Letters to the Church
Francis Chan, 2018
–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, ThD.
Backstory: I have a dear friend who has been on staff at two mega-churches, one in Seattle and one in Texas. He is currently between churches, evaluating his past experiences, and looking at the future church-wise. He read this book, and he told me I needed to read it. Therefore, I had to read it. We are going to talk about it soon.
Most people in the evangelical eco-system know about Francis Chan and some of his experience. He planted Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California in 1994 at the age of twenty-six (and as a newlywed). It grew to be a mega-church. At some point, most pastors have asked themselves, “Is this what God had in mind?” For Chan, questions like this led to his eventual resignation in 2010. He subsequently took his large family overseas, living in India, Thailand, and China, prior to returning to the San Francisco area to start a house church planting network called We Are Church. This book is the rest of the story to date.
Full disclosure: I was about forty pages in when, for some unknown reason, I read some of the reviews on Amazon. As expected, many commended questions he asked, getting back to the real mission, et al. The review that got my attention was by a former member at Cornerstone. Paraphrasing his comments, he wondered why, if Chan built this church and then didn’t like what he’d built, why didn’t he stay and fix it? I’m sure there are many answers to that question, but the reviewer’s question lingered in my mind as I read the book. I know the Cornerstone elders supported Chan’s decision, and that it takes fourteen miles to turn an oil tanker…, but it was a good question.
Not everyone has the fortitude, the options, or the ability to take off, recalibrate, and start over. Having those things is not a sin. Chan offers some truly thought-provoking questions and perspective that can be helpful for those of us in brick-and-mortar churches. The descent into categorical imperialism is an easy one. For those in non-house church churches, there is much to chew on that helps clarity and spurs journey adjustments. Whatever your approach or bent, and though Chan is not Egyptian, “plunder the Egyptians!” And/or, “Eat the fish and spit out the bones.”
By his own admission, Chan attempts to “point out only the most obvious biblical truths about God’s desire for His Bride—truths that none of us can afford to ignore.” (24) When we look at the New Testament church in Acts, do we ever question whether or not we have created something we think works better? There is a section on commands versus expectations. Church consumers today certainly have expectations. If the first church was built on the things that pleased God the most, how are we doing with those things? He got my attention with, “If Communion feels like a curious add-on to our church services rather than the very core of everything we are about, then we’re missing the point of the Church.” (62)
One of the festering questions Chan at Cornerstone was whether or not unbelievers observed anything supernatural about the way they loved one another. Scripture also speaks a lot about supernatural unity. “Obedience often grates against our natural desires, but if we obey only when it feels natural, then Jesus is not truly Lord of our lives… Do we believe God is capable? Do we trust that His design for His Church is what will be most effective?” (80) Maybe all our strategies aren’t that effective when God says unity is the method that will work.
Attractional approaches to please consumers are confronted with the truth that “You can’t shape the life of your church around who might leave if things start to feel too much like the New Testament.” (82) We would all think it ridiculous if Muslims offered free doughnuts and a raffle for a free iPad to get people to attend their events. What really attracts? Seems like Jesus said something about how they’d know we were His…
Chan offers a number of good traps to avoid along the way, whatever your praxis model: traps of avoiding criticism, fund-raising, comparison, meeting expectations, popularity, safety, greed, demonic attack. (107-9) He encourages pastor/leaders to be Christian, praying, humble, loving, equipping, Spirit-filled, missional, and suffering. Many of these will also be “unlikely.” “In China, the most influential Christian leaders had to be the most hidden.” (110-126)
The statistics and descriptions of what God is doing in other movements today in the East are both sobering and inspiring. Looking at the simplicity of discipling and sending as a part of training certainly takes us back to the first disciples, who were sent out on a dangerous mission with minimal training. From India: “In the decade of the 1990s, the Kui people of Orissa started nearly 1,000 new churches… In 1999, they baptized more than 8,000 new believers. By 2001 they were starting a new church every 24 hours.” (167)
Any pastor would be well-served to take notice of the daily and weekly practices Chan employs in their network. None of them are new! Expectations are a big part. Every member being equipped and equipping disciples, annual multiplication of churches (I would add, or home groups), assuming missions, simple gatherings, et al. The current state of missions points to needed changes and revisions, moving past our narrow church experience. Are our parameters biblical or just normal for this cultural moment? “How do we expect to reach the billions of people who live where that model is illegal?” (181)
The case for “ChurchBNB:” In 2015, Hyatt had 97,000 employees. Airbnb had 2,500 with more rooms available that Hyatt! They have four million listings without building a single facility. What do we learn from this? The new thing always seems to be simpler and more efficient with fewer barriers to entry. (182)
Chan notes that your church model often communicates your true theology. Does your structure demonstrate that the gift of every believer matters? Your heretical structure [Stott] speaks louder than your orthodox theological statement. What theology do we actually practice? (172-3) In San Francisco, they are experimenting with churches led by Christians with full-time jobs, professionals in the workplace who pastor small churches out of their homes. These leaders can now transplant anywhere in the world without any need to raise support, with possibilities in any city on earth—Churchbnb. Everyone has a home. No budget is required. One hundred million Chinese are being the Church for free while our American system costs $1,000 a head. Get your head around that. Think about both waste and sustainability. What would happen with just one change in the American tax code?
Chan’s final chapter is an Afterword: Surviving Arrogance. Among a list of things, we need to humbly listen, not tolerate divisiveness, and don’t fall for every tear. Professional victims are usually rooted in pride.
As Len would say, there’s a lot of “spiritual ruffage” in this book. It’s worth your time. You can’t read it without seeing areas of application. Very likely, the “bones” to be spit out will be different for everyone, yet there will be epiphanies and Spirit-led corrections directions for each reader. Keep the Son in your eyes and the Bride in your heart.