Letters to the Church by Francis Chan

Chan, Francis. Letters to the Church. Colorado Springs, Col: David C. Cook, 2018.

Francis Chan’s newest book, Letters to the Church comes with a buzz because it’s Francis Chan. He knows how to generate a buzz. But there is a limited audience who might benefit from the entirety of this book. The book has some extremely helpful, motivating ideas but as an entire work, it may lead more away from the local church than toward it. Chan’s work has the potential of producing more jaded Christians frustrated with Jesus and his Bride than not.

Chan sees a problem in much of how the American Church is functioning today. I appreciate that he is sounding the alarm but Chan’s over forceful response misses the nuances of the real problem.

Chan is clearly jaded with the Church (as he presently sees it) and he’s making an argument against the so-called-Christian who is not acting like how Chan thinks First-Century believers acted. There are some Christians who are indeed acting in rebellion, sitting in the pew in apathy. There are some who need this sin addressed (as Chan argues). That person should read this book.

At the same time, there are some who haven’t thought much about what the local church could be, and Chan permits them to dream. They might find Letters to the Church exciting and will hopefully lean into the local church rather than walk away. This could be many people in sleepy churches, especially across the Bible Belt. This person should read the book, with caution.

But I’m not convinced anyone outside the two above mentioned groups should pick up a copy. I hate to write this review because Chan has done a great deal for many Christians. He’s motivated millions on some level. His zeal and passion for Jesus and following him radically is motivating. But this book is loaded with problems.

First, I struggle to read authors who make their living from the Christian community by selling books, speaking at conferences, and recording videos on media services like RightNow Media who argue that the local church should be in homes with unpaid pastors and have no financial resources. These same books and conferences are marketed to churches and often hosted in church buildings. The same musical worship that is treated as problematic programming in the book is the same worship found at the conferences where Chan speaks. If Chan believes what he writes, he should stop accepting so many speaking and writing engagements. Or he might look for less harsh and more inviting ways to make changes from within.

Second, Chan idolizes the First-Century Church, or what he thinks the First-Century Church was. He makes arguments from what the First-Century Church was doing, and he assumes those local churches were free from problems. His assumption of those local churches become his gold-standard for what all churches should strive. However, Chan overlooks all of the issues in the Early Church. They had problems with racism (poor distribution of bread in Acts 6 or Peter’s refusal to eat with Gentiles in Galatians 2, for example), difficulties with obedience to the Great Commission (note that they hadn’t left Jerusalem until Acts 8), and theological disagreements about circumcision. Much of every epistle deals with problems in the church. If not for all the issues, we wouldn’t have a good part of the New Testament. And let us certainly never forget the harsh warnings God gave the churches in the divine letters in the book of Revelation. Today’s less-than-perfect Church looks a great deal like the First-Century less-than-perfect Church, but neither looks like the Church Chan is painting.

Third, at times Chan slightly misrepresents God’s Word to lead the reader to his desired conclusions. For example, in the chapter called “Good Shepherds,” his argues that everyone should become a pastor, and everyone is a pastor. Here he writes,

“Contrary to popular belief, we are all called to pastor (a word that simply means ‘shepherd’). Older women are to shepherd the younger (Titus 2:3-5). Parents are to shepherd their children (Eph. 6:4). Timothy was told to teach others what he had been taught (2 Tim. 2:2). We’re all called to be making disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). If you can’t find a single person who looks to you as a mentor, something is wrong with you” (106).

Chan is not wrong about the word from where we get pastor, and indeed it does mean shepherd. In the New Testament, the Greek noun for that word is poimen and the verb form is poimaino. In nearly every English translation, that word is translated shepherd. But this word appears in none of the verses Chan supplied to argue that everyone is a pastor. In all the verses, there is an idea of discipleship and teaching, but pastor or shepherd is not there. No English translation uses the word shepherd or pastor in the verses Chan uses, except he implies that’s the case with his parenthetical statement and he changes the word to shepherd in regard to older women teaching (kalodidaskalous) and encouraging (sōphronizōsin) the younger women and training (paideia) our children.

Ephesians 4:11 does make a case that some are to be shepherds (the poimen noun) who are also teachers (but it’s not the same teacher-word as those used in the selected verses). Also note that Ephesians 4:11 says some, not all, and then some are for maturing the Church. Chan’s handling of the text tosses out the nuances of discipleship, pastoral ministry, and shepherding. Scripture draws clear differences between Paul, Timothy, the elders of the churches, and the Body as a whole. We would be wise to pay attention to those differences rather than adjusting to meet our own purposes.

Also, while I believe every Christian should be making disciples, I am uncomfortable with Chan’s line at the end of the quote that “something is wrong” with a person not presently making disciples. The charge in 2 Corinthians 5 is to call people to be reconciled to God, not to make people into ambassadors. It seems once a person is reconciled to God well, he or she becomes an ambassador. Jesus’ charge to make disciples in Matthew 28 is to make followers of Christ, not to make people into guilt-ridden disciple-makers. There’s a big distinction. Once one is following Christ or reconciled well, he or she naturally becomes a disciple-maker (although a little more training may be necessary at that point). If someone is not a disciple-maker, the fault may rest with the person discipling that individual. God wants us drawing people to himself, not propagating a marketing pyramid by guilt.

Fourth, I appreciate that Francis Chan was concerned that people might read his book out of context and use it as ammo against the Church. He writes,

“I am trying to write with a spirit of unity. While some of the things I write may sound critical, I really am trying to speak in a spirit of grace and unity. One of the worst things that could happen for is for angry people to take these words and proudly confront their church leadership. There is enough division and arrogance in the Church already. I believe there is a way to show kindness and grace toward one another without abandoning our convictions” (25).

However, in the pages that follow, Chan was not gracious with the part of the Church that he’s jaded with. He doesn’t sound like a shepherd or even a caring person. For example, in the chapter called, “Servants” he writes,

“Don’t you see the weirdness in calling people CHRISTian when they aren’t servants? I know we can’t force people to serve, but there has to be something we can do. No team puts up with players who refuse to contribute. No army puts up with soldiers who don’t carry their own weight. Why do churches continue to put up with Christians who refuse to serve? Why don’t we treat selfishness as a sin that needs to be confronted? If Scripture commands us to serve one another, isn’t it a bit strange that we give people a free pass?” (97).

I’m certainly glad Jesus didn’t treat me like the weak link on a sports team or toss me in the brig like a militant dictator. Jesus invites us to join his mission. And Jesus adopts us into his family, not conscripts us into his militia as long as we carry our own weight. Service is an opportunity to join Christ, and caring pastors indeed have a responsibility to call people into that opportunity. At times, there is sin, but not always. It might be frustrating that people aren’t serving Jesus in his church as we might want them to, but if there “has to be something we can do” we might be better praying for these folks and discipling them. Christ called us to make disciples, not build the Church. He said he would do that (Matthew 16:18).

I pastor a church of broken people. Single moms newly following Christ. People just coming off addiction. Confused and jaded believers. Caged-Calvinist. I would hate to demand that they serve when they only see it as another burden or some kind of false way to appease God, but I love shepherding them into opportunities to be the hands and feet of Christ when they are ready to see it that way and Jesus has transformed their view.

Before my wife and I were believers, we slipped into Sunday church serves late and left just as they were ending so we wouldn’t have to engage with believers. We wanted to watch and listen but I wouldn’t have had Christians over to my home or gone to a Christian’s home to discuss faith or likely even become friends. Our only real exposure was a year and a half of slipping into services and leaving. I’m thankful that church was there and they didn’t confront us for not living like authentic Christians. If they had, I suspect we would have walked, never to return. However, in God’s timing and after hearing many messages God saved my wife and me. This is but one example, but it reminds me that not every circumstance fits well into the house-church, roll-up-your-sleeves and get to work expression of the local church. The Body is one Body of many parts. If we only view the Body as the local church, we miss that many other Christians are being the Church as they serve as their part of the whole Body of Christ.

Francis Chan makes many good points in his book, but nearly all of them are overshadowed by the other things he says. I suspect this will be the kind of book people will read and say, “Yeah, this is how the church should be” but then do little to nothing to change their Christian walk. They will harbor extremely high expectations of the church and then be let down when they don’t see those expectations. Even worse, they’ll become jaded with the broken church that Jesus died to redeem. Letters to the Church is a rally cry kind of book without the rally or much action. I like where I thought the book was headed when I read the introduction, but in the end, it was far more noise without substance.

I appreciate Chan’s heart for seeing the American Church desire to follow Jesus in radical ways. I love his passion for the Lord. But as much as this passion is a strength, it comes with a weakness too. If the passion is light, dealing in absolutes when absolutes don’t capture the nuance of reality is the shadowy side of the light. This book might have been much better and much more beneficial had Chan tempered his frustration before putting ink on the paper.