Steve Timmis on vulnerability, breaking down walls, and living in community

Steve Timmis is a pastor of The Crowded House in the UK and author of several books. He co-authored a book with Tim Chester called Total Church in which he argued for a radical reshaping of gospel ministry in ‘community’. Church is not just a list of commitments juggled with other segments of our lives, says Timmis. Rather, he argues, we need to rethink how we “do life” authentically with our Christian brothers and sisters which, in turn, completely reshapes what gospel mission looks like as we open our lives in community to those outside the church as well as in it. Steve was on the central coast of New South Wales this week, speaking at a conference for church planting network The Geneva Push. He spoke with Eternity’s Kaley Payne.

Can you paint me a picture of what true Christian community should look like, in your view?

There’s not a one size fits all. It’s not like paint by numbers. But we [at The Crowded House] try to encapsulate it in the phrase, ‘living life-on-life together’. And I think whatever culture you’re in it’s very hard to do, and particularly in a western environment, because we’re so individualistic. The idea of living life-on-life with people – people who aren’t necessarily your friends, people you don’t choose. It’s just very hard, and not particularly attractive to a lot of Christians to do it. But I’m ultimately persuaded that it’s what we’re called to do through the Bible. It’s what God requires of us as his people. And it’s not a complicated thing. But it does require intentionality. It does require a real sense of conviction and commitment.

So it’s about just living ordinary life, doing what you normally do, but doing it cognisant of your brothers and sisters. And then do it with them. So, you’re cleaning the backyard, you do it with your brothers and sisters. You’re decorating your house; you do it together. You eat, what 21 meals a week? Just share some of those with your brothers and sisters who you’re living life-on-life together with. It’s not another demand that to juggle with everything else. It’s just embedding it in all your other roles and all the other demands on your time.

I think people have tried this model and found out that it’s hard, and given up on it. I’ve been doing type of church for 30 years and it doesn’t get any easier. But the Christian life doesn’t get any easier either. Being a follower of Jesus just on my own doesn’t get any easier. My own heart is as troublesome to me now as it was 35 years ago. So why should I think that somehow I can find a magic formula to make it easy to do community with broken sinners? But you can’t give up.

“When the Holy Spirit blows into our hearts he always blows off the front doors of our homes.”

On a week-by-week basis, most churches would do Sundays together, at least part of the day, in church. And many do a Bible study or cell group or life group – however they might call it – on a weeknight where they might eat together. That’s not enough?

No, it’s not. It’s not that those are insignificant, or irrelevant, or to despised at all. But it’s that the rest of the week is an opportunity to live life-on-life together.

There’s a big problem with that kind of ‘programmed’, minimalistic approach to church. I’m very good at putting on a face at meetings. And I can sustain that face for an hour and a half on a Sunday, and I can sustain that for 2 hours on a Wednesday night. I can be very nice and very amenable and charming.

But if I’m living life-on-life with God’s people then they see me when I’m not charming, and I’m not amenable. They see me when I’m annoyed and irritated and crotchety. They see how I treat my wife, how I deal with my kids. And so I’m accountable to them in real life. And they provoke me to godliness, to follow Christ and have a thirst for righteousness.

So I can’t do discipleship on my own, and I can’t do discipleship in that [programmed] model of church, because nobody has access to me and to my life.

How do you start that model? There would be many in churches – including me – that would be extremely confronted by the idea of breaking down the wall of what I project to the world. What happens when some but not others in the church want to ascribe to your model of life-on-life? How do you deal with varying degrees of openness?

Many don’t, you’re right. I want to qualify something first. Growing a mission-minded church is not distinctive from growing a community-focused church. Community without mission is introspection and self-indulgence. So it’s important that we set it in context: our identity as a church is that we’re Christ-missional people. That’s who we are.

“We’re not called to find a refuge in our home, but in Christ.”

To create community you just have to start where you are with the people you’ve got, and start slowly. Just start breaking down the barriers, addressing the fears, and showing them that this is the good life.

— Inviting people over when your house is messy, letting them know it’s OK, that type of thing?

Well, yeah. So it’s not entertaining. A phrase I sometimes use is this: “When the Holy Spirit blows into our hearts he always blows off the front doors of our homes.” Our homes are what God has given us so that we might be a blessing to others through it. But for many people it is a kind of refuge. We’re not called to find a refuge in our home, but in Christ. So that means that I am a steward of my home to be a blessing to others. You just model that. You invite people in. You actually intentionally share your life with them.

In the early days, my wife Janet would be horrified when people would come in and I’d ask them to make themselves a drink, instead of serving them. I didn’t do it because I was lazy – well, not always. But I did it as a way of saying, ‘this is your home. Make yourself at home’. And of course I do want to serve them, but I want to serve them well by having that sense of inclusion. And when people happen to call around when it happens to be a mealtime, you just pull up a chair and make the meal go further. Perhaps you don’t eat, or have baked beans on toast so they can have your roast chicken, or whatever it is.

These are just small, incremental things. But that’s what makes the difference. Like every picture, this big picture of life-on-life together is made up of all different people sharing life in apparently insignificant or inconsequential ways, that together make something beautiful.

There are more and more articles written about the busyness of life, and “Very busy” is the most common answer to “How’s your week been?” How does that affect this idea of life-on-life – because people have this idea that they just don’t have any time?

There’s an issue there first, isn’t there. It certainly affects it. But it affects it because when people answer ‘How are you?’ with ‘I’m very busy’, that’s an identity issue. It’s a self-worth issue. What am I going to say? ‘No, I’m bored silly because I’m too lazy to do anything?’ Nobody is going to say that. It gives me a sense of worth to say I’m busy. And that’s fed by a ‘busyness’ culture.

But it’s also a way of shutting down any idea
of sharing your life with someone else.

Yes, exactly. But I have to make a decision. This is only valid if this is what the gospel calls us to. If it doesn’t, then discard with it. It’s optional. But I say: this is what Christ saved us into. He calls us into himself, which means we’re in his people. It’s not like we have him and maybe his people. No, we are his people. And so, that is a primary identity that we have.

“We take the word ‘you’ and because of our individualism we individualise it. But it’s plural…”

The call of discipleship is for me to live out that discipleship in the context of his church. And I don’t think you can read any part of the Bible – Old Testament, New Testament – without seeing this as being implicit throughout and explicit at many points.

Here’s a summary statement of the Bible: “God’s purpose has always been to have a people for himself. A people who he reveals his glory to, and displays his glory through.” And how he “displays his glory through” is to the world, because we’re missionary by our nature. It is because we live these transformed lives as his people who love one another, serve one another and love one another deeply from the heart.

Look at what Jesus says, and how Jesus invests in the disciples – his time with the disciples was just your prototype church. And then when the disciples plant churches you can read all of Paul’s and Peter’s and John’s exhortations; or in Hebrews. Wherever you go you find it. This is who you are as God’s people, so love one another, forgive one another, bear with one another in all the ‘one-anothers’ that there are in the Bible.

But you can only make sense of those in the context of the church. Take the pronouns, for example. We take the word ‘you’ and because of our individualism we individualise it. But it’s plural, almost always in the letters [of the Bible], it’s plural: ‘as a church’. So it’s not about me eking out this discipleship on my own with occasional reference to God’s people, it’s about us as God’s people being disciples together. So you don’t have an option to be too busy for that.

You’re talking about a very face-to-face community. You can’t be a part-time member of that type of community. How can we find space for people in our own church contexts who work long hours, or shift work? Is there a way to make life-on-life work for them too?

Of course there is. We do, though, have to be courageous enough to call people away from idolatry. Sometimes people are working long hours because that’s where they find their identity. But there are people who have time-demanding jobs and of course they should be part of community too. In fact, that’s all the more reason why they should be part of a community that loves them and cares for them. But it’s not about making demands upon people. It’s not another ball to juggle. It’s community in the context in which that person is a father or a husband, or a mother or a wife. That’s the context in which you’re doing life together.

The shape of the community will change depending on the lifestyles of the people involved in that community.

We had this one guy in our life group, for example, who was very high up in the UK government, and was in London a lot and travelling. It was important to embed him in the community so that he had a sense of accountability and care. If that meant that sometimes, instead of him getting the train to London, someone from church would drive him down from Sheffield (where we live), to catch up with him properly, or if it meant that you look after his kids so that his wife can go away on a business trip with him… There are just all sorts of ways you can still support someone and do life with that person. I think it’s just a lack of imagination, seriously. Get creative with how to do it.

Social media is changing all sorts of communities that used to be face-to-face, and are now digital. Can you do genuine Christian community online? Can that be a replacement for spending time face-to-face?

You can’t have virtual community. We are bodies. We have this shape, this form. The incarnation is an integral part of the gospel; that is God becoming man, a body. So that presence, that being there embedded is a vital part of who we are. You can’t in any way have social media as a substitute for this.

“…it’s helpful for me to know that that part of my life, which I so easily could close off from everyone, is accessible…”

I can be anyone I want on Twitter. I can’t be anyone I want when I’m doing life face-to-face, life-on-life with God’s people in my church. I’m just me that people need to love and disciple, and likewise me with them.

Social media can be a tool. I text people when I’m on trips like this, to keep connection while I’m away. But it’s only connection because I’ve done life with those people. So it was meaningful already.

Is there a very practical thing for Christians who don’t know where to start to make their life more open in that gradual, step-by-step sense you spoke about earlier? 

Let me give you three. If you’re part of a small group at church – and I think most people are… you’ll need to choose wisely but find somebody in there that you connect with and give them your front door key. Give them the key and say, ‘Come round any time.’ They won’t. It’s not natural yet. But just give them the key. You’ve now given someone access to your domain, your refuge. And even if they’re not going to use it – perhaps not yet – it introduces a sense of vulnerability, which is so important. We don’t like it, but it’s vital. We need it.

Secondly – and this is far more radical – but I think it’s so helpful. And again, you have to be very careful who you do this with. But give somebody access to your bank account. We have someone who has complete access to our bank account. Not to spend the money, though I’ve said if you need it, you can. But it’s so we have accountability. It’s such a sensitive area. But it’s helpful for me to know that that part of my life, which I so easily could close off from everyone, is accessible. Now, obviously you can’t give you bank account details to just anybody. But the person with access to our accounts knows how much we spend, and what we spend it on.

Thirdly, have a standing invitation to people. Say to people, ‘OK, these two meals each week, there’s an open invite to just come around and eat with us.’ And you just do it. Some weeks, nobody will come around. Especially at the start. And then you might one or two who come. You can’t do a fancy meal, because you don’t know how many people are going to be there. And you’ll soon tire of getting the house spick and span becomes it becomes just a regular feature, so much so that you’ll forget until a couple of hours before and think ‘Oh, I better get that stew out of the freezer because people might come around’. And just do that.

None of those things will, in and of themselves, do anything. But those three things will have a significant impact on you personally to get connected with other people.

You don’t have an option other than being embedded in community. I don’t do it because I get a kick out of my house being full of people when I get back from a trip like this, when I get off a plane. Chances are, when I get back in the morning on Thursday, th
ere’ll be two or three people there aside from my wife. And I’d rather they weren’t there at that very moment. But this is what it means to be the people of God. And it’s a beautiful thing.