Book Review: The Church

The Church: A Unique Gathering of People is one of a set of five little books developed by Tim Chester out of John Stott’s classic ‘The Contemporary Christian’. Much of what I might say about this book is found in the reviews of the other books, so I’ll focus today on The Church. This is a book about a topic that lots of Christians have opinions on, but one that I wager most of us haven’t actually thought about too deeply. Certainly, before university, I just assumed that everyone did church like I’d grown up with – independent Reformed Baptists, congregationally led, etc. The reality, of course, is that there are hundreds if not thousands of different models of church, but I agree with Stott that at their heart there is, as his subtitle to this slim volume says, ‘a unique gathering of people’.

This little book represents the timelessness and wisdom of Stott’s writing and preaching. Over five short chapters we ponder what the church is, contemporary challenges to and opportunities for the church, what evangelism looks like, dimensions of church renewal, and how we are to view church leaders. The latter is perhaps the most provocative – and quite interesting, as Stott focuses particularly on ordained leaders, echoing his own Anglican conviction and experience. That said, I was particularly struck by one observation, about the language of ‘shepherd’ when related to church leaders (Stott also demolishes the idea that anyone is a ‘priest’ any more than we are all part of the priesthood of all believers, but that is another point):

Because Western sheep are mostly reared for meat, they live only a brief life with no personal relationship with the sheep farmer. In Palestine, however, the sheep were kept for their wool, so the shepherd had them in his care for many years. As a result, a relationship of trust and intimacy developed between them. The shepherd could know and call each of them by name. This was certainly the relationship between Jesus and his disciples

This represents, I think, two challenges to church leaders and church attenders. Firstly, contra our world, the sheep in the church are not meat for the grinder, but instead valued and relationally important beings. Mutual trust develops. Secondly, also contra our world, there is the challenge of relational development in a culture of transience. My wife and I have been at our present church for less than three years – and we have seen a number of people come, go, and in some cases come back! There is a profound challenge to leaders to be Palestinian shepherds rather than Western shepherds – and to all of us involved in church to consider what commitment looks like to the church (and ultimately to Christ). There is also a a very wise page of reflections on the role of church leaders and power – linking to my interest in issues of spiritual abuse.

The Church is about more than this, though, and Stott is very careful to delineate the challenges and opportunities of church. I found his description of these very helpful, and his invitation to evaluate our church, particularly it’s self-understanding, could be a helpful tool for both church planters and those who have been pastoring/involved in a church for a longer time. Perhaps my favourite chapter was ‘Dimensions of church renewal’, wherein Stott notes different movements in the last century that have sought to renew and strengthen the church. As he writes, “mission, theology, unity, worship, power and justice are six legitimate Christian concerns… What we need is a holistic or integrated vision of renewal in every dimension of the church’s life.“. Amen!

I think this is a very helpful little book on the church, from someone who devoted their life to serving and shepherding the church in different ways. If you are a pastor or church leader, this could be a reflective tool and an encouragement. If, like me, you are a bum on a seat, this little book should cause you to be excited about the community you are in, the cause of Christ, and the mission of God. Recommended!

John Stott’s classic The Contemporary Christian has been transformed into five short readable books. I’ve been given review copies of each, and they connect to each other and engage with key issues in a most excellent way. If you’ve liked this review, you may also like the other books in this little selection:

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