What is God’s ideal for the way churches should behave? What are the failures and the successes of the churches mentioned in the Bible? Why did the apostles have to write letters of correction to them?
How do you see the future of the American church?
Francis Chan: I wrote this book during one of the happiest seasons of my life. I don’t remember ever being this excited about ministry or the future of the church. I’ve never been one to proclaim, “Revival is coming!” But it does currently feel that way.
There have been stirrings throughout our country, and some of these are not the usual critics but true lovers and servants of the church—which is awesome. I get excited about the possibility of the consumer mentality in the American church disappearing. I dream of this happening in my lifetime, and I’m excited to give what remains of my life to it. I think the starting point is for all of us to ask, pray, and dwell on the question: What does God want for his church? This question can change everything.
Letters to the Church reflects on the state of evangelical churches, including lessons learned from your own mistakes.
Francis Chan: Yes, God has graciously shown me the good fruit from my Cornerstone days as well as some of the fundamental mistakes I made early on. I hope to help others avoid some of the same mistakes. I realize now that I built a church designed around what I wanted in a church.
Honestly, I struggled in writing this book because the church is such a sacred topic. I haven’t always treated the church as such. I spent years doing “whatever works” to get people’s attention. I had joined millions of Americans in being too quick to speak and too sure about my opinions. Over the last few years, I’ve spent time crying in the presence of God, confessing my arrogance. Twenty-five years after launching that first church, I’m asking myself, “Who cares what Francis Chan wants?” Is there anything less significant than my opinion of what church should be? Could anything matter less than the kind of church I want to create?
The good news is that by the grace of God, some of us are seeing our failures now and are training ourselves to prioritize his desires. Scripture is our starting point; not desire or tradition. Rather than thinking of what we’ enjoy or asking others what they’d like, we ask the simple question: What would please God most?
You write passionately about God’s desires for his church.
Francis Chan: Yes. The older I get, the more aware I am that the end is near.
Typically, when I speak at a conference, there’s a countdown clock letting me know how much time I have remaining on the stage. Sometimes I pretend that the clock is a countdown clock of my life. I imagine that I’ll be standing face to face with God when that timer expires, and I try to say everything I think he’d want me to say. If I really was going to die, I’d care very little about people’s complaints.
I have the same thought now. If I knew I was going to die right after writing this book, what would I write? But even more than that, the warnings in Revelation are very real and we need to take them seriously. Over and over, his message was repent or else. Repent or else.
Jesus is coming. We should be urgent about eternal things. I tried to write the book from this perspective.
You point out a pattern in Acts 4 that could transform churches.
Francis Chan: Yes, there’s a clear pattern of common elements in the early church:
- God is present in his Word: As we read, we encounter God and allow others to do the same.
- God is present in fellowship: As we join together for the mission, people see God.
- God is present in communion: As we break bread together, we proclaim the sacrifice of Jesus.
- God is present when we pray: As we cry out on our knees, we will see God act.
This pattern is simple, and it’ll work today as powerfully as it did in Acts.
Our job is to reveal God to people. Rather than creating our own pep rallies, our calling is to simply put him on display and watch as he draws people to himself. If they’re not interested in him, what do we think we’re accomplishing by trying to lure them by other means? We have to accept the fact that not everyone is interested in God. We just need to make sure that it’s really God that we’re putting on display. Otherwise we run the risk of people attending our services who’ve merely fallen in love with us.
Will anyone show up on Sunday?
Francis Chan: We’re consumed with this question, but it’s the wrong question. Paul actually told Timothy that teaching sound doctrine will not “work,” in fact it’ll drive people away (2 Tim. 4:1–5). Yet he’s commanded to preach truth because it’s what God wants! Remember, it’s not about what I would like, what others would like, or what “works.” Church is for God.
Having said that, I think we’d be surprised. We may find that people are actually attracted to a group that’s devoted to the presence of God. After all, it was enough to attract over 100 million people to the underground church in China. It could be that God is waiting for a group of people to strip away all that they think will work and devote themselves to what he commanded.
You’ve visited a variety of churches in China and other persecuted regions. How different is their experience of church from America?
Francis Chan: I recall when my daughter and I went to an underground gathering in China years ago. Young people were praying so passionately, begging God to send them to the most dangerous places. They were actually hoping to die as martyrs! I had never seen anything like it. I still can’t get over the fearless passion for Jesus that this church embodied.
As they shared stories of persecution, I sat in amazement and asked for more stories. After a while, they asked why I was so intrigued. I told them that the church in America was nothing like this. I can’t tell you how embarrassing it was to try to explain to them that people attend 90-minute services once a week in buildings, and that’s what we call “church.” I told them about how people switch churches if they find better teaching, or more exciting music, or more robust programs for their kids.
As I described church life in America, they began to laugh. Not just small chuckles—they were laughing hysterically. I felt like a stand-up comedian, but I was literally just describing the American church as I’ve experienced it. They found it laughable that we could read the same Scriptures they were reading and then create something so incongruent.
The same is true in India. Years ago, my friend from India drove me to a speaking engagement in Dallas. When he heard the music and saw the lights, he said, “You Americans are funny. You won’t show up unless there’s a good speaker or band. In India, people get excited just to pray.” He proceeded to tell me how believers back home love communion and how they flock to simple prayer gatherings. I imagined God looking down on the earth and seeing people on one side of the planet gathering expectantly whenever prayer was happening. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, people only show up for the most talented people and the “atmosphere.”
It’s embarrassing. We should be better than “needing atmosphere” in our American churches. We should desire to meet with God above all else.
As you plant churches in the San Francisco area you encourage small home-based churches which grow, then intentionally divide and multiply. Is this a model you believe will work in other locations?
Francis Chan: First of all, the New Testament avoids laying out a model for precisely how the church ought to be structured. The biblical authors could have been very clear on this, but instead they leave us with a lot of freedom. I think that’s important, and it’s part of preserving the mystery of the church. What works for us in San Francisco, may not work for every church in the Body.
So, I don’t argue that all churches should be small. I thank God for many of the large churches that currently exist, and I hope they thrive. I have many friends who don’t know Jesus. Some might not come to a gathering in someone’s house but would be open to visiting a large gathering. I just want to see them saved.
Yet, I do believe that God is leading a movement in this country toward simple, smaller gatherings, and I long to see this movement gain greater traction. I get so excited when I dream about the church spreading in small, invigorating expressions that look and feel like the early church. I want to help others begin dreaming as well.
Bio: Francis Chan is a pastor, speaker and best-selling author. God used the death of his parents early in childhood to give Francis a deep understanding of the brevity of life. This has shaped his life and teaching with an eternal perspective as he continues to challenge believers to live on mission, willing to surrender everything. Francis has been used by God to author books Crazy Love, Forgotten God, Erasing Hell, Multiply, and You and Me Forever. God’s blessing on these books have spread millions of copies around the world in many different languages.
Francis’s love for teaching the Word compelled him to found Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, where he pastored for 16 years. He helped found Radius International, which equips cross-cultural church planters with skills necessary to plant healthy, viable and reproducing churches. He recently started Project Bayview, discipleship homes for men and women who are coming out of addiction or incarceration.
Currently, Francis is a pastor of We Are Church and is planting churches in Northern California, where he lives with his wife of 25 years, Lisa. They have seven children and one beautiful granddaughter.
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