Francis Chan says we should stop trying to make people love Jesus, and learn to rely on prayer, elders, and the Holy Spirit instead.
A Leadership interview with Francis Chan | posted 5/17/2010
Recently he announced that he was leaving Cornerstone to take "a leap of faith" to a new kind of ministry. This interview was conducted before he announced his departure, but it points to the kind of spirit that many pastors long for in their churches, and also gives clues to what motivates Francis Chan.
He is calling Christians, leaders, and churches to complete surrender to Christ. The ramifications in Chan's church have been significant. Cornerstone is actively pursuing a new paradigm for ministry—a shift away from orchestrating large gatherings toward smaller geographic home groups with indigenous elders as leaders. This is part of what Cornerstone sees as the radical commitment Christ expects.
Chan is quick to note that the shifts at Cornerstone are not the result of his leadership alone. The changes have rippled out from the community of elders at the center of the church as they have together rediscovered the importance of prayer and the Holy Spirit.
"We're not making waves," says Chan, an avid surfer, "we're just catching them."
Leadership managing editor Skye Jethani spoke with Chan about how Cornerstone pursues spiritual formation, and what surrendering to the Holy Spirit means for the work of ministry.
Most people know you as a preacher. How do you hope your sermons form the people at your church?
I want them to hear what God is teaching me through his Word. I want them to understand what a passage means, but I also want to be open to what the Holy Spirit may want to do in that moment. So my sermons aren't as scripted as they used to be.
What led you to that shift?
I want to be as real as possible, and if I script too much, especially with four services, it can become mechanical—just going through motions rather than really depending on God in the moment. I also want to be open to the fact that there are different crowds in each service, and when I open my mouth the Spirit might give me different words to say to each different group. If I have a script, I tend to stick to it even if God may be leading me elsewhere in the moment.
Can you identify when you began wrestling more with the role of the Holy Spirit in your ministry?
It's been a gradual thing over the last five years. For several years in my ministry, I really operated as though the Holy Spirit didn't exist. The truth is I trusted in the flesh—the natural abilities that God gave me—the same way unbelievers trust their natural gifts. With my natural communication abilities, I could probably gather a crowd even without the Spirit. But I realized that, with the church, there's got to be something more behind it. There's got to be something supernatural, something only the Holy Spirit can do.
I study the Word because it comes from God and there is supernatural power in the gospel and in God's written Word. But I'm less convinced that sitting down for hours and crafting the perfect sermon is what it's about. I'd rather study the Scriptures and live such a life that when I pray or speak, the Spirit gives me what he wants me to say. As I've seen God be faithful with that, I just want more and more.
You weren't alone on this journey of discovering the Holy Spirit. What role did your elders play?
It started when a few of our leaders began studying the role of elders in the Scriptures. They said, "You know, our elder meetings are more like business meetings. We discuss how much we should pay to repave the parking lot. But in the Bible the role of elders has more to do with shepherding, teaching, and prayer." So we made a shift. We had the staff do more of the business work, and the elders started studying the Scriptures to see where the Lord wanted to lead the church spiritually.
Our elder meetings included a lot more discussion of theology, and Scripture, and discipleship. We began to realize that we were missing some of the obvious teachings of Scripture in our church. And we started questioning the values we'd gotten from our culture.
Well, our culture is all about shallow relationships. But that doesn't mean we should stop looking each other in the eye and having deep conversations. We realized we'd rather have 10 solid relationships in the church than 10,000 shallow ones. And our culture tells us we should be completely independent, or else rely on the government and insurance to protect us. But God wants us to be interdependent within the church. We are supposed to care for one another, look out for one another, and we are to be each other's security. So we made a commitment among the elders to take care of one another's families if anything were to happen to us.
As a culture, we're so worried about what's going to happen to us 30 years from now that we are not taking care of our brothers and sisters who need help today. Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow, let alone 30 years down the line.
I'm trying to picture the gathering where somebody says, "Why don't we get rid of our insurance and promise to share everything?" Did anybody hesitate and say "I'm with you in theory, but I'm not quite ready to do it"?
With that group there wasn't a lot of hesitation, which was surprising. We had been talking about this stuff for a long time, and they had been thinking it through in their own times with the Lord. And our elders have been together for years. We have a close relationship. There is trust.
Is that the critical component to this kind of transformation among leaders—trust?
Yes. Exactly. The reason why an elder could look at me and say, "Francis, I promise if anything happens to you, I will take care of your family," and the reason I believed him, is because I've lived life with him. I've seen these elders' convictions before the Lord, and I know they're not just empty words. So there's trust there, and I think that's the way it ought to be.
There are a lot of churches with leaders that aren't living out their faith together. Instead they're trying to bring transformation by creating programs.
Do you also rely on these elders to lead the congregation in spiritual formation?
Yes, and that's another thing we've been convicted about. We realized that a church our size should have 50 or 60 elders, and we are in the process of training a bunch more right now.
We had neglected that because we thought it would be impossible to make a decision with 60 people in a room. It's hard enough with ten. But then we realized we were talking about two different things—shepherding and decision making. We are appointing more elders to shepherd the congregation, but some decision making will be reserved for a smaller team—six or eight of us.
How has the rest of the church reacted to the changes experienced among the elders?
We've seen it trickle out to the rest of the community. For example, we are sharing our possessions more as elders. We are relinquishing things to each other. And as we do that, we share the experience with those we are close to—people in our neighborhoods and others in the church. And the circle expands. Now people in the church are giving away their cars, writing checks to those in need, sharing their possessions and even their houses. But everything rises and falls with leadership. We teach by our example.
So the example of the elders and leadership is more important, even in a large church, than having the right programs or preaching?
Absolutely. That is 100 percent true. There are a lot of churches with leaders that aren't living out their faith together, and they don't have trust. Instead they're trying to bring transformation by creating programs. That's why you often hear of people who say, "I love church but once I got into the leadership, the inner workings, I was so disillusioned." That's a terrible indictment.
In your new book you write, "I cannot convince people to be obsessed with Jesus, and that's why you need the Holy Spirit." When did you come to that realization?
Once you pastor for a while, it dawns on you that nailing a sermon doesn't mean lives will change. Or you'll meet a person who's surrendered everything to Christ, and you'll realize that your sermon wasn't even good and nothing you did caused him to become a believer.
There was a guy who had been in our church for 15 years. One day he told me my preaching hadn't changed him. He said I spoke too much about the "narrow road" and how everyone needs to be radical for Christ. But he said there's also a "middle road" where people like him can do a lot of good things. I was floored by that. He's sat under my teaching for 15 years and he still believes there isn't only a wide easy road and a narrow difficult road, but also a middle road? I've been told many times that my teaching is really helpful, that I make things simple for people to understand. And then you hear something like that.
That's when I remember, I cannot make someone fall in love with Jesus.
It really came home for me, literally, with my own teenage daughter, who, 18 months ago, was not in love with Jesus. I spent nights crying, bawling, praying to the Lord. Here I am known for my ability to communicate, but there was nothing I could do for my own daughter that would make her fall in love with Jesus. Of course I could still guide and lead her, but I was powerless to convict her.
I prayed, "God, either your Spirit comes into her or your Spirit doesn't. It doesn't matter how great a dad I am. I cannot bring her to life."
And what happened?
One day she came into my room and said, "You were right, Dad. The Holy Spirit was not in me. But now he is." She talked about how near she was to God and how everything had changed. My wife and I were skeptical. We wanted to see evidence of change. But 18 months later, I can say she really is a new creation. I didn't do that. It was the Holy Spirit.
I've got to quit trying to play the Holy Spirit's role by forcing, manipulating, talking, and programming people into the change I want to see. Instead I've got to spend more time praying that the Holy Spirit would come into their lives and regenerate them.
So what's the point of all the work, sermon prep, and programs if the outcome is out of our hands?
Some of our toil is wasted, because we're toiling believing that these things change people. I believe a lot more of our work needs to be put into prayer, study of the Word, and trusting God. I could spend an extra ten hours on every sermon, trying to get every word just right, but my time would be much better spent out sharing the gospel with people and praying.
Now, I do study hard, because the Scripture tells me to and because I want to be accurate in my teaching. We should work hard "as unto the Lord," but we have to let our theology guide what we work hard at. And you have to be led by the Spirit on how much time to spend crafting a sermon and how much time to spend praying for a movement of the Spirit.
How can we know if our ministry is being empowered by the Spirit?
Churches that are built through our effort rather than the Spirit's will quickly collapse when we stop pushing and prodding people along.
Now we should push, prod, and persuade men, but I've learned to spend a lot more time praying and asking the Spirit to move and begging God to send forth laborers.
The more you look at Scripture, the more you realize that nothing happens unless God is behind it. Jesus is building his church. I just want to be a part of that. I'll keep doing my work, but the fruit is up to him. We can only pray, "Please, please, please let us see your Spirit at work. May it be like a mighty wind that moves us."
I equate it to surfing. Sometimes I'm out in the ocean and there are no sets coming in. I really don't want to paddle in, so I'll pray, "God, give me one nice set, one good wave to take me back to shore." I pray because I can't make a wave and I can't ask my friends to go further out and splash to create a wave. We're powerless. That's what I feel like in church. We think we can make waves, but in reality we're totally dependent on the Spirit.
Cornerstone is a megachurch by definition. Is the size of the church evidence that a "wave" of the Spirit is happening?
A large gathering where everyone is singing really loud is nice, but it's not an indication that the Spirit is at work. We don't see that biblically. If that's success, then we'd be spending more money on better musicians and better worship leaders. But that's not how our elder board measures success.
In God's eyes success is people loving each other deeply, caring for one another, digging deep in each other's lives, sharing their possessions, and sharing the gospel in their communities. Are they fully devoted followers of Jesus? Is there transformation happening? Do they see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves—a body with a mission larger than the individual?
Our job is not to keep as many people as possible. Our job is to make sure that we're setting a biblical pattern.
Your church is now putting more focus on home gatherings. How did that shift come about?
The leaders were looking at launching video venues or moving me back and forth between worship services when one of the elders said, "Francis, let's say you start another church and in 10 years we've got 10,000 people coming rather than 4,000—would you be happy?" I said no. "Don't you want to create a reproducible model? Isn't that what we see in Scripture and isn't that the only thing that would satisfy you—a movement that goes beyond the limitations of a wall?" He was absolutely right. And he said, "Doesn't it seem more biblical to entrust leadership to other shepherds rather than put everything on you?" That's how it all started. Praise God for the elder board and their understanding of Scripture.
And how are those home gatherings going?
They're going well. The groups are intentionally geographically based. We felt that even in church, people will find likeminded people with the same interests, and that's not biblical. We are called to love people who are completely different from ourselves. And we really believe if you've got a sister living next door, God wants you to know her and love her even if she's completely different from you. That's the beauty of the body of Christ, and we want to paint that picture in our neighborhoods.
We've positioned elders in different neighborhoods to be shepherds, and we're developing elders in neighborhoods where we don't have any. And other leaders have said they'd be willing to move to go wherever there isn't an elder to lead.
Are the elders also responsible for teaching in the home gatherings?
Yes and no. We want the elders spending their time shepherding the people, really loving them and caring for them. As a volunteer it's hard for them to spend 10 or 15 hours preparing a message. So we prepare a DVD with me sitting on a couch doing some teaching. But we only provide the video twice a month. We also want our elders to learn how to teach, so at least once a month they will do the teaching for the group. And in time they may not need the DVDs anymore.
Is it difficult keeping the large Sunday worship service going when the home gatherings are your new focus?
It can be a distraction, but I'm committed to it for now. The people in the home gatherings love them. Some have said they'll never go back to the old way of church. But others just don't get it yet. And to be fair to them, I've taught one model of church for so many years that I can't expect them to jump to a completely new model after one message. So for now I look at these Sunday services as a transition time for me to shepherd and patiently help funnel people into these smaller gatherings.
Do you conceive of a day when you no longer have the large gathering?
I don't know. Maybe. For now it doesn't make any sense to end the large service, but some day it might. Sometimes I wonder if God wants to use Cornerstone as an example of how to decentralize the church and empower other leaders so that other churches and pastors can learn how to do it.
Some pastors are going to fear that following your example—emphasizing prayer, calling people to deep commitment, and deemphasizing large worship gatherings—will cause their churches to collapse. What do you say?
Our job is not to keep as many people as possible. Our job is to make sure that we're setting a biblical pattern. That's what the elders and I try to do. And isn't that why we got into ministry—because we read the Word of God and realized people aren't living this way and we wanted to help them? It was never a popularity contest, or hopefully it wasn't. And yes, it could mean you lose a lot of people. It could mean that you don't even have enough people to sustain your salary. And that's a real test, but you keep doing it.
I remember early on in the church, after I gave one hard sermon my worship pastor said to me, "Do you think anyone's going to come back next week?" And he was serious. And it was crazy but the next week was our biggest.
But you have had people get upset and leave.
Yeah, and it's hard. But Jesus really didn't have a problem with turning people off if they weren't ready for the commitment. What I see in Scripture is that's it's all or nothing. We are called to die to ourselves; it's complete death, surrender.
I tell people, "It's great that you're checking us out and learning, and I pray that you'll come to understand that God is good and nothing compares to him. I hope at that point you'll give your life to Jesus and follow him."
The commitment to follow Jesus is like marriage. It's a lifelong commitment for better or for worse. And if someone is not ready to make that commitment, then they shouldn't get married.
How do you respond when someone walks away because they're not ready for the commitment?
We always have to check our own hearts and make sure we communicated with them in love. Early on when people first started to leave, there wasn't a lot of love or compassion. We sort of considered it a victory that people walked away. There was some arrogance in us, and that breaks my heart. Even now it's always hard when a person leaves. And so we rally around each other, encourage one another, and remind each other that this is going to happen but we've got to keep teaching it.
Do you ever get accused of being pharisaical for calling people to such a high commitment?
Oh, absolutely. The comment I get is that we're becoming a cult because we call people to make a commitment. We define cults as communities overly committed to a belief system. By that definition Jesus would have been leading a cult. So today Mormons are willing to ride their bikes around town, Jehovah's Witnesses will knock on doors, but as Christians we don't have to do anything. We've been taught a watered-down version of following Jesus for so long that people think it's Christianity, but it's not biblical.
I have to be honest and say there were so many times I wanted to quit, because it is really painful when friends leave and your loudest fans become your loudest critics. It does get lonely. And it's hard when leaders who are with you start getting attacked. I get very defensive of my leaders because I love these guys. I don't want people to think it's easy to lead the church into greater depth and commitment. It stinks at times. But when you look back to the Word, you realize this is the way it's got to be, and you have peace.