light. I learnt a lot from it because it looks at “church” from a very different perspective. Many ideas are refreshing and challenging, even when I don’t agree with it all the time.
All these sound great but what’s REALLY interesting is how these two church models prove Timothy Keller’s theory about something called Theological Vision. Briefly speaking, Theological Vision is the middle ground between one’s doctrinal beliefs and ministry practices. Take The Crowded House (Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’ church) and All Souls (John Stott’s church) for example, I trust both churches are faithful and gospel-centred. The authors’ foundational beliefs would be identical on primary theological issues. But the end result, i.e. the actual outlook of the two churches are completely different, you can say they are almost the opposite. Why? Because their Theological Visions are different! They thought about their cultural settings and historical moment long and hard, and came to different conclusions about how they are going to apply gospel truth in their specific time and space.
The lesson for me? There are advantages and disadvantages of both church models. Neither of them can be or should be copied onto my church / my fellowship or anybody’s church because every church is different. Some traditions are good, but it doesn’t mean all traditions should be kept forever because time has changed. But successful new church models should not be copied carelessly either. As a follower of Jesus who cares about my local church and people under my care, there is a lot of hard thinking to do about how to apply the rich and living truth to the life here and now.