Book Review: Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan
Francis Chan, Letters to the Church. David C. Cook, 2018. 224 pages.
Something is wrong with the American Evangelical church. You’ve thought that. You’ve voiced this concern. But have you ever been so discouraged by the state of the church today that you would walk away from it? That’s what Francis Chan did. By many measures, Chan was the “successful” pastor of Cornerstone Church, a mega-church in Simi Valley, California. He planted the church in 1994 when he was only 20 years old. Then, after years of explosive growth and burdensome building projects, he realized “something was off” and walked away from it all (13). Chan took his family overseas to India, Thailand, and China (18), where, as he explains, he experienced the church, not as he had in the United States, but as the New Testament describes. Chan and his family eventually returned to San Francisco, California where he began the “We Are Church” house church movement. His vision was to establish in the United States what he saw overseas. Though he admits that the church has real problems, Chan wisely encourages Christians not to give up on the church, for “Jesus still refers to the Church as His Body, His Bride!” Therefore, he urges, “we must love His Bride, not gripe about her or leave her” (22).
Chan’s Letter to the Church is an honest and insightful critique of the American Evangelical church. In it, Chan admits that God is displeased with his church (24). But rather than just complain about it, Chan calls us to reclaim a high view of the church and return to its New Testament foundations. To do that, he proposes a solution, hoping that by doing so, Christians may have a model by which to reform the church.
Chan is not coming from a place of arrogance, telling us all we’re doing wrong. He’s been humbled. He realized that as a pastor, he was the problem, and he grieves over that fact. So, Chan critiques the church as one who loves Christ, loves his bride, and mourns over what has become of her. He calls readers to take out their own Bibles and “check whether I am twisting the Scriptures or just stating the obvious” (24). He admits that “while some of the things I write may sound critical, I really am trying to speak in a spirit of grace and unity” (25). And he rightly warns that “one of the worst things that could happen is for angry people to take these words and proudly confront their church leadership” (25). Admitting that changes need to take place, Chan humbly calls for grace (25).
Having called for grace (chapter 1), Chan reminds us of the glorious place of the church in God’s plan (chapter 2) and the biblical practices of the church in the New Testament (chapter 3). Then, he identifies several marks of a New Testament church he believes are missing from the American Evangelical church: loving community (chapter 4), humble service (chapter 5), faithful pastors (chapter 6), readiness to suffer (chapter 7), unleashed for missions (chapter 8). Finally, he offers a solution (chapter 9). Chan closes the book with an afterword in which he seeks to encourage those who have to deal with arrogant people who may oppose change.
“There is no greater honor on earth than to be part of God’s Church” (34). Oh, that all Christians and all pastors had as high a view of the church as Francis Chan. He argues that the church is sacred because it is the temple of God (38) and an embassy of heaven meant to display God’s wisdom to the heavenly beings (43). He laments our failure “to see the beauty in God’s design for the Church” (44) and confesses that we—pastors and church leaders—“have trained you to become addicted to lesser things. We have cheapened something sacred, and we must repent” (44).
Chan’s main charge against American Evangelicalism is consumerism (86, 94–95, 98, 120, 124, 190). Rather than doing what God has commanded the church to do, he suggests, we have offered people what we think they want. He laments, “either people will be awed by the sacred or they will not. . . . By catering our worship to the worshippers and not to the Object of our worship, I fear we have created human-centered churches” (53).
Chan proposes we return to the New Testament model found in Acts 2:42–47: devotion to the apostles’s teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. Chan believes the American church’s dysfunction is rooted in a lack of devotion to the very things that please God (56). And “while we can’t force people to be devoted,” he admits, “it may be that we have made it too easy for them not to be. By trying to keep everyone interested and excited, we’ve created a cheap substitute for devotion” (56).
Having established a glorious picture of the church and reminded us of the church’s biblical foundations, Chan offers an honest and insightful critique of the American Evangelical church. He has a way with words. Mixed with his humble heart and evident passion, Chan’s words pack a powerful punch. We need to listen to his critique and evaluate our own hearts because every pastor and every church constantly battles with the question, “What must we do to grow our church?” If that’s the question that drives us as pastors and church members, then our church too will go the way of the world.
So, Chan is right to call us out for our worldly attempts to gather as many people as possible in one building (or multiple campuses). He asks us to imagine what our efforts may look like to the unbelieving world—“If Muslims were advertising free donuts and a raffle for a free iPad as a means to get people to their events, I would find that ridiculous. . . . If they needed rock concerts and funny speakers to draw crowds, I would see them as desperate and their god as cheap and weak” (95). Chan is also right to conclude that “while our good intentions may have gotten some people in the door, they also may have caused a whole generation to have a lower view of our God” (95).
But rather than offer an entire book of only critique, Chan understands he must also offer a positive proposal. His solution: “We Are Church”—a movement of house churches that he helped start in San Francisco, California (chapter 9). Chan began this movement with a desire to produce “devoted worshipers, loving families, equipped disciple makers, Spirit-filled missionaries, and suffering sojourners” (176–77). To produce such disciples, he focuses on practices that he’s found helpful in achieving their values: “daily Bible readings, meet in homes, multiply leaders, elder authority, everyone discipled, everyone disciples, everyone exercises gifts, regular multiplication of churches, simple gatherings, share possessions, and assume missions” (177–80).
Wisely, Chan does not offer his approach as “the solution, but only one solution” (193–94). Still, Chan’s humility and passion, combined with his winsome way with words is influential. Consequently, because of the dissatisfaction with the American church, I suspect this book will will gain a wide reading. And contrary to his warnings, some disgruntled Christians will likely use his proposal as a weapon against their own churches and leaders, while others will simply walk away from their faithful churches and experiment with Chan’s approach.
This is a problem. It’s not that house churches are necessarily a bad idea. In fact, house churches may be a viable strategy in a day of expensive land and skyrocketing building prices. House churches may be a wise way to spread the gospel in a hostile environment. It’s harder to avoid gospel community and intentional discipleship in smaller gatherings where everyone knows your name. Chan makes all these points (182–88). There are real issues the church must confront. So my concern is not about house churches as a model. My concern is that Chan’s particular proposal is simplistic and unproven.
Chan’s proposal is too simplistic in its assumptions. He seems to believe that by simply returning to the “New Testament way of doing church,” which for him is house churches, the American church will be better structured to fulfill its mission and avoid consumerism. And yet, one only has to read the New Testament letters to learn that the early church battled division, spiritual immaturity, the abuse of spiritual gifts, spiritual arrogance, and denial of the resurrection. And that was just the Corinthians. The Galatians opened themselves to another gospel. The Ephesians behaved like pagans. The Colossians produced their own heresy. John’s churches flirted with nascent Gnosticism. Even the Philippians battled pride. And if those problems weren’t bad enough, in Revelation Jesus threatened to shut down churches if they didn’t repent.
It’s too simplistic to think we can replicate first-century church gatherings and solve the American evangelical church’s problems. Our church’s problems will never be solved with new structures or models because our problems all have the same source—sinful, selfish professing Christians who need to be shepherded toward Christlikeness.
Chan has a point that discipleship is more difficult to accomplish in larger, mega-church settings. But the solution is not simply to decrease church size. The solution is for pastors to shepherd the flock of God among them toward Christlike maturity in order to present each member complete in Christ on the Last Day. That’s the job, no matter the size of the church.
Also, Chan’s proposal is new and unproven, which is ironic given the fact that he believes his model reflects the first-century church of Acts 2. What Chan offers is what missiologists call Church Planting Movements (CPM). According to Church Multiplication Associates, a CPM “is a rapid and multiplicative increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment.” That’s Chan’s proposal: a rapid multiplying house church movement (181–83). To reach as many people as possible with the gospel, Chan proposes we mentor “pastors” from the regular workforce who will require no salary from the church and rapidly multiply gatherings of Christians throughout cities.
Because CPMs are so new, however, we don’t have sufficient data on their impact or long-term viability. Are these rapidly produced believers enduring in their faith? Are pastors who have received little to no theological training maintaining doctrinal faithfulness? Let’s not forget that the apostles repeatedly visited or wrote to their churches to address ongoing conflict, division, apostasy, and false teaching. That’s why we have the New Testament letters. We don’t yet know what happens when we place men lacking theological training in front of churches as pastors, gather new believers together, then, after they reach 20 in one house church, divide them to produce another gathering as fast as possible. CPMs haven’t been around long enough to discern their impact and viability.
SELECTIVE AND NAÏVE HERMENEUTIC
Additionally, while Chan’s critique is insightful, his proposal is based on a selective and naïve hermeneutic. Chan is right to emphasize the church’s devotion in Acts 2:42–47. And he is right to highlight devotion to the apostles’s teaching as central to the life of the church (57). But Chan’s reason for devotion to the Word of God is to experience its power. He admits that “there is a miraculous power to the apostles’ teaching that no other writings have (Eph.2:20; 2 Tim. 3:16–17)” (57). But from these observations, Chan seems to conclude that the church’s devotion to the apostles’ teaching is to be expressed primarily in the public (58) and private (177) readings of Scripture. But the Word of God is not some talisman. It’s not a magical incantation that, if read, automatically taps us into its power. The New Testament example is that the Word of God was to be publicly read, explained, and applied (1 Tim. 4:13).
But for all his emphasis on the Word, one glaring omission in Chan’s proposal is the absence of public preaching (60, 134–35, 172–73, 179, 191). The context of the current American church is very much like the first century. And in that context, where the church would rather have its ears tickled than hear the hard truths of the Bible, Paul offered a different solution: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:1–2). While Chan emphasizes the public reading of Scripture based on 1 Timothy 4:13, he fails to acknowledge that the verse also speaks of exhortation (application of the passage) and teaching (explanation of the passage). I take 1 Timothy 4:13 to be a helpful summary definition of expositional preaching.
Moreover, the ascended Christ has given his church pastors and teachers to minister the Word so that the church may be equipped for ministry until it reaches Christlike maturity (Ephesians 4:11–16). The church is to speak this truth to one another in love (15). By calling for a devotion to the apostles’ teaching and omitting the preached Word, Chan appears to be utilizing a selective hermeneutic.
Chan’s proposal also betrays a naïve hermeneutic. We face the same danger whenever we read the Bible without considering its historical, literary, covenantal, and redemptive-historical contexts. This is the danger of over-contextualizing—reading the Bible and immediately applying it to ourselves without any consideration of the author’s original intention.
Chan does this when he proposes we return to Acts 2 and do everything they were doing in the exact ways they were doing it: meeting in homes (177), sharing possessions (178), and keeping the gatherings small (181–82). But before we apply this text to ourselves, we need to understand its original setting, its place in redemptive history, and see it through the lens of how Christ is building his church. That’s not to say that it doesn’t apply to us, and it’s not to say that we shouldn’t be devoted to the same things the early church devoted itself to. But it’s simply naïve to say, “The early church met in homes, so if we want to experience the same power they experienced, we must meet in homes also.”
Chan’s hermeneutic is also naïve because by suggesting we “start over” in thinking about the church and “bulldoze what we currently call ‘church’” (132), he discounts the history of biblical interpretation for the last 2,000 years. To declare that church has gotten it wrong since Constantine (389)—a common and historically lazy critique—and that now we must tear it all down and start over, is at best ignorant. At worst, it’s arrogant.
Chan’s Letters to the Church offers some penetrating and incisive critiques of the modern church. He humbly and winsomely calls us to examine ourselves to see if we’re entertaining the masses or actually being the church. That’s a right instinct.
Unfortunately, like many critics of the church before him, he rightly identifies a problem with the church but offers a simplistic solution based on a selective and naïve hermeneutic. So by all means, listen to his critique and evaluate your heart and your church’s practices. But let’s think more carefully about how to return the American church to health.
First and foremost, we would do well to study the Scriptures and church history to see how the church has continually battled these same threats. And remember: we’re not any church’s savior. There’s only one of those, and his name is Jesus. Gratefully, he delights in working though repentant sinners in messy churches that display God’s wisdom, and he has even promised that the gates of hades would not prevail against his church.
“Definition of a Church Planting Movement,” CMA Resources, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.cmaresources.org/article/church-planting-movements-definition.