“I Wouldn’t Think So Much of the Gathering:” Engaging Francis Chan on the Church

Francis Chan offered some surprising thoughts at the Verge 2012 conference recently.  Speaking on the church gathering, he said the following at the conference in Austin:

If I just read the Scriptures, I wouldn’t even think so much of the gathering.  You know–Like, my first thought wouldn’t be, “Let’s have a gathering.”  Out of the Scriptures, I would think, “I’m on a mission.  Like, I love this God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and now I’ve got to go out and make disciples.”  That’s what I would think.  I need to go out there and just reach as many people as I can!  I’m supposed to teach them to obey everything that’s God command–that’s what I would get out of Scripture.  And then what would happen as I did that–what I believe would naturally happen–is suddenly I would find those other people who are on that same mission because we’d be the weirdest people on earth.   Right? 

We would stick out, we’d be so different, and that pressure to always stay on that mission, everyone else would always be beating me down, so I would actually need these brothers and sisters in my life and tell them hey don’t let me slow down, and I won’t let you slow down, we’ve got to stay on this mission together.  See this is why I wasn’t into fellowship before–because I didn’t any more friends, okay, it wasn’t like “Oh yeah, let’s get another gathering together so I can have someone to talk to.”  Like, I didn’t need accountability groups so I wouldn’t sleep around or whatever it was–I could do that, I can do that on my own.  Like–not sleep around, you know what I mean? <laughter> You know I don’t need that to do American church, I don’t need fellowship.  But to stay on mission everyday?  I need people because I’m going to get distracted–there are so many other things I would rather do than make disciples.  And so I need people in my life to tell me this.  That’s what I would get out of Scripture, is I got to go out and start making disciples.  And as I did that I really believe that I would start gathering with other people doing the same thing. 

Here’s the link again.

I stumbled across this piece of content and was surprised to see it rather tepidly introduced.  This is a big deal.  Let’s be clear: Chan is not saying that the local church is unimportant.  He’s arguing for what is called “missional” ecclesiology, the idea that the church isn’t about gathering for its own sake, but for the purpose of making disciples to the glory of God.

There is much about Chan’s body of work that I like.  He champions a bold, aggressive, unapologetic, God-driven spirituality.  He has words that the church needs to hear, it seems.  Even the section quoted above can provocatively push many of us to be less inwardly focused and more outwardly focused.  With many others, I want to be “on mission” in my daily life.

Here’s the problem, though: when I “just read the Bible,” it seems like evangelism is not the only important thing.  It seems like a plain and unsophisticated reading of the Bible without reference to all kinds of fancy commentaries and hermeneutical guides will lead you to a rather straightforward directive on church: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

You could draw a very similar conclusion from the Corinthian letters, which enjoin the church to purify itself and perform discipline on members caught in a pattern of unrepentant sin (see 1 Cor 6, for example).  Fellowship and accountability, in other words, are essential.  They are not lesser ends.  They stir the body up to kill sin for the glory of Christ and to encourage one another as “the Day” of Christ’s majestic return approaches.

The Great Commission, of course, is hugely important.  It’s our mandate as those sent into the world in the power of the Spirit.  Indeed, the Great Commission is now carried out with Pentecost power.  We “make disciples of all nations” in the power of the poured-out Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19).  But what does this all this disciple-making create?  It creates local churches that, as I noted above, do not neglect meeting together.  These churches function as kingdom outposts.  They are both centripetal places of rest, edification, and encouragement and centrifugal posts from which we are launched into the world to tell it of Christ’s death and resurrection and to live profoundly redeemed lives.

It is not weak of Christians to want to meet together and to “build [one] another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11, also Romans 14:19).  That’s directly biblical.  It’s wise and good.  The only way we can do this, though, is if our orientation is Godward, if we are first coming together to give him honor and glory and praise.  He, and no other end, is the primary reason for our gathering.  We come before him first because he deserves worship.  Worshipping the Lord of heaven and earth is not a subordinate reason to gather.  It is our foremost concern.  To not realize this is to miss a massive biblical-theological point.  John Piper working off of Jonathan Edwards working off of Augustine working off of Paul working off of Jesus has made just this point (see Desiring God by Piper, Dissertation Concerning The End for Which God Created the World by Edwards, Confessions by Augustine, and the Bible for the rest).

I agree with Chan, by the way, that our churches can become inwardly focused, as I mentioned above.  We certainly can.  We need to take care that we leave room in our busy lives to get out among unbelievers and witness for Christ.  We should intentionally plan our church calendars so that we can accomplish this biblical priority. I like Chan’s focus on mission, and I like that he wants to avoid a weepy and weak Christianity.  He’s right, furthermore, that we don’t need something called “accountability groups.”

However, for many sinners like me, the words of Paul ring in my ears on this point: “[L]et anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).  I’m concerned that I hear in Chan’s message the seeds of a movement away from accountability in whatever form.  I’m as concerned for the less mature Christians who hear this message, want to be like a godly man like Chan, and therefore disdain different forms of accountability.  You don’t need to meet with three peers in a basement somewhere at 6am and weep for three hours to practice accountability–but make no mistake, every last one of us desperately needs it, and the church is structured to give it.  The horrifying stats on pornography and Christians would suggest that we desperately need accountability, in fact.

Chan makes us think in this little clip from a larger message.  He’s got a point.  But his words need beefing up.  Aside from the easy laugh he gets on the subject of sleeping around (which is a cheap and worldly way to engage your audience, one far too common among young evangelicals), he needs a more robust doctrine of the church, as so many of us do, whether in theory or practice.  Too many evangelicals settle for, as John Piper said a few years ago of his own ecclesiology, a B- on the church.  That’s not good, and it’s not biblical.  New Testament unfolding of the church is mere but very important (start here, perhaps, and then go here).

Here’s hoping, then, that this post will push others who–like myself–are inspired by a bold Christian leader like Chan to love God and love his church.

  • Al Mather

    Just finished reading ALL of 2 Thess. for a little study in prayer meeting. Then I read your blog. It seems like Paul, in 2 Th. is marveling at the power and grace of God to bring out of this evil and deluded world, any believer. Then , there seems to be little if anything said about missions, as to the believers in Thess. doing it, but there is much, comparatively speaking, on their function as a body, a church, the keeping power of God and the saints accountability towards each other, so that in the end, as well as today, they would be holy.

    Bye the way, Lord willing I’ll be at NECEP conference Monday and Tuesday, I’ll try to say hello to the other Al while there.


  • owenstrachan

    Good thoughts, Al. The Thessalonian letters do champion the theme you’ve suggested, I think. Of course, they have to be balanced by other NT texts which very clearly command us to go forth and get out in the world. We cannot, must not, be a “holy huddle.” The church is a family, but it is a family that is relentlessly seeking by God’s grace and power to add more family members. So it’s a both/and, I suppose.

    I’m so glad you’ll be there. I hope you can say hello to Dr. Mohler, and Dave Ricard as well. Please give them my regards.

  • http://nickrynerson.wordpress.com Nick Rynerson

    You make good points. I really like what Chan has to say on this issue though. Not because it is perfect, but because he his directly and dialectically challenging the comforts of the American evangelical church. I think Chan would 100% agree with your thoughts on this too. It seems that he was intentionally not nuancing his statements as a wake up call for comfortable Christians. All that to say, it is good for people like him (and Tullian Tchivijian) to have voices that balance them out. Nice work

    • owenstrachan

      Thanks, Nick. Appreciate your words. I like the whole prophetic thing. But prophets are accountable for everything they speak, right? Teachers don’t get a pass for what they say, but are in fact judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).

      So prophetic types should make their case, but not without nuance and carefulness. In the case of this particular clip, it’s just not careful enough, in my opinion. There’s material that we need to hear, as I said. But just because someone confronts a problem doesn’t mean that we cut them a blank check theologically.

  • http://thequestionoferos.wordpress.com Andrew Turner

    Came across your blog via TGC and like what I read.

    I frankly see little error in Chan’s statements, even to the point of not being careful enough; to what end are we careful to mince words when virtually all of Scripture has been tampered with to suit private ends at one time or another? How often have we adhered to bad theology and then one day, the Lord brings it to our attention and all we can do is wince and thank God for his grace?

    Chan’s comments on accountability are entirely fair. In my mind, church accountability and specifically the whole sexual accountability movement does more harm than good because it has a way of inuring people to themselves and allowing them to continue in sin with the added sin of lying on top of it. I would credit accountability efforts with about 1% of actual purity, the other 98% and 1% being the work of the Spirit and the efforts of man consecutively. And in fact, I would go so far as to say that equating pornography with actual pursuit of infidelity demonstrates how out of touch the church is on the matter; the simple fact is that pornography is a photograph and therefore not real; therefore it is an imaginary fetish; it is the crack cocaine of sexuality and just as overstimulating and destructive, but to call it “lust” is to call crack “bliss” when what we should be calling both is dehumanizing blown circuitry.

    This is not to justify pornography but rather to lump it into a different department with different causes and solutions than actual lust, which is the intentional pursuit of infidelity. If you will hear me out, I think the greatest damage of pornography is not that it creates lust (although it can easily translate into it) but rather that it creates an unfulfillable physical desire that is more akin to addiction than actual lust. And because it is an addiction where it is an issue at all, accountability will do nothing — what must be done first is the Lord repair the person. Then comes accountability, if necessary, but I would suggest that to a “clean” soul the violence of the sin creates enough disturbance and confession will be sought out instead of forced out in some sort of healing circle.

    That all said, Chan’s statements to me read as a very logical exegesis and then summary of the simple statement “Birds of a feather flock together”. He’s not arguing against accountability, which in the area he mentioned is kind of Grade 2, but rather for natural maturity, within which Grade 2 is eclipsed and contained along with the rest of the goodies that accompany maturity.

  • owenstrachan

    Andrew–good thoughts. Especially appreciate the spirit of them. It seems to me that Chan’s remarks, as so often happens, become a kind of white-board on which we add our own two cents. That is to say, we might read Chan in a slightly differently light than which he spoke.

    My whole point in writing was this: this is a sloppy statement on church. The Bible straightforwardly commends gathering together. Furthermore, there are important things to do as the church beyond being the church scattered. The church gathered–meeting together for weekly worship–clearly has great value for the apostles, or else its meetings would not be commended. The church gathers to be encouraged–that’s what Hebrews 10:25 says. It gathers for doxology. That, after all, is what all of our missions and evangelism is about: doxology. God being praised over all the earth by congregations of those whom he has saved.

    The missional types have an important message. But it’s not the only message. Worshipping God is not a subordinate end. It’s primary.

    In terms of accountability, I’ve already responded to that. I said in the post that you don’t need “accountability groups.” But you do need accountability. God structures the local church so that it is unavoidable. In fact, that’s why churches have elders–to keep people like you and me and Francis Chan where we need to be, obeying God. One of the worrisome things to me about the kind of parachurch prophet role that some have is that there is a lack of accountability. Who is supposed to be parsing Chan’s statements? Who is supposed to be in his ear? Me–a blogger? Not primarily. We need accountability not just for lust but comprehensively in our lives.

    I’m all for what you called “natural maturity.” But I work at a college, and pornography is a cancer. We don’t need less accountability, we need more. It’s only going to get worse. Your methods can vary, but Christian leaders need to be pushing evangelicals squarely toward it.

    • http://thequestionoferos.wordpress.com Andrew Turner

      I think we’re in agreement more or less, and I think you summed up your main thrust with “worrisome things to me” above. Parachurch organizations have a way of going two ways: either morphing into a “proper” church or turning into a bunch of heretics and fading away.

      I suppose I get nervous with the concept of accountability because it’s commonly used to parse leadership or individuality in general in favour of the elder’s personal preference. It often degenerates into a war about words, and seems more cultural and bound to natural law (Paul’s “basic principles of this world”) than spiritual law. Not saying natural law is wrong, but that it’s basic.

      Regards pornography: I have spent an enormous amount of time and effort on the subject, sifting it through Scripture, then writing a book on it (on my blog if you’re interested). I have been both enslaved to it and free from it, and then also the in-between normalcy that will mark any sexual being. I would again suggest that it has more in common with a narcotic than with reality, and would suggest that the root of the issue including the remedy lies on down the line. There is no absolute “cure” for pornography because it is not the Lord’s will to castrate his people. The only alternative then is to raise up the Spirit within a person to a level of maturity that makes porn anathema to them. Only then will accountability do anything at all.

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