“It’s time to open the cages, remind the animals of their God-given instincts and capabilities, and release them into the wild.” 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.
In this chapter, Francis Chan talks about the American church becoming like a zoo that pampers and cares for wild animals. As a result, American Christians have become tame and incapable of going out into the wild to accomplish the things God expects of them – spreading the Gospel. He talks about a pastor in Seoul who was complaining about being good at gathering people together because once they got comfortable in the church, they didn’t want to leave. In Beijing, they talk about the good old days when people were risking their lives sharing the gospel. Obviously there is more energy around a time when the church is growing, but we are beyond this stage here in America. Francis says he was embarrassed to explain to pastors in these other countries that the American church was a ninety-minute service once a week and seemingly nothing more. That is, of course, a simplified version of the American church, but there is some truth in there. A pastor from the Philippines didn’t want to send his missionaries to America for training because they wouldn’t come back – finding the American church more comfortable. Francis seems to imply that a comfortable church is a bad thing, and of course that’s not entirely true.
Francis talks about the power of the Holy Spirit not being fully realized today. His suggestion is that we have grown so comfortable in our churches we don’t lean enough on the power of the Holy Spirit – he suggests that with some training, we could do amazing things with this power. I agree there is untapped potential, but I have not seen many recent manifestations that rival the kinds of experiences displayed in the book of Acts. From my point of view, our access to the Holy Spirit has been limited in these current times.
Francis says, “It’s time to open the cages, remind the animals of their God-given instincts and capabilities, and release them into the wild.” I agree that the church needs to get out of the building and do ministry – but in America that is not simply sharing the gospel, but taking action to serve others. In America, many people have heard and rejected the gospel multiple times. From my perspective, the best way to approach unbelievers in America is through serving their needs. If Christians are known for providing service to those in need rather than remaining in their church buildings listening to worship music, there will be a dramatic shift toward becoming a part of the Christian experience.
Francis leans on the fact that Jesus said our entrance into heaven is predicated on our childlike faith. He believes we need to give children more responsibility, because in his view, God is suggesting they have more power than we believe. My understanding of the teaching of Jesus is a little different. Rather than teaching children have more power, I believe Jesus was teaching that children have not been as corrupted by the devil as adults. As a result of his understanding about children, Francis incorporates children into his gatherings because he believes they have something to teach the adults. While I agree that children do have something to teach adults – regarding what it’s like before the devil gets hold of your spirit – I also believe children need to be taught with other children in their own setting – not together with adults.
To illustrate his point, Francis tells about a group of children in Africa that routinely share the gospel and he laments the fact that children in America are watching puppet shows and learning songs with hand motions. He’s really comparing apples and oranges here – still there is an element of truth in his point of view. As I see it, children’s programs need to be well-tailored to their culture. I don’t believe children have some extraordinary untapped abilities. My understanding of the teachings of Jesus is that children have an innocence that we should admire, and a separation from the devil that we should attempt to emulate.
Francis says that, “In high school, we try to entertain them enough so they keep coming.” This is absolutely true. He then asks, “What would happen if we trained our young lions to attack rather than keep them sheltered.” I think that’s a good question. Like adults, teens should be encouraged and facilitated by the church to serve God by serving others.
Francis says about children, “we underestimate them, and we’re afraid of what will happen if we let them loose, so we keep them entertained, educated, and insulated.” I think if you asked children’s ministry pastors all over America, you would discover entertained, educated, and insulated is not their goal. Francis goes on to ask, “Is this really any different from the way we treat the average member of our churches?” Yes, I think this better applies to the adult congregation. In any case, the solution is for the church to focus on serving God by serving others at all ages. The church should be going out of its way to connect people with service opportunities.
Francis says, “It’s time for us to figure out what it means to be the Church in the wild.” I agree with this basic concept. Church in America is too safe. We need to get out of the building and get to work serving others at every opportunity – and the opportunities are endless. Francis goes on to tell several stories about how other countries send their church members out to spread the gospel and huge numbers are responding. Of course, this is comparing apples and oranges. Those cultures are far different. America has a thick callus of secularism that needs to be dispatched with love and compassion through service to others. Francis says, “The church was meant to be a beautiful army, sent out to shed light throughout the earth.” I agree, and in America that means by serving others, not simply sharing the gospel.
Near the end of this chapter, Francis asks these questions, “Have people ever been in disbelief over the amount of peace you display? Are you known for being ridiculously joyful?” In America, there may be very few Christians who can answer these questions in the affirmative. But I don’t think the primary problem is the church. We are in a battle with the devil and that is reflected in our demeanor. From my point of view, this can be overcome by dedicated, loving service to others. Francis concludes by saying, “We must stop creating safe places for people to hide and start developing fearless warriors to send out.” I agree. Churches need to be sending out every member to serve others in some way. Churches need to facilitate the ability of their members to serve others each and every day.