He’s well known for being theologically Reformed and regularly preaches at the heartland of the conservative evangelical, the Keswick Convention. But he’s something of a smorgasbord of different perspectives on church and Christian life.
For one he doesn’t seem to be politically conservative in the traditional sense of the word. He reads The Guardian, and spent a number of years working for the aid and development charity Tearfund as its research and policy director. He’s got a PhD in theology but rarely uses the ‘Dr’ and appears pretty down to earth, despite his intellect. He’s written books about combating the use of pornography, and broached the subject of the marital bed. Most recently he wrote about how the forgotten people in the UK’s council estates can be reached with the gospel in his book Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-class and Deprived Areas (IVP). And the Bible college Porterbrook Seminary, where Chester is the associate director, sidelines academic pontificating and aims to offer a very practical and low-cost education for those who are working in ministry on the ground.
It’s about to join forces with the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (WEST) to create more training options for people with a heart for mission.
"My job is to give people joy in Christ… if I leave people feeling condemned I have failed badly"
Chester has also been called part of the emerging church movement, and apparently has even been described as ‘charismatic’, though he doesn’t like the term and has seemed to be sceptical of the movement in some of his books. Crowded House, which he set up in Sheffield with Steve Timmis, sounds a little bit like a Fresh Expression or alternative worship church, with a focus on community and authentic gospel living. But he doesn’t think it’s particularly avantgarde, and again, it doesn’t fit neatly into the emerging church box. ‘It’s not driven by a kind of disenchantment with the Church at all,’ says Chester. ‘It’s not driven by some kind of idealistic desire to recreate what was going on in the first century. It’s certainly not driven by a desire to be trendy and cutting edge; we’re quite a conservative bunch in many ways.
‘[The emerging church movement] started as a way of thinking differently about Church…but it has become a way of thinking differently about truth. I don’t have many sympathies with an attempt to think differently about truth.’
Chester has authored about 20 books so far, and writing is clearly his passion. ‘I sit at traffic lights and I am composing sentences in my head,’ he says. ‘Apparently this is not normal.’
This kind of self-deprecating joke is typical of our conversation, which covers his books, motives and actions, all with a central theme of seeking the cross and advocating repentance.
Self-examination seems to be a theme in what you write. So what do you think drives you on an emotional level?
I do get excited when I see the gospel connecting with real life and the real issues that people have and I have, and these ancient texts speaking through the Spirit with a real potency today. I love those moments when I’m preparing something, writing or preaching, and I get a connection… I quite often cry in those moments. I did this morning. When you’re preaching and you see that moment in people’s eyes, when the word of God is making a connection with their life and they’re seeing it speak with relevance and comfort and power, that’s a great moment for me. Even better with unbelievers, to see Christ glorified. That’s the sweet spot of ministry life.
What would you say is different about your church, Crowded House? How is it distinctive?
We want to be gospel-centred churches with an emphasis on living life in community and doing mission through community. We come together on a Sunday, but the heart of our church life is our gospel communities ? communities of people who are committed to sharing life, discipling one another with the gospel and working together on mission.
Your book Unreached doesn’t seem to use much of the material out there about urban ministry that has been written. Why is that?
A lot of stuff has been written about the social needs of the urban poor… with the case that the Church should meet those social needs. All of that is really important. But what’s been missing from the discussion largely is how to contextualise the gospel so that we evangelise the urban poor. That has been kind of assumed as a happy by-product of doing social projects ? which is fine, I’m not against that at all, but there’s a gap. The book is not the last word on the subject by any means, but it’s an attempt to start that conversation.
Is the British Church middle class?
It’s not entirely middle class, but I think it’s predominantly middle class. That’s great in the sense that middle class people need the gospel just as much as working class people. But we need to be reaching working class and more marginalised people. That is a big challenge for us.
But I’m not sure the middle classes are being reached, are they?
That’s true, but we’re more middle class than we are working class. In one sense that’s not a problem ? the problem is not that we’re middle class, the problem is that we’re not working class. I’m classically middle class. I don’t want people to feel guilty for being middle class. But there are unreached areas of our nation which I’m concerned about.
Too often, when churches are looking to plant new churches, they default to the middle class or student suburbs rather than going to more unreached areas in their locality. There’s a danger…too often people plant churches that grow because they offer a better kind of product on a Sunday morning. So they attract Christians, and they can look very successful very quickly, but it’s not missional growth.
Can a person’s problems be usually understood through their sin and their rebellion against God?
It depends what the problems are; that’s too blanket a statement. If someone has fallen in a lake, their problem is that they’re drowning and the solution is that someone needs to pull them out. However, I do think that we all face adversity in our lives. How we respond to that is about what’s going on in our own hearts. When we sin, when we have negative emotions in our lives, the presenting issue might be some adversity that we face over which we have no control, but the way we respond is shaped [by] our own sinful desires.
Sometimes that can sound hard, because that’s saying that people are contributing to some of their problems in their lives. But actually that’s a hope-filled statement, because it says there is a way of responding better, and that is a response shaped by the gospel, and that is to find joy in Christ and satisfaction and identity in him.
Some of what you’ve said would be applicable to someone with quite a secure upbringing. But someone who has been really seriously harmed…
To say the gospel is the answer is not to say the process is quick. It’s going to be a lifelong process; it’s going to be a daily struggle to believe the truth.
"Sometimes you’ll find that you’re called a conservative, sometimes a radical; you shrug your shoulders; that’s not your problem"
Today may be a triumph in the sense that you believe that truth, you embrace that identity in Christ, look to him for satisfaction and not your sin, and then the struggle will start all over again. Or today you might fail, but there is grace in that. Tomorrow you can begin again.
I think you’re wrong to say it’s ok for people who have a secure background. I was in a church last month on an estate which is said to be the neediest in Scotland, where they reckon 70% [of the people living there] were abused as children. It’s these truths of heart change and gospel change that they’re finding…brings hope to people’s lives.
You’re very suspicious of psychology and counselling. I’m imagining you probably wouldn’t say that about a medical doctor…isn’t that the same as Christians in the past who’ve said we shouldn’t use doctors and just believe in Jesus healing us?
I’m not very suspicious of it. I’m not against secular psychology and I think that it’s often been a great help to people, particularly CBT. But I do think it’s limited, because it doesn’t go to the [root] of the issue, which is the heart and its relationship with God, and the way we construct identities for ourselves apart from God or in Christ. I’m not despising of it at all, I think there’s a lot to be learned from it but I do want to have confidence in God’s word. It does revive the soul, as Psalm 19 puts it. I do want us as Christians to have confidence in God’s word to do that.
You’ve said that pastors are often expected to put on a performance. How does this present itself, and what effects does it have?
If you load that onto the event that happens on a Sunday morning, then you raise expectations of that event to a point where it can’t deliver, and you put a huge amount of pressure on Church leaders. It’s not that Sunday isn’t important, it is going to be a key moment for the life of the community. It’s going to set the culture, but we need to have a vision of Church that is more than what happens on a Sunday morning.
The other side of that is, there is danger for pastors of finding your identity as preacher or performer or worship leader, and their identity then becomes tied up with the outcome of the Sunday morning event…how the word or the worship impacts the lives of people…If a sermon goes well or the worship goes well, then you feel great, and if [not] you’re despondent because your identity is being found in that moment. It is possible for preachers to preach justification by faith even as they are practising justification by preaching.
You’ve said in your books that you expect to be pastored by your congregation. Can you give an example of that ? where you’ve felt pastored by your congregation?
Last week, I was remarking to somebody that I had been in the office from 7:30am and I was still there at 9 in the evening. I think I was looking for their admiration. They raised their eyebrows at me and gently rebuked me for being so self-absorbed, and I had to repent of my…I probably wasn’t complaining but looking for admiration.
You’re known as a theological conservative, but in practice your description of Church is very radical. How would you label yourself?
[Groans]. How would I label myself? I’m Reformed, evangelical, missional. I suspect all of those require a certain definition. To an extent to which those labels have currency I’m happy to own them. Early on in my Christian life I had a job with a Christian organisation by day and I was church planting by night. As it happened, in my work context I was considered very conservative and in my Church context I was considered very radical. Early on I realised those labels are relative; it depends on who’s around you at the time. They’re not good labels to try and attach to yourself; you’re defining yourself in relation to other people. The important thing is to be faithful to Christ and try and live in obedience to him. Sometimes you’ll find that you’re called a conservative, sometimes a radical; you shrug your shoulders; that’s not your problem.
You seem very sceptical of the charismatic movement. Why is that?
Oh dear, that’s not true at all!
In your book, Total Church (IVP) you seem…
I may be sceptical about some things… but sometimes people call us charismatic. Really. I’m not sure that label works any more, it covers so much. Personally I wouldn’t call us charismatic or non-charismatic.
So do you believe that people demonstrate gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophecy today?
Do you do so yourself?
I don’t speak in tongues. I do believe in prophecy. I think prophecy is the Spirit-inspired application of God’s word in situations. Prophecy needs to be weighed; it ought to be offered tentatively. I think, though, that the Spirit can give people very specific insights into people’s hearts. Sometimes that’s conscious, sometimes it’s unconscious; sometimes that’s as if preacher can speak straight into their situation.
You’re a noted complementarian, aren’t you?
Am I? [Laughs] By whom? I don’t think I’m noted for anything, am I?
Well, on a list of British complementarian conservatives, you’d be on there, wouldn’t you?
[Groans] I don’t like that label, probably because of the company it forces me to keep.
What would you say about it that you feel comfortable with?
It’s not that I don’t want to answer the question. It’s just that, it requires more than a sound bite to answer it. A lot of the problem arises because, as we were saying earlier, we’ve loaded so much of our Church life onto this event that happens on a Sunday morning, so who does what at that event becomes a massive issue. Whereas, if the Christian life is lived in the context of community ? that is, speaking the truth to one another in love throughout the week ? that takes a lot of the heat out of the issues.
In Reformed theology, how do you avoid veering into legalism and losing grace?
Interesting question, as it suggests that it might be a problem that Reformed theologians face. Sadly that’s true, but it shouldn’t be if you are a Reformed theologian; it should be the opposite. I think Paul in Philippians 1 does this strange, internal conversation when he debates about whether it’s best to die and be with Christ or stay alive. His conclusion is it’s probably best to stay alive so that he can continue in ministry for the sake of the Philippians…for the sake of their ‘progress and joy’. That’s been a big influence on me. My job is to give people joy in Christ. That’s true for my preaching, it’s true for my pastoring, it’s true for my discipleship training, it’s true for my leadership training.
"It is possible for preachers to preach justification by faith even as they are practising justification by preaching"
I’ve got no mandate to berate people into conforming ? ‘there is now no condemnation’ in Romans 8:1…what that means is if I leave people feeling condemned I have failed badly, because there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. That doesn’t mean I won’t challenge people. There needs to be that sense in which they hear what I say as good news.
My job is to show people that knowing God, serving God and finding identity in Christ is bigger and better than anything sin can offer. I do want changes in behaviour, but I want that to come from a heart that is finding delight in Christ, who Christ is and what he’s done for us.