The Relentless Passion of Francis Chan
The best-selling author and church planter is not easily satisfied with the church or himself.
January 4, 2013
Francis Chan exploded onto the evangelical scene a few years ago when podcasts of sermons he gave at his flourishing, 4,000-member Southern California church went viral. But then in late 2010, he up and quit, saying, "I just want to disappear for a while." One thing that bothered him, he said, was that "even in my own church I heard the words 'Francis Chan' more than I heard the words, 'Holy Spirit.'"
Two years later, he finds himself in San Francisco, where he says he's thankful that "no one really knows who I am." He leads a small fellowship that meets weekly, and then goes out to share the love of Christ in the neighborhood and city.
His latest book, Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples (David C. Cook; co-written by Mark Beuving), didn't start out as a book, but as a manual of discipleship. The book reveals the passions and character of the best-selling author and church planter. CT editor Mark Galli spoke with Chan by phone recently.
What are you hoping to accomplish in your new book?
I try to explain the most important things a believer needs to know. It's an attempt to teach the basics of what I feel needs to be passed on to new believers. I know there's other stuff out there, but I needed to be faithful to what I felt needs to be out there.
Unlike many other discipleship manuals, yours does not begin by explaining about how to pray or have personal devotions and other personal disciplines. Instead, you begin by talking about the importance of church, which often comes late in other discipleship manuals.
In our culture, people have a very low view of church, and I didn't want readers to forget the church. For a person to be truly discipled and growing in their faith, they need more than one person discipling them. They need to see the gifts of the body; that's how God created it and intended it. I wanted early on to explain that this is very, very important, and that it is God's agenda, that this is how he's going to reach the world.
Your book is also not topical but mostly a journey through the Bible, where you let the biblical narrative shape the content of chapters.
One weakness in the church is that we can make things too formulaic, with a blanket statement for every situation about what you do. I want to help people understand how to study the Scriptures with other people, to give them an overview of Scripture and assume that by understanding the Scriptures better, the Holy Spirit will bring to mind the right stories, the right teachings.
I guess it's putting more of a burden on the person. I want to give them a jump-start but also help them understand Scripture, so that when they do talk to someone, they can now pull from this knowledge and scriptural understanding.
You say that every disciple needs to disciple others. If discipling is essentially teaching—in word and example—why is it everyone's job, and not just those with the gift of teaching?
There is a gift of teaching. I absolutely believe that. That's not what we're talking about. It has more to do with, for example, the older women teaching younger women. Parents are supposed to instruct their kids. It doesn't mean they necessarily have that gift of teaching. The teaching in the Great Commission is about obedience to Jesus. It's not necessarily, "Now let me teach you what this means in the Greek." It's, "Let me teach you how to obey this."
So often we teach these great lessons but we don't push it to the point of obedience. And Satan loves that because we're deceiving ourselves. The teaching I'm talking about is like walking alongside someone—rebuking, exhorting, and getting them to the point where they realize they need to repent or they're living in disobedience.
In places, you say the church's mission is for the sake of the world; the church exists to help us each fulfill that mission. But Revelation 4—where the church in heaven gathers in joyful worship of God—suggests that the church is not a means to an end, but the end. So is the church a means or an end for you?
I definitely don't think it's an either/or. I really do believe it has to be both. I know that there's no direct command to go plant churches. There is a command to make disciples. As we make disciples, churches form, because that's what Christians do together. Together they form a body. There's a unity of love for each other that should develop as we have the Holy Spirit enter us, and as we strive together for the gospel, like Philippians 1 talks about.
We teach these great lessons but we don't push it to the point of obedience. And Satan loves that. I'm talking about walking alongside someone—rebuking, exhorting, and getting them to realize they need to repent or they're living in disobedience.
If I had to lean one way, it really seems like you start with the mission and then the church forms, and then the church continues the mission. Sometimes we just get so focused on creating a gathering that mission becomes optional. That hurts the church.
For example, in the gatherings I have in San Francisco, everyone knows that we're on a mission because that's such a big part of what we do. Our gatherings involve the mission. We gather and go out and gather back again. It creates an incredible sense of unity, because these people I consider my brothers and sisters, because they're serving alongside me. I've seen how the mission really makes the church so beautiful because the mission is so central.
Your writing has what I'd call a "relentless intensity" to get readers to do more for Christ. One example among many in this book: "Being a disciple maker demands your entire life …. It requires everything. It means following Jesus in every aspect of your life, pursuing him with a wholehearted devotion. If you're not ready to lay down your life for Christ, then you're not ready to make disciples. It's that simple." Where does your intensity come from? Is that a family trait? Something you learned as a Christian?
(Laughter.) A family trait. Oh, that's funny. It could be. I don't know. When I read the statements of Christ, there seems to be this urgency and intensity. I guess that's what I get out of it when I read the tone of the Scriptures, which is very different from the tone of our culture.
Let me ask it another way. When you read the Scriptures, the verses that grab you run along the lines of "Go and make disciples" and "Sell all you have." Others are most taken with verses like "Come to me, all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest" and "Your sins are forgiven." Do you ever wonder why you are taken with the former more than the latter?
Well, I wouldn't say the latter don't engage me, because there are times when they do. I just preached on the faithfulness of God, and I was bawling my eyes out. I was memorizing Ephesians and got to chapter two, and I was just screaming out to God when it says, "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us …" (ESV). It's like, aaah!
But I try to consider my audience and what they hear all the time. I see Christ doing that; he preaches one way to the Pharisees and another way to the woman caught in adultery. I speak primarily to an American audience involved in a consumer-driven culture.
Right now I'm speaking to a lot of drug addicts and people whom the world has discarded, people who just feel like they're of no worth. My message is very different to them. It's, "You are of worth. You've been lied to, and you bought into the lie. It led to death. But here's the truth. The truth will set you free. You are the ones who are going to change the world. You're the very ones God would choose."
In every congregation, there's going to be both kinds of listeners. But to generalize, in my perception, the majority is unruly and rebellious. Look at the different Barna stats of how many people claim to be Christian and yet their lifestyle is absolutely no different from the rest of the world. So that's what I tend to attack, rather than believing people are too diligent and that they are way too works oriented.
Do you ever find that after you've worked with someone for a time, they'll say to you, "Francis, I don't know if I can handle you being my pastor anymore, because you're just intense all the time"?
Yeah, definitely. And I apologize. To try to write a message to everyone is so hard. And that's why I emphasize discipleship, to get people to look through the Word for themselves, because I don't do a great job with everyone. I'll be the first to admit it. Man, if I were to walk into a church and hear myself preach certain messages I've preached, it would just overwhelm me. I would bug myself!
That's one reason I think there is an overdependence on preaching sometimes. Now that we've got the Internet, what's the point in spending millions of dollars to get a big building just to preach the sermon? You can watch the sermon just as easily on the Internet and then say, "Hey, let's gather together. Man, tell me what I said wrong. Help me if I've confused you in some areas. Let's have some discussion over this." And we can spend more time discussing. I wish I could talk to everyone and talk through their specific situation rather than just giving a monologue. That's why discipleship is so necessary, because you can't expect one preacher to really minister and teach people to obey. You need tons of people shepherding.
I assume that the Francis Chan who is intense and passionate about biblical obedience obeys the command to take a Sabbath. What do you do with your Sabbath?
I love anything active. I've got five kids (ages 17 to 1), so I do whatever they all want to do. My one daughter had to drive on the same day that I taught my other one how to walk. So it's a weird, weird phase.
There's a sermon illustration in there somewhere.
Yeah. I love them all. I play with them. I love the guys I minister with. Playing basketball with them or going out surfing. I enjoy golf. I love laughing with people. I love just being with the guys and laughing. I love just going out to dinner with my wife and talking and hanging out.
If Francis Chan were to die tonight, what would be one thing you'd regret at "being called home" sooner than later?
I'm pretty happy with my life, but there are still some fears in me. I'm still a coward when it comes to sharing my faith. I've gotten better, but as far as character, that would be the one thing that stands out to me. I don't love people as much as I would like to, the way I see people in Scripture doing it. I'm just not as bold as I should be at times. And so I wish I could grow in those character qualities.
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