Tim Chester is a Bible teacher and church planter. He is also a leader in The Crowded House, a small network of missionary congregations and co-lead ‘The Crowded House Abbey,’ a household church in Sheffield, UK. He is the co-author of the book Total Church, which we recently reviewed here at The Christian Manifesto.
I (C.E. Moore) recently caught up with the Christian thinker and church planter and spent some time asking him about what sustains him in ministry, The Crowded House, his new book, and the state of Christianity in the UK, and advice he’d give to aspiring church planters.
TCM: First, we’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer some of our questions.
Tim Chester: Thanks. I’m looking forward to it.
TCM: Tell us a little about your faith walk. How did you come to know Jesus as your Savior?
Tim Chester: Well, I became a Christian when I was four. I remember sitting in bed one Sunday evening, talking with my mother. My was father was called and we all prayed together. The interesting thing is that twenty years later I was recounting the story and my parents said they too thought this was one I was converted – even though we hadn’t talked about it before.
I then had a terrible struggle with assurance when I was around ten and eleven. I had no great before-and-after experience to look to. I remember wishing I’d never been born rather than face the possibility of hell. Then I read John 6:37: ‘Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.’ I had worried about whether I had repented enough or had enough faith. But reading the words of Jesus I realized these were the wrong questions. I had come to Jesus and he would never send me away.
TCM: Before we talk a little about your ministry and your book, can you tell us a little about what keeps you going in ministry?
Tim Chester: That makes ministry sound like an ordeal! Most of the time I just love it. I love teaching God’s word, I love spending time with people, I love seeing people grow, I love telling others about Jesus, I love meeting with God’s people, I count it a great privilege to be with people in crisis moments of their lives. Of course there are times when it’s hard or discouraging. But these are light and momentary troubles. And when it’s tough, the truth is, as Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” ( John 6:68 )
TCM: Who are some classic Christian authors you enjoy reading? Who are some modern Christian authors you enjoy reading?
Tim Chester: I assume ‘classic’ is a euphemism for dead guys. The dead guys I like reading include John Calvin, John Owen and other Puritans, Jonathan Edwards. As for moderns, I read pretty widely including a lot of non-evangelical stuff. But I guess the question is designed to help people pin me down. So let’s go for John Stott, John Piper, John Howard Yoder, (what is about people called ‘John’?), C. J. Mahaney, Tim Keller, David Powlison, Ed Welch, Paul Tripp, David Smith, David Bosch, Chris Wright, Oliver O’Donovan, Sinclair Ferguson, Tom Wright. The people I’ve enjoyed reading most in the last couple of years have been John Piper and Tom Wright – so go figure!
TCM: OK, let’s talk about Crowded House, a church planting initiative you helped found in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Tell us a little bit about this organization. How does it help to birth new churches?
Tim Chester: TCH isn’t really an organization. It’s a family of church planting networks. We’re not an organization that does church planting – we are church plants. We started in 2000 with eight people meeting in a home. And most of our congregations continue to meet in homes. We think home is a great place for church, mission and discipleship. One of our values is that we grow by planting so as congregations have grown they’ve planted out in to new homes. Along the way we started helping a traditional congregation and that’s now become part of our network. They meet on a Sunday, but do everything in five gospel communities. Eighteen months ago we realized we no longer have good day to day interaction between the growing number of congregations so we organized them into a number of networks and TCH became a family of church planting networks. That makes it sound very big. In reality we’re a group of small networks of small churches. We have three networks in the UK and other networks in the United States, Australia and South Africa.
TCM: So, would you say that Crowded House has a burden to see lost people come to know Jesus?
Tim Chester: Absolutely. That’s what we’re about. Indeed, although we recruit people to join our teams as missionaries, we discourage local Christians from switching church to join us.
TCM: Many people have said that Christianity is a dying breed in Europe, especially in the UK. Would you say this characterization is accurate? If so, how do you believe your work with Crowded House is helping to counteract this decline?
Tim Chester: Yes and no. Yes, the statistics show a big decline. I think it’s hard for Americans to realize how secular the UK is. The vast majority of people have no knowledge of the Bible at all. It’s not that they’ve decided the church is irrelevant; it has never occurred to them that it might be reverent. But of course the answer is also No. God’s arm is not too short that he cannot save. The gospel is still the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. The Holy Spirit still opens blind eyes to the light of the gospel.
Our approach is very relational. Many Christians seem to think being missional is about changing your meetings in some way, making them more accessible to unbelievers. Maybe that works in the US, but in the UK people wouldn’t dream of going to church in the first place. Our approach has three strands: building relationships, sharing the gospel and introducing people to the Christian community. So relational-building is central. And introducing people to the Christian community doesn’t mean inviting them to a meeting, but introducing them to the network of relationship that make up the church.
TCM: As you work with people to plant churches in various contexts, have you found that there are overarching principles that guide their planting and growing despite the contextual differences (i.e. would a church plant in a rural area use the same guiding principles as a church plant in an urban area)?
Tim Chester: We have ten core values which all our congregations hold (you can find them on our website at www.thecrowdedhouse.org). I think you would find them all recognizably living them out in each of our congregations. Yet every congregation is very different because it reflects the people who make it up and the people they are trying to reach. So there are some key generic principles, but these need to be contextualized in different ways.
TCM: Let’s talk a little bit about your book, Total Church, which you co-wrote with Steve Timmis as part of the RE:Lit series of titles put out by Crossway. In the book’s introduction you make the statement, “Christians are called to a dual fidelity: fidelity to the core content of the gospel and fidelity to the primary context of the believing community.” Without giving away too much of the book, can you unpack this statement a little for our readers?
Tim Chester: The content of ministry is always the gospel. It’s a word – gospel means good news. So being gospel-centered means being word-centered. And it’s a word to be proclaimed – gospel means good news. So being gospel-centered means being mission-centered. That’s the content of ministry. The context is always the Christian community. Ministry is not an event, still less a performance. It takes place in and through the shared life of the Christian community. So whether it’s evangelism or social involvement or children’s work or apologetics or pastoral care or training these two principles shape what we do: gospel-centered and community-centered.
TCM: In a recent article titled, “Playing Church,” Jimmy Spencer writes, “The word community has been abused….We have used the word community to such an extent that it has lost almost all tangible meaning.” Do you agree with this sentiment?
Tim Chester: I guess I know what Spencer is talking about. I’ve been in churches that had ‘fellowship lunches’ and ‘after church fellowships’. Fellowship (which is just a jargon term for community) became an event. Its something we aspired to so we wrote it into the program. That’s a million miles away from what we’re have in mind. We have in mind day-to-day shared lives.
TCM: More recently, some have lobbied the charge that social action (one of the topics addressed in your book) has taken center stage in Christianity. However, some are wary that the socially-active outlook of some within the Church is coming at the expense of the gospel. Do you believe this is true?
Tim Chester: Let me make a couple of points. I believe in social action. I’ve written a book called Good News to the Poor on the topic. But I don’t believe it needs to be or should be at the expense of the gospel. We’re back to our two principles: social action needs to be gospel-centered and community-centered. We need to tell the poor the gospel because they’re greatest need is to be reconciled with God and that only happens through the gospel. And that best context for that communication to happen is the context of relationships. That leads to my second point. Social action needs to be community-centered. For many people social action means running projects or doing welfare. That’s okay, but it’s very limited while at the same time beyond the scope of most small churches. But at the heart of poverty is marginalization. And that’s addressed by inclusion, community, friendship. As someone in my congregation put it, ‘I know people do a lot to help me, but I just want someone to be my friend.’
TCM: What do you believe are some of the biggest obstacles to the Church centering itself around gospel and community?
Tim Chester: Let me highlight two things. First, we have become accustomed to seeing ministry in terms of programs, activities, meetings, projects rather than sharing our lives with people. We want to do it on Friday evening between seven and nine and Sunday morning between ten and twelve. And then we want to clock off for the rest of the week. Or, better still, we want to pay someone else to do it for us.
Second, we have grown used to compartmentalizing our lives. One of the catchphrases we use to capture our vision is ‘ordinary life with gospel intentionality’. In other words, what we do is ordinary life together: household chores, trips to the movies, meals, neighborhood volunteering. But running through all these activities is a commitment to speaking and living the gospel. We pastor one another at the kitchen sink. We evangelize by talking about Jesus over a meal. The gospel is not just for Sunday morning, but for the whole of life.
TCM: What do you personally believe are some of the greatest challenges facing the church from outside the church? From inside?
Tim Chester: In the UK the exclusive claims of Christ run sharply against the grain of the culture and there are signs that our freedom to speak of these things is being restricted. But persecution often makes the church stronger. So I think the real outside threats are consumerism and hedonism leading to apathy towards the gospel.
As for inside, it is the same old story. The main threat is false teaching. I find the rejection of penal substitution very worrying. It’s not a new thing, of course, but it is new to have so-called evangelicals rejecting it. It’s one of the central defining characteristics of an evangelical. I don’t know what an evangelical is if not someone who believes in penal substitution!
But again perhaps the bigger threat is the more subtle one – the threat of the culture entering the church. I fear a consumeristic church which seeks to entertain, doesn’t talk about sin, doesn’t call people to the sacrifice and suffering of the cross. At its heart is human-centered religion – it’s all about what God can do for me, making me a better person, more successful, a better parent and so on. The consumer is king.
But the consumer is not king. God is king. And we are made to live for his glory.
TCM: We know certain questions can’t be answered as briefly as we’d like them to be. But, if you could only give a little godly counsel to someone considering being a church planter, what do you think you’d say?
Tim Chester: I’d want to talk to them about two things. First, their vision for church. I’d want to ensure they were theologically driven – that biblical principles rightly contextualized would shape their ministry rather than the pursuit of whatever works or the application of some model of ministry off the peg.
Second, I’d want to talk to them about why they wanted to be a church planter. And there my theme would be grace. It’s very easy to look for our identity in ministry and church planters especially are susceptible to this. We want to be cutting edge, cool, tough, hardcore. But if you look for identity in ministry then it will crush you. Or you will create performance-oriented church which crushes other people. So the first three things I would say to any potential church planter are: grace, grace and grace.
TCM: You’ve been so gracious in spending some time with us. Just one more question, though. If Jesus were to comment on your life, what would you want him to say about you?
Tim Chester: What kind of a question is that?! I guess it would be that last thing. Tim Chester is man who got a lot of things wrong. But he got this – grace.
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