Thoughts on ‘Letters to the Church’

Francis Chan is one of those writers that whenever you read what he has to say you end up on your knees repenting for something. Certainly that was my experience with letters to the Church. With humility and gentleness Chan unleashes a powerful challenge for the church to be all that it is meant to be – to recognise how sacred, brilliant, enduring, sacrificial and holy it is.

Based on his own experiences pastoring a mega church he calls us to learn from his mistakes, these included:

  • Creating churches where there was little supernatural love and self sacrifice for one another (pointing on to John 13:35),
  • leading a congregation that is overly dependant on one person,
  • which in turn leads to many coming to a service for 90 minutes and then going home for the rest of the week and at no other point being expected to use their unique gifts.

Chan wonders whether ‘our definition of a church actually fits God’s definition’ (14) he writes ‘imagine how difficult it would be to coach a team where each player refuses to follow because he or she has a better plan than the coach. Welcome to the American Church in the twenty-first century. Let’s exercise some humility’ (25).

So what does Chan think the ‘Coach’ wants for his team? Chan takes us back to the early church in Acts – this is an approach that is known for having some problems as what we read in Acts is contextualised for a time of extreme church growth under persecution as the brand new movement is launched. However, Chan is not saying that we should “do exactly what they did”, rather, he points us to the underlying attitudes and questions why we don’t have these. He writes,

‘at the core of our disfunction is not necessarily style or structure but lack of devotion’ (56).

Later he quotes,

‘your organisation is perfectly designed for producing the results you’re experiencing right now’ (92).

Could it be that our churches are set up in such a way that accounts for our deficit in devotion? This desire for a more devoted church is not only a devotion directed towards God but also towards each other, particularly our willingness to radically love and serve one another.

There is much more we could explore, I can only encourage you to pick up a copy of the book yourself. However, Chan’s critique of the church resinates with a lot of current thinking around young people and the church which I want to just explore briefly.

What do young people look for in the church? Good worship? A young trendy pastor? Great youth work? The rooted in the church report commissioned by the Church of England in 2016 found otherwise, they found young people saying that the most important attribute a church could have is that it should be ‘friendly’ and ‘welcoming’. Young people are looking for a warm and welcoming family that loves them and cares about them and includes them – simple.

This is why Chan’s critique of the church is so important for youth work, it is a radical call back to making our devotion to God and others the main thing, our focus, our priority, the thing that drives us. The challenge of the book is that if we visited a church today and then answered the question ‘what did you like the most?’, what would our answer be? Usually something like ‘the worship’, ‘great sermon’ or even ‘good welcome’. However, if the answer is not, ‘I loved the way they loved each other, no one had need because they were so generous and self giving’, then we are doing it wrong. This is what we have! Its meant to be our thing! Our love for one another is meant to be so attractive. So why do so much of our energies go into other things? This is what young people are looking for. Not only a place where they belong and are known but also a cause that is worthy of their whole life.

Kenda Creasy Dean in her book Practicing Passion makes the point that young people are looking to devote their whole lives to a worthy cause, they are looking for something to die for! Doesn’t the church have the answer to this? Jesus called us to pick up our cross and follow him. This is a cause worthy of their time. But is this authentic, passionate and dangerous faith the kind that we embody? As Chan unpacks, our churches often resemble a cinema foyer more than the church Jesus had planned. We come in, watch the show, mingle in the foyer and then go home. That’s not attractive to those looking for family and those looking for a cause, and however we choose to dress it up – its not church.

Finally, the other exciting thing in this book as a youth worker is that this is one of the few books I have read by a church leader who includes children and young people as part of the discussion! They are so often forgotten about in books about the church, which is a shame because, well, they are part of the church! He writes powerfully

‘God values children and their role in His Kingdom far more than we do. We need to repent of this and do all we can to value their contribution. God sees them as far more than an obligation or inconvenience… It could be that we have been wasting our most precious resource. It could be that we have been treating our greatest assets as obligations’ (160-161).

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