Francis Chan’s most recent book, ‘Letters to the Church’, was nothing new. I don’t say that to dismiss the book at all. Over the years I’ve read a fair bit of Chan and other authors like Frank Viola, Neil Cole, Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, Matt Smay, Hugh Halter, et al who all write similarly and passionately about where the church needs to go and what it might be missing in our age. If you’re in church (especially church leadership) and these names are new to you, you’ve got some catching up to do
In fact, a combination of all of that reading, as any long-term reader of my blog will know, eventually led me to something of a crisis point in my own leadership in The Salvation Army in particular. I just knew that I couldn’t be involved in perpetuating a system which no longer serves either the current needs of the people of God or in fact one which seems to go against the flow of the core scriptural fundamentals of how church might look. Long story cut short, but I stepped out of a highly institutional form of leadership to explore other paths. I don’t regret it.
Having said that, I’ve been round the block several times in my mind about how to facilitate necessary change. Maybe this is because it is, in many situations, a very slow process. I have nothing against slow, but some situations are starting at very different points on what may be considered to be a necessary journey than others.
Anyway, back to Chan. His journey is different to mine but not entirely dissimilar. He led a mega church (I’ve never led one of those, but one post-SA church had over 300 members – big for the UK) and whilst recognising all the good in it, was left with that creeping sense that there were some fundamentals missing. Much of it rested on his personality. Ministry was becoming ‘professionalised’, and there was more focus on church as a commodity to be consumed, and less as a church as a most beautiful sacred thing which comes alive mainly when it is at its simplest, and centred around Jesus rather than our preferences.
He left his mega church in good hands and moved to the other side of America and started afresh. This is what flowed from it: wearechurch.com Essentially, they stripped things back to disciple-making, scripture engagement, prayer, the Lord’s supper, meeting in homes, equipping and training people for real life in a bid to capture how the church becomes something that pleases Jesus rather than just ourselves. This is both inspirational and terrifying in equal measure. To be like this involves a radical re-think and re-focus which, in my experience, the church is rarely ready for. In England, there is such a strong wedded hold to more traditional set ups and we can be slow to re-evaluate. I fear that our readiness may, in many situations, be our downfall.
It is just not the case that God will always stand in our corner to ensure we don’t disappear. Yes, Jesus said the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. But I sense that he was thinking macro rather than micro, global more than local. The reality is that many countries, regions, towns and villages have had the church disappear. Even in places like Ephesus who are painted in the pages of the New Testament as folks who had almost nailed the whole church thing. Now something of a missional graveyard.
We are yet to fully answer whether the UK will keep sufficiently in step with the Holy Spirit to discover again what it means to experience the kind of church Chan speaks of. One things is pretty certain, though, especially so as far as I’m concerned: I don’t intend to preside over decline in whatever ministry God has in future for me. And I’m not just talking numbers. It is relatively easy to attract and ‘entertain’ a crowd. Much more of a challenge for churches to deepend their discipleship and dependency on Christ, their life as a community together and their impact for mission on the world and let the Lord deal with the numbers.
Anyway, Chan is worth a read. He may just spark a whole tonne of questions that we all need to grapple with, even if we come to different conclusions as to what it looks like. As always, the status quo will never do.