by David Ramos
Let me be honest, I was a little hesitant to read Francis Chan’s new book Letters To The Church. I skimmed the initial reviews when it was released and many seemed to confirm my suspicions. Here goes another book telling us how bad American Christianity is and how house churches are going to save us. Granted, that’s exactly what this book is about. But, it’s also about something more. A more I think we could all benefit from hearing.
The Layout of Letters
Chan’s book consists of 9 chapters which I broke down in the following way:
Departure (Ch.1) – Review of Chan’s story and what motivated him to write this book
Sacred, Order, Gang (Chs. 2-4) – A Biblical review of what God intended church to be, mostly on a theological/philosophical level.
Servants, Good Shepherds, Crucified, Unleashed (Chs. 5-8) – A Biblical dive into what the people of God should be, do, and value.
With Ch.6 focusing squarely on leadership.
Church Again (Ch.9) – The alternative way Chan is now building churches through the We Are Church initiative, along with an offer to join in.
Surviving Arrogance (Afterword) – Revisits Chan’s story of transformation and warns other leaders/Christians to avoid the same traps he fell into.
Big Ideas from Letters
Higher Standards. One of the most prolific ideas in Letters is that regardless of how you do church, and where you might fall along the theological spectrum, we should expect more from both the church and from the Christians who say they are a part of it.
“We have become too easily satisfied. We are content if a person leaves pleased. God wants them awed.” – Francis Chan, Letters To The Church
Our low expectations, according to Chan, are partly the reason we have become content with a broken, miracle-less, overly-comfortable and political version of the Christian faith. In order for real change to occur, our standards must be raised. And the only way to accomplish this is to get back to the New Testament and see what Jesus intended church to be.
Eternal View. The second big idea found in Letters is that our scope or view must be expanded if we are going to successfully pursue the mission of God upon the earth. If we are distracted by the size of our budget or building, or careful not to offend members with our preaching, or more concerned with building a comfortable life than saving souls – how can we expect to be effective? Chan urges his readers to step back and remember the divine story we have been invited into because this is the cure for the American church experience where everyone loses: pastors fall off-track, members experience no transformation, and God receives no joy from our worship.
The Attraction of Church. Finally, the idea which Chan, in my opinion, most passionately addresses in his book: how and why we draw people to church in America. The author’s experience in India and China profoundly affected what he believed church could be. It also highlighted the glaring differences between American Christians and overseas Christians.
In America, Chan writes, the average person needs to be practically bribed to attend a church service. If giveaways, coffee shops, and Christian-celebrities are what get people in the door, what do we expect will get them to stay?
“If you have to use marketing and the lures of entertainment to attract people, then you will have to keep them there on the [same] principle…” – Alan Hirsch in Letters To The Church
Overseas, where persecution is rampant and the Christian faith takes on a whole different level of seriousness, “church itself – the people of God gathered in one place” is the attraction. That’s what Chan wants to be true here as well.
What Letters Does Well
Abundant Biblical Evidence. One thing about Francis Chan’s books is they are always soaked in Scripture and I love that. Nearly all of his ideas are pulled straight from the Bible and communicated beautifully. I even gave him bonus points for how much of the book of Revelation shows up in Letters. That is not an easy book to use responsibly, yet Chan ties it in with a balance you rarely see in popular Christian writing.
Makes Striking Connections. The author did not wake up one day and decide to criticize the American church. He was a mega-church pastor, departed because of his convictions, spent years immersing himself in global Christianity, and now is avidly working to offer what he believes is a better solution. Because of the depth of his experience, he is able to draw out many rich insights. One of my favorite ideas he brings to light is the practical necessity for unity:
“Scripture is clear: there is a real connection between our unity and the believability of our message.” – Francis Chan, Letters To The Church
The book is full of similar connections which highlight the theological and practical challenges of what American Christianity has become.
Addresses The Need For New Structure. Without directly saying it, Chan believes in the “form follows function” ideology which says “the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose.” (Source) Therefore, if we want different results from church (i.e. functions) we must build a different form of church. What better form could there be than the one used by Jesus’ disciples present throughout the New Testament? I think the direction of this argument, and the subsequent discussions he brings into play, are highly valuable for both the modern church-builder and church-goer.
Where Letters Struggles
House Churches Are Not Perfect. Chan might not actually believe all house churches are perfect, but the idyllic portrait he paints for the reader certainly conveys this idea. As someone who attended a house church in the past, I can say these structures fall prey to many of the same issues you see in 1,000+ member churches. Although the scale of the issues may differ, whenever you bring humans together there is going to be conflict. This is not to say that house churches are a bad idea. I just wish Chan presented them in a more honest light so that those who join his movement could go in with clear expectations.
Lack of Contextualization. I expect to get a little pushback for this one, but I think pulling church-musts from the New Testament is just as dangerous as pulling Israel-specific promises from the Old Testament. Both need context in order to be properly understood and appropriately applied. I spend most of my time in the Old Testament and am familiar with the common mistakes people make in interpretation because they are entering a very different world than the one they live in. Are the same guidelines in place for New Testament interpretation? Could it be that pieces of the early church shouldn't be applied to today's context? And maybe there's more good in the structure/practice of the American church than is initially apparent?
Anti-Marketing Theme. I mentioned above how Chan passionately addressed the means by which American churches draw people in. Now while I do agree that some tactics are just plain inappropriate, I have to disagree with Chan’s point. I firmly believe marketing has a place in the church, no matter its structure. Jesus drew people in because of his miracles and teaching. He sent his disciples out to perform more miracles and do more teaching. This made sense because this is what other philosophical schools did. They spoke in public places and recruited students. Jesus contextualized his marketing.
Maybe giveaways and concerts aren’t the best answer, but I absolutely believe they are on the right track. Rather than choosing between divine church growth and human-led church growth, why can’t the “sweet spot” be when complete Holy Spirit reliance meets profound human creativity? That feels like a formula for God-honoring, disciple-producing marketing.
Who Is This Book For?
Although those in church-leadership are more likely to read this book, it really is a book for every Christian. Every Christian can and will benefit from the Biblical argument Chan lays out. We can all benefit from revisiting the difficult portions of Scripture and being reminded of the tremendous honor it is to both be and build the bride of Christ.
Do I Recommend Letters?
Absolutely. Depending on your denominational context, some ideas may be a shock to your system. I’ve been attending a church influenced by Mike Breen and Alan Hirsch (two pastors who are working to reshape the American church whom Francis Chan draws upon in his book) for about 2 years now, so I've had up-close exposure to what an alternative form of the church could look like. It's challenging, imperfect, and refreshingly real.
If for no other reason, I recommend this book because it’s a reminder we are going to meet God sooner than we think. When we do, we will not be graded on our knowledge of Scripture or on our lifetime donation amount. We will be judged according to how we responded, in our day to day lives, to Jesus. And that response is the core of what church was meant to be.
“The theology that matters is not the theology we profess but the theology we practice.” – Francis Chan, Letters To The Church