“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.