Open Letter to Francis Chan

By Steve Cuss

Francis,

You recently made a splash when you were invited to speak at Facebook Staff Headquarters. Your basic argument was simple enough: the way you used to participate in church was bad, the way you now participate is good.

I watched it and cringed.

I think your critique of your previous church’s model – that it spends too much money on itself, that it over emphasizes a handful of people over the rest of the body is a reasonable and accurate critique. Our church is similar to this model and I share these same concerns. We have building debt, we spend less on the global poor than we do on ourselves. Our worship experiences focus too much on a handful of people on the stage. All true and all good critique to consider. I have no problem with anyone offering that critique.

Here’s my problem with what you said:

— You caricatured the previous church experience, reducing it to a two dimensional straw man that doesn’t actually exist. This is a very common and highly problematic public speaking technique. As I listened to you describe your previous church context as “thousands of people sitting while two people use their gifts” I was thinking, “Do you really think that is what people at Cornerstone think church is?”

True: large churches attract a percentage of people who want a one hour per week relationship with the church. But many people, probably more than half of the people see that one hour per week as a piece of a much bigger pie: a pie that involves serving, caring for one another, moving to the margins of society. When I preach at our church, I look out an an overwhelming number of people who take very seriously the call to love their neighbor, be a light in their workplace, to love one another. Many in our church listen as I preach, yes, but those same people teach me and lead me in the way they orient their lives around the teachings of Jesus. Reducing them to “consumers of a sermon and music product” devalues what they actually are: an essential piece of the Body of Christ.

Also, every church in this model will attract church “consumers.” It is a growing problem but it is also an incredible opportunity. Many “former church consumers” have become highly active Kingdom agents at our church. Surely the same is true at Cornerstone. Surely part of their whole philosophy is to equip and challenge people to be more active in their faith and surely your previous preaching assisted strongly in moving people into action.

— The way you describe your previous church now has almost nothing in common with how you described it a few short years ago. 

Here is a sample quote from your interview with Catalyst.

“It was a beautiful time of sharing as our elders laid “everything” at each others’ feet. We surrendered the keys to our cars, homes, and bank accounts. I actually believed the elders who looked me in the eyes and said, “What’s mine is yours. If anything ever happens to you, I will support and care for your kids as much as I would care for my own. I will be your life insurance.” And because they had a history of genuine sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, I trusted what they said. From there, we began going to some of our friends in the congregation and expressing our commitment to them (something anyone can do).

And now this mentality is spreading. New life is permeating the church as individuals are backing up their words with sacrifice. Cars and homes are being sold or given away. Expensive vacations are joyfully replaced with spending on others. People are being taken into homes-not only for meals, but to live. It’s still the beginning of the process, and most people probably still come for the teaching or the music, but there’s a growing number at our church who are coming to be with their church family and they don’t care about who’s teaching or leading music.”

As I watched your talk at Facebook, I couldn’t help wondering what your friends at Cornerstone thought of the message or what they might have said had they had your platform to speak. A very brief perusal of the church website shows a church on the move, a church that takes seriously the call of Jesus to go and make Disciples, to love one another to sacrifice for others. Here is the church website. If you click on “missionary partners” and “home front teams” and “church plants” you will see what you know to be true: this is an active church that is highly involved in God’s local and global kingdom. You also know that it is made up of hundreds or thousands of people who give time and energy to that end outside of the one hour per week.

— You used the very medium you were critiquing to present your message. In the Facebook talk, the ‘many’ sat and listened while the ‘one’ used his gift, which was exactly what you were critiquing. The medium of your presentation was exactly the medium you said was bad. If you really think it is a bad medium, why not change the medium? Why continue to speak at large conferences where people mostly sit and listen? I believe it is because you actually know that a quality talk has tremendous power for action and change. Because many people who sit for 30 minutes or an hour don’t stay sitting after a compelling message. Because good speeches have caused incredible change and action throughout history. You are a gifted and compelling speaker and your words carry tremendous power for change. Do you really think your gifted speaking at Cornerstone didn’t shape thousands of people and how they live out their relationship with God, their neighbor, with the global poor?

I wish you had done something much less sexy but much more thoughtful: give a nuanced account of both models/ways of doing church and offer the dangers and opportunities that both models offer. I wish you had simply confessed your own internal struggle with being a gifted preacher and the challenges that come along with that rather than paint your previous model as a straw man. You are in a unique position to offer that and it would have been a real gift.

Of course you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I welcome a more nuanced dialogue on this.

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