The Church in America

“At the root of our calling is a command to imitate Him by serving one another.”  Francis Chan

Pastor Francis Chan walked away from his megachurch to start over with a collection of home churches.  His spiritual journey is an enormously valuable lesson for all Christians.  In his book, “Letters to the Church”, Pastor Chan details his experience and his concern for the Christian church in America.  His observations are enlightening and insightful; however they are, in my view, incomplete and I believe invite further discussion.  To that end, my goal here is to expand on Pastor Chan’s experience by balancing his vast experience in ministry with my personal experience as a worshiper.  It is my hope that these two points of view blended together will inspire the reader to carefully consider the path forward for the Christian church in America.

If you haven’t read “Letters to the Church,” I highly recommend you do.  I’ll be offering my point of view chapter by chapter.  It is not necessary to read the book before reading my response, but you will benefit greatly from Pastor Chan’s teaching and his inclusion of the scripture from which he bases his conclusions.

Chapter Five – Servants

Early in Chapter Five, Francis Chan makes this statement, “At the root of our calling is a command to imitate Him by serving one another.”  I couldn’t agree more.  That is the seed from which our entire walk with Jesus should grow.  Francis then asks this question, “Yet on any given Sunday, what percentage of Christians show up eager to serve others?”  In my experience, most show up with an open heart to serve – the problem is service opportunities are not provided in a way that fits easily into the average attender’s schedule.  The devil has so manipulated our culture, it has become difficult to adjust one’s life toward a path of service.  The church could help resolve this problem by acknowledging the devil’s efforts and work to circumnavigate his schemes.  The church could help change our culture into a culture of service by providing easy-to-plug-into service opportunities.

Consumer Christianity

I agree with Francis Chan’s assessment that for many, church has become a consumer product.  These people show up at church expecting to be provided with a spiritual experience just as they would go to the supermarket for milk.  Once they receive their weekly dose of Jesus, they return to their car and go home, only returning to church when they are running low.  Francis concludes, this kind of consumer church is not what God wants, but in some cases it works.  It provides some with the connection to God they need; however, ideally Francis says, “God wants you to resemble His Son, especially when you gather with your church family.”  He says that sitting back and letting the church staff feed you will not bring fulfillment.  He goes on to imagine a group of people who gather and try to out-serve one another, suggesting that going to church should be this kind of experience, rather than needy people complaining they haven’t been fed well enough.

There certainly can be an element in any church that only wants to be fed a good message, who walk away complaining if the service doesn’t meet their expectation.  I’m not sure how large that group is in any given church.  What I think is important to include in this discussion, is the fact that our Christian experience is not limited to our church attendance.  Most people do serve others in some capacity – we serve our families, we serve our friends, we serve at work or at school.  I believe there are some who serve so much during the week they come to church for rest and spiritual rejuvenation so that they can return better equipped to serve.

The Message

I agree with Francis Chan when he suggests that the church is overvaluing the rich, beautiful, and talented just as the world does.  I don’t think there’s any place for “celebrity” in the church.  Nevertheless, there should be respect for well-educated, skilled, and experienced Bible teachers.  I believe there are too many sermons that stray too far from the Bible.  Preachers should be admired for their Bible teaching and not their ability to make people feel good.  As Francis Chan points out, Ephesians 4:11-12 tells us that the goal of our pastor should be to equip us for God’s work, not make us feel good.

Francis believes that in some churches, the leaders are doing all the serving and the congregation is just there to receive the message as consumers of the leader’s effort.  He goes on to suggest that if the message delivered isn’t producing good fruit by those listening, it’s time for change.  What I think is important to point out here, is that it’s impossible for us to determine how much good fruit is generated in the lives of all those who attend any particular service.  Many are likely serving others a great deal outside of the church.

Growing the Church

I agree with Francis Chan completely when he suggests that many churches have become too fixated on attendance numbers and that the true measure of a successful church should be the amount of service to others generated by the congregation.  It seems to me that attendance numbers will grow as service to others grow.

Another important point Francis Chan makes, is that church members should grow in their service efforts over time.  Just as you would become more proficient after four years of college, you should also be more proficient in service to God after four years of church attendance.  I agree completely, and believe every church should have an ongoing discipleship program that develops members into leaders.  Unfortunately, the devil has so confused our culture there is little interest in adding another responsibility to our daily schedule; therefore, attending or devoting time to a discipleship program is sadly not high on the priority list – since it does not pay the bills.   Nevertheless, I’m confident that the right program that produces the right results could change this point of view.  The way to produce mature disciples who imitate Christ by constantly serving others, is for the church to constantly make an effort to pair those in need with those who can help.  Rather than a book and classroom discipleship program, a program of dedicated service to others that fits into absolutely anyone’s schedule needs to be designed. Francis Chan worries we have shifted our criteria for a good disciple to be someone who shows up at church, gives money, and occasionally serves.  I agree this is not God’s intention and the church should make an effort to redirect its members toward a more complete connection to God.

Church Gimmicks

Francis Chan believes the church has been using gimmicks to attract members – great music, dynamic speakers, great children’s programs, etc.  In his view, these gimmicks only cheapen our faith to those on the outside looking in.  Why would God need gimmicks to attract followers?  Francis says that “Prayer, communion, fellowship, and Bible reading don’t attract large crowds. So we start adding elements that will attract people.”  He goes on to say, “It is of far greater importance that we have better Christians than that we have more of them.”  I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, but on the other hand, I don’t believe everyone who attends church needs to be a mature and fully productive Christian – church is where you go to grow into a mature Christian.  For that reason, finding reasonable ways to attract a larger crowd can be a good thing if followed up with a dedicated discipleship program designed to turn each and every one into service-to-God machines.

Giving and Receiving

Finally, Francis says we should no longer give those who do not serve a free pass.  We need to call out those who are simply consumers of church and develop them into participants and fully active members of the body of Christ.  He says we should be sending people out to serve, rather than just taking them in to show up and receive.  I agree we do a lot more receiving than we do sending.  This needs to change.  I’m in agreement with Francis Chan’s concluding statement, “Only when we become servants will we experience the Holy Spirit as Jesus intended.  Only then will the Church resemble the Christ they worship.”

Chapter Six – Good Shepherds

Good Shepherds