Book Review – The Provocative Church (Graham Tomlin)

I have been reading as many books on the church as I can get my hands on recently, and hearing someone speak highly of this one, I ordered a copy. Graham Tomlin is currently principal of St Paul’s Theological Centre in London.

The subject of the book is actually evangelism. He begins by asking the question of how we can evangelise those who are simply not interested in hearing what it is the Church has to offer. What would provoke such people to want to find out more?

He examines the shift in culture towards postmodernism, and argues that people may not be looking for “forgiveness” but they are often seeking help to live a “better and less superficial way of life”. The question is then, do they find that people who go to church live in a discernibly different way? Are we provocative? Do we awaken a desire for God in people?

He then goes on to argue that our role as Christians is to be signposts to another kingdom. Crucial to our witness is our living under the kingdom of God, and demonstrating a new “style of life”. The church is to be a sign of the kingdom.

The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.

Tomlin spends a few chapters explaining that Jesus’ message was concerning the kingdom of God, drawing heavily from Tom Wright. He makes a clear distinction between church and kingdom – the church is to live out the kingdom life – how life was meant to be lived. But he is careful to emphasise that evangelism is not merely about the way we live. Just as Jesus explained the significance of his actions with words, so we must explain why we live the way we do when (as it should) it provokes interest.

Without actions, no one listens, without words, no one understands.

He goes on to explore how often Christians confess to feeling guilty about their lack of evangelism. He suggests that if we can simply be what we are called to be as a church, a community characterised by kindness, we won’t be able to help being evangelistic. Churches therefore should not put all the emphasis on persuading their members to invite people to “guest services” but recognise that while some people experience a “crisis” conversion, for many others it is a process. Therefore, church health must be considered higher priority than church growth. A healthy church will grow – evangelism and spiritual growth are inextricably linked and depend on each other.

The priority for the church is neither evangelism nor social action; it is to live under the lordship of Christ.

So a church must be a transforming community, where we are being restored into the image of God that we originally had before the fall. Having established this, Tomlin devotes a couple of chapters to defining an evangelistic church. He encourages cell or house church models as these offer a more “dispersed view of authority” and are therefore more appropriate for a postmodern culture. They allow unbelievers an opportunity to see the kingdom style of life in action.

The book closes with a very practical chapter on how to lead an evangelistic church. There is also a theological postscript which seeks to answer the question “why doesn’t the NT mention evangelism very often?” He works through Ephesians and concludes that the reason is that the church’s primary task is simply to be what we are called to be. If we can do that, we will be a “provocative church”.

This book certainly succeeds in being provocative. I really liked his approach, and while much of what he says is not particularly new, I think he makes some points that are in serious danger of being forgotten by churches all eager to find the latest and greatest evangelistic strategy. Most importantly, it is a call for each believer in the church to live their life increasingly under the rule of God, for in doing so, we will display the wisdom of God to those who look in from the outside.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – The Provocative Church (Graham Tomlin)

  1. Hi

    I am editor of the monthly print magazine for St Stephens Church East Twickenham. Our vicar is using the above book as a reference in his current sermon series and we would like to run a book review of it in the October issue. Can I sub-edit your review above and use that in our magazine please? I will of course credit yourself.

    Many thanks
    p.s. You can also find me on LinkedIn

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