Letters to the Church

An Interview with Francis Chan

Francis Chan is a pastor, speaker, and bestselling author. After launching Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California in 2010, Francis left the pastorate of that church and the college that he founded. Today, he leads a home-based church model in Northern California. He’s written several bestselling books, including Crazy Love and Forgotten God. His newest book is entitled Letters to the Church, published by David C. Cook. He was interviewed by Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.

Preaching: What is Letters to the Church all about?

Chan: It’s about my journey, from planting a church 25 years ago to where I am today. It’s about my studies in the Scriptures and trying to look for the things that God wants most in the Church – just taking a look at our churches and making sure we’re in alignment with that so that we’re not just doing what was done before us, or what was modeled for us, but to really go back to the Scriptures and say, “What was God’s intention for the Church, am I missing it, and how can I make some changes so that the Church really can be the bride that He was asking for in Scripture?”

Preaching: What led you to write this book?

Chan: Well, there were a lot of things. When I first started my church, I was young. I was 26, married for a couple weeks, and really felt like the Lord wanted me to start something. And I just kind of looked at the churches around me and thought, “Okay, I like this. I don’t like this,” and then I started my own.

But I never really went back to the Scriptures and said, “Okay, if I was trying to be as biblical as possible, how would it look?” Like, that thought just didn’t enter my mind, because there were so many good models out in front of me. And so I guess it was after all these years of being a pastor and preaching and teaching and loving it, but also being exposed to what’s going on around the world, and then having some elders really talk through with me, and say the Scriptures with me, to question what we were doing a little bit.

It was all of that that made me take a deeper look in Scripture, and then try to start over again and plant a church that I felt like might be closer to what I see in Scripture. So this is me expressing all of those thoughts and experiences that might be helpful to other people who are either starting churches, or a part of a church that wants to change, or maybe even just another generation that’s ready to try something different because maybe they’ve found their experience lacking.

Preaching: Are there some helpful insights about the church that you gained as you worked through the writing of this book?

Chan: Definitely. There are so many passages in Scripture that almost sound or feel like hyperbole because we haven’t experienced anything close to that. Like when it would talk about the power of the Holy Spirit in us – even verses that we quote all the time, like Ephesians 3:20, “To Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine according to the powers that work within us.” We’ll put it on posters, we’ll paint it on our wall, bumper stickers, whatever. But at the end of the day, do we really believe that? That He can do more than I could imagine right now? Like, that’s what the Holy Spirit can do in our lives through us. And I feel like we’ve lost some of that faith in the church, and I meet very few people who dare to dream so big and dare to trust the Scriptures in such a literal way.

And so those are the things that – the more I study the Scriptures – the more I question myself: how much do I really believe this book and what is possible for the Church, and what is possible through me?

Preaching: You’ve had such an interesting journey: founding pastor of what became a very large church, then you felt God leading you away from that and you spent some time overseas, and now you’re helping lead a ministry planting home-based churches. What’s led you through all of that?

Chan: I really believe this is something that God has orchestrated. It goes so in line with my whole life where nothing really makes sense, you know? It’s nothing that I could’ve planned out or charted out. But as I look back, I really think the Lord was leading me to start that church 25 years ago. I really believe it was His timing. I think there’s even a reason why I just kind of did it the way other people were doing it. I think there was a reason why the Lord had so many people come and fall in love with Him during those days in that church. And I also believe there’s a reason why I ended up in Asia, and seeing what was possible through everyday people who work their jobs and were evangelists.

And just the timing of everything. Even having elders back at Cornerstone Church that would challenge my thinking biblically. I just thank God for the whole thing that led me to this point that this is what makes most sense for me. And also, when I think about the trajectory of our country and for those who are lost in other countries that are restricted, I just go, “Gosh, this really makes a lot of sense.” I wouldn’t have planned it this way, but I really believe it has been the leading of the Holy Spirit and a part of God’s sovereign plan.

Preaching: So you’re doing something very different now in terms of launching home-based churches in your area. What do you think are the advantages of a home-based church versus a traditional congregation? And then, of course, what are the challenges?

Chan: I’ll start with the challenges. It is so much harder for the average person, who is used to Sunday morning as the time where you showed up somewhere and you were fed, your kids were fed, and you really could just sit there and soak it in. Versus now, you’re opening up your home, you’re actually getting involved in people’s lives. You take it on as your own responsibility. Our pastors see themselves as the spiritual parents of these people. That’s a big, big responsibility. And meanwhile, they’re working jobs and everything else. I mean, it’s a challenge.

In no way has it been simple and easy, especially when we’re used to a different paradigm. We naturally (want to) take the easier road, and this is definitely a more difficult one.

And then you’re dealing with other people’s children in your own house, and that’s a challenge because I like order, I like authority in the home. I like parents to actually act like parents. And so it’s like, “Wow, we have to disciple them and teach them how to raise their kids, and teach them that, you know, there’s actually authority in the home.” I have very little patience with unruly kids, and so it’s a particular test of my patience.

So those are some of the struggles, as well as just relationships. Like in our own human families, you see so much conflict because of the closeness. Well, the same thing happens in the church. It’s much easier to just have a crowd out there that I barely know, preach to them, have them go home. That’s a lot easier to me to keep a little distance and privacy.

So those are the challenges. The benefit is almost the same thing. The benefit is being so close to this body that you go, “Gosh, we really love each other, and we’ve got each other’s backs, and we share our possessions with each other.” There’s a security of knowing, “Wow, I’m on mission with these people, and I would do anything for them, and they would do anything for me.”

But I think the biggest piece is when I look at all the “one anothers” in Scripture. All of the commands and how God just wanted us to deeply love one another in such a way that the world would look at our love and go, “Oh, I want that. I want to be a part of a family that loving. You know, that forgive each other from the heart, and they bear one another’s burdens, and no one’s in need, and they’re caring for one another.” Like the peace that comes from going, “Wow, we’re actually pursuing that,” and people are actually attracted, not because of a teacher or singing, although that’s great. It’s that they really are attracted by the love, which is what Christ asked for. That they would know us by the way that we loved one another.

And so I’d say the greatest advantage is just the peace of going, “Wow. This feels biblical.” And to me, that’s invaluable to have peace, and to know that we’re pursuing the obedience that God asked for.

Preaching: I can hear in the sound of your voice a real sense of joy about what you’re doing.

Chan: Yeah. I feel so happy. I’m just so built up by the other believers right now that are really challenging me in my walk with the Lord. Not by preaching to me, but more just by their example of really being in love with Jesus.

And so I’m just extremely happy. I often really believe I am the happiest person in America. So yes, I’m loving it.

Preaching: How has your preaching changed as you’ve made the shift from a more traditional church model to what you’re doing now?

Chan: I would say my preaching has changed a lot. I almost feel like I’m preaching all day. We all have a common Bible reading; today I read 2 Corinthians 5. And I just can’t wait to share my insights with other people who also read 2 Corinthians 5, and hear from them. So it’s almost like they’re proclaiming the Word of God to me, and I’m proclaiming it back to them. So it’s almost like a daily thing where I’m giving like mini-sermons to little groups throughout the day. Whoever I run into.

And so if it does come to a larger setting where I’m called to preach these passages, I’ve already preached it so much, so I guess it’s even more personal than ever. And it’s a little bit deeper, richer, because I’m hearing the insights from so many other people, godly men and women, of what they’re getting from the passage, which adds to my knowledge. So if I’m preaching, now I’m not just preaching what Francis Chan came up with in his study. But it’s really what the body of Christ has come up with.

Preaching: So if we were to join you at one of your worship gatherings, what would your preaching look like? What would we experience as we were there?

Chan: It would vary so much. There may be times when our church gathers and there’s not such a dependence on a 30-minute sermon, because they’ve been in the Word all week, and we’ve been fellowshipping and giving each other these mini-sermons throughout the week. So there’s not like this, “Okay, I’m spiritually dry, and I walk in the room, now fill me.” People come having studied the Word of God and having applied the Word of God and spoken about the Word of God so there can be more discussion.

There’s a lot more discussion. There’s a lot more of, “Hey, how’s the Lord leading you?” An expectation of them coming filled and having prayed for the church. And, like 1 Corinthians 12 through 14, talking about how everyone’s been given a manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the common good. Expecting everyone to have brought something to the table.

There may be times when I feel like I just need to teach something directly to the group, so maybe a 10-minute thing. Because you know, they don’t need all the examples. They don’t need all the stories. They don’t need to be warmed up. It’s just, get right into it. I don’t think there’s ever a Sunday where I’m preaching something that’s completely new to them, because I’ve already shared it with them during the week, at least to some of them.

So I don’t really do a 40 or 30-minute expository sermon every Sunday. There’s some weeks where it’s a lot of prayer. Like this last weekend, we got to go round and share, and one person’s good friend was murdered a week ago. The night before, we had another friend of ours, dear friend, who tried to overdose and take her life. And I got to share about the day before, I got to share the gospel with a young man at the swimming pool and his response. And so we prayed for him.

Then the guy who usually leads had pneumonia, and his wife was just sharing about his struggles. But we’re just thanking God, because she’s saying, “Gosh, you know, he was telling me, ‘If I die tonight, just thank God, thank God.’ He goes, ‘I’m up all night coughing. Every time I cough, I thank God.'” We have to be people who thank God through everything.'” And so we spent a lot of time in prayer and praise and people reading different passages of Scripture. And we take communion together.

One of my daughters who usually leads in worship musically, she left for college, so we didn’t have a whole lot of music. So I strapped the guitar on and tried to play a song. Didn’t go so well! But that was our Sunday. Then we had lunch together. Sometimes we go out on outreaches and talk to people in the neighborhood. Sometimes they’re around all the way until the evening, and we order a pizza. It’s very, very different; it’s more like a family reunion than a church service.

Preaching: You’ve been a pastor now for a number of years in different settings. If you were to sit down and talk to a new pastor, what’s some counsel that you would share with them about being a pastor?

Chan: I would share that for years I thought if I preached a good sermon, that’s all I really needed to do. That would change the Church. And I thought that people would remember every sermon and hang on every word. And you just realize over time, I’ll preach something and people will come up to me afterwards and go, “This is what I got out of your sermon.” And I’d be like, “I didn’t even say that. How did that get communicated?” And other things that you thought were so profound and life-changing really weren’t.

I realized over time that people follow an example. And while the sermon and preaching is important, you don’t want to over-emphasize it to the point where you think that that’s enough. Like, people need examples. They need exemplary lives. And they need to be close enough to you to where they can see your life and know you well enough to where you can be an example.

You see Paul talk about that in the Epistles. He says, “You know how we lived among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us, and of the Lord.” The whole idea was this discipleship and this lifestyle. And it’s out of the overflow of that and people seeing that that your preaching makes sense.

So I think I would just really emphasize (that) you need to be an example worth following. And so much of that, too, comes from your time alone with Jesus, where you are deeply in love with Him and making disciples that are deeply in love with Him. Because if that’s not happening, you can become a great preacher and people will love your teaching and follow your teaching, but that doesn’t mean that you’re making disciples and that you’re multiplying people who are truly in love with Jesus, which is really the crux of Scripture.