By Lucas Kitchen
Francis Chan’s book Letters to the Church begins with the story of the rise of Chan himself. He recounts his days building one of the fastest-growing churches in America. For the reader who doesn’t know Chan, this is an excellent primer on why everyone else knows him. Eventually, he became discontent with the mega-church model, left it all behind, and moved his family to Asia.
When he returned begrudgingly to the States, he began a new type of church, borrowing ideas from his time in the East. The remaining chapters of the book explain why the American model of church is sinfully wrong. The final chapter explores Chan’s new church model, which is promised to rescue America from the brink of complacency.
Something Is Missing
For the reader who wants exegesis, the book disappoints. Chan gives only a brief nod to the original letters written to the seven churches in the book which we now call Revelation. Less than a page is devoted in comment to the Biblical content from which the title of Chan’s book is derived. In short, Chan chooses not to explore what Jesus said to the seven churches and instead writes his own, almost apostolic-styled condemnation of the modern American church.
Enamored With The East
Chan seems utterly enthralled by the underground churches of persecuted Asia and Africa. He spends something like 200 pages complaining about the shortcomings of the modern American church. Many of his complaints are not technically grounded in any Biblical injunction but seem to grow out of the mega-church malcontent which doggedly follows some of the magnet men of the movement.
Peppered throughout his scorching criticism of the American model of ecclesia is Chan’s unabashed praise of the virtue of Eastern underground churches. It is no surprise that after Chan left the mega-church model behind, he began an imitation which strongly resembles that which is found in Asia and parts of Africa. This is what he offers as the answer to the drooping fervor of the American way of worship.
Never Good Enough
Throughout the book, the reader is told repeatedly that his or her church is not loving, devoted, or spirited enough to please God’s demanding expectations. The entire read gives the foreboding sense that there is no model which the modern church could adopt that would satisfy the Lord. When the author finally offers, at the end of the book, his new cell-church model, the damage is done. There is no compelling reason he gives that this solution can fix the massive problem he has identified with the American church.
Chan reveals severity in his chase for organizational perfection when he says, “I once told my staff to let me know if they were not praying at least an hour a day. This way I could replace them with someone who would” (p. 113). In another place, he says, “Just the other day, a onehour teaching session spontaneously turned into thirteen hours of prayer!” (p. 21). How anything that lasts thirteen hours could be called spontaneous is a mystery. Later he says,
My goal in shepherding has changed so much. Long gone are the days when I am content with a bunch of people who sing loud, don’t divorce, and give to missions. I now want to know I can drop off any member of my church in a city, and that person could grow in Jesus, make disciples, and start a church (p. 121).
What he expects of his average church attendee is that they be a type of modern apostle. This is an expectation that even the Lord’s apostles did not hold their congregants to. His expectations throughout the book are bold but also seem detached from reality. The reader feels as if any effort to meet the impossible spiritual demands is going to be inadequate.
Chan is well known for his passionate delivery. This book does not disappoint those who enjoy this style. However, it left me with a type of emotional fatigue. Chan, in his pursuit of a more excellent Christianity, has succumbed to the phenomenon of third and fourth hand stories of healings in remote places in the developing world. It’s challenging to see Chan’s approach as anything other than a type of modernized mysticism which relies on the ever-increasing demands of emotion and devotional pressure.
A Little Lordship Slips Through
Through the entire book, Chan does not often put on display his theological outlook concerning the way of salvation. It is possible to read nearly the entirety of this book and not realize the author’s Lordship perspective. This is true except for a few scant claims made only as a passing mention. This is one such statement:
Our suffering proves to us that we really are Christians… The suffering in his [Paul’s] life was proof he believed the first verse we all memorized. He knew he would “not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)(p. 145).
That Chan views suffering as the litmus test for belief reveals that his definition of the word believe includes attributes foreign to the otherwise simple idea. How suffering proves belief is not spelled out in the chapter and thus leaves the reader confused about the source of one’s assurance.
Read The Original
The book was critical, heavy-handed, and at times, insulting. Instead of Chan’s book, this reviewer suggests that you read the actual letters to the seven churches. In that, there is a blessing (Rev 1:3).
Lucas Kitchen is the author of 16 books and the pastor of Shreveport Bible Church. He lives in Longview, TX with his wife, two kids, and his arrogant cat. His latest book is Eternal Life: Believe to Be Alive.