*Note: This interview is transcribed from a Skype conversation in 2011 and reposted here.
For anyone who has planted a church or feels called to do so, there are not many better resources than the work of Steve Timmis. Steve is the Director of Acts 29 Western Europe and an elder at The Crowded House. He has also co-authored several books on the church including Total Church and Everyday Church. Steve was kind enough to spend some time with me and offer his wisdom to our readers.
BRANDON SMITH: Total Church has impacted myself and many church planters. What is the story behind your writing this book with Tim Chester?
STEVE TIMMIS: We were getting some requests from publishers to tell the story of Crowded House, but we didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want to present Crowded House as being a model or any kind of example. We didn’t want to set it up like, “Aren’t we great?” What we decided to do was to write a pretty robust ecclesiology but to earth it with our own experience at Crowded House.
I’ve been doing church this way for years, like decades. I had a man come up to me in Sydney, and I recognized him straight away – he had been in a church I’d pastored when I was like 25 (and I’m no longer 25, as you can see). He says, “Timmis, you’re just a one-trick pony. This is exactly what you were talking about doing 25 years ago!” At one level I was slightly hurt, because I hadn’t come up with anything inventive. But one the other hand, I was encouraged that the core – and it’s definitely changed – but that the core theology, rationale, Christology, ecclesiology, missiology… that was forged way back then.
My principle influences have been Francis Schaeffer, the Dutch Reformers like Kuyper shifted my theology in a big way. I read Calvin’s Institutes when I was very young, and got a lot of my ecclesiology from the Evangelical Anabaptists of the Reformation period. Jonathan Edwards and John Owen have been big influences, as well.
B: I had heard you say awhile back that many times it takes guests of the Crowded House some time to get comfortable around your church because of how tightly knit you are. What is it about your church that would make guests feel out of place at times?
S: It would be Christians who would feel a certain sense of disconnect. We tend do church differently than most people, because our leading edge is our “gospel communities” – living life-on-life together on mission is what is distinctive. Most churches struggle to live that out. Just today, I was coaching a senior minister at a large, solid evangelical church and some of the stories that he was telling me is that guys from his church would find it very odd at the Crowded House because of the emphasis of living life-on-life together on mission.
So, when people come and visit from elsewhere, they often comment on how I cope with people always popping in and hanging out at my house and people end up staying. For a lot of Christians, it’s just weird.
B: My wife went on a mission trip to England recently, and she told me that she’d never been to such a spiritually dark place. How is your church model particularly working in England? Is this church model of life-on-life more effective in that culture?
S: English people are very private, and so in a lot of ways it’s quite counter-cultural. My conviction is that if human beings are made in the image of God, and God is in community, then community is something that is part of our identity as human beings. They might be afraid of it and are undoubtedly are putting all sorts of management techniques that aren’t right and godly to satisfy that desire, but it’s there. So there’s something that is inevitably attractive about the model. I think missionally it’s very effective.
B: What are some practical ways that church leaders can encourage their people to actually want to go out and be missionaries in their context?
S: Fundamentally and ambiguously I’d say that it’s a gospel issue. If they are averse to the very idea (and there’s a difference between that and just being afraid of the experience), then they aren’t understanding the gospel properly. Church leadership is all about creating a culture at it’s very core, so leaders are responsible for creating, nurturing, and developing that culture. If the recognized leaders aren’t doing that, then they aren’t leaders whatever their title.
I think there are four principle areas to do this if you have a reluctant congregation, which many men have:
1) Preach it faithfully and biblically. You’ve got to show that this identity isn’t just “my thing” or a “new trendy thing” but that it’s core to gospel purpose. I find it quite helpful to use aphorisms or sound bites with substance that help people grasp biblical truth memorably. You have to preach it consistently and publicly from “house to house” to quote Paul in Acts 20.
2) Pray and sing for it. Not just the individual leader only, but he’s got to shape the whole prayer life of the church around it. Corporate prayer meetings have got to be missional and you’ve got to rehearse and pray the gospel out. Even in terms of singing, we’ve got to sing missionally. Prayer and singing are great ways to capture the affections, and so leaders have the responsibility to put a lot of effort in creativity in those two areas to make sure that we’re not only informing peoples minds, but that we’re genuinely seeing their hearts captured by the gospel and captivated by Christ. To love Christ is to want to speak of Him and desire His fame. If we don’t want to do that, then we don’t truly love Him.
3) Model it. You’ve got to show how the gospel has captured your heart and stimulates your affections and that you’re talking about Jesus and commending the gospel to people faithfully and engaging in people’s lives. One problem is that leaders love talking about theory but they don’t practice it in their lives. They talk about the church, but the reason why their church is institutional is because their leader tends to live institutionally. He lives like a professional, a person with an 8-6 job rather than a person who sees his identity wrapped up in the community of God’s people.
4) Build structures. You’ve got to structure the life of the church around it. I think one of the dangers of the so-called “organic church movement” that we’ve sometimes been associated with is that it just doesn’t appreciate the necessity of structures. All life needs structure – just look at the human body. Build structures that demonstrate and celebrate the centrality of gospel living for the life of the church. Where you put your money, effort, energy, resources, where you release people… they’ve all got to continue to hammer on that theme.
B: What is your opinion on how elders and church leadership should be structured in a church that is really trying to be missional?
S: I don’t buy into the “first among equals” idea; I really believe in a collegiality of leadership where in particular areas one person will take the lead. What I try to do with our eldership, and we have eight in our gathering here, is to keep reiterating the vision and articulating it in different ways and engaging with them as best I can in different contexts. I am very content, not with power, but with influence. I do want to persuade people and be influential, but I can live without institutional power. Then, when the leadership has the same thought in mind, you’ve got to make sure that it filters through to the different leaders who are engaged with the people. You’ve persuaded the leaders, and they’re persuading others. So, when we come to any big decision we don’t just say, “We’ve decided this, do you agree?” because by the time we’ve presented it, it’s filtered through the life of the church.
My principle strategy for that is generally to have absolutely as much as possible in the open forum. I encourage leaders to talk about things at the leadership level. I’m not talking about personal pastoral issues, but in terms of vision and our whole sense of our direction and who God wants us to be because I think that’s the way that people become persuaded. So when it comes to making formal decisions, all the issues have been addressed and all the battles have been fought. We want to be as open as possible, and a value for me is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians, that we don’t do anything in secret but that everything is out in the open. Our default is to talk about it openly. Sometimes you can’t, but that’s our default. For us, a lot of this is going on all the time so that people are aware instead of dumping ideas on them and asking them to approve of it.
B: Do you hold to a strictly elder-led model, or more of an elder-congregation idea?
S: We’re definitely elder-led, but my conviction about being elder-led is that you’ve got to have people persuaded. I’m not a congregationalist, but unless the people are behind it and sign off on it in terms of people being committed to it, then you can make all the decisions you want but it won’t do you any good. Leaders have got to persuade. So, if someone pushes back, I won’t just accept that, I’ll go after them in hopes of persuading them. I want all leaders to be persuasive for the sake of mission, for the sake of the fame of Jesus, for the glory of God.