American mega-church pastors never go too far ‘off script’ in my experience. I’ve interviewed a few over the years and once you’re past the well-oiled PR machine you’ll usually find a personable and interesting individual. Even so, I’ve never got very far past the inevitable ‘beware-of-journalists’ firewall and their responses are usually fairly predictable.
Speaking to Francis Chan however, it doesn’t feel like there’s a script. The Hong Kong-born pastor wears his heart on his sleeve and treats our conversation as an opportunity to evaluate his own faith journey. He is remarkably honest about his personal fallibility and seems restless to identify any part of his life that isn’t totally devoted to God. Similarly, he’s not afraid to own up to the limitations of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California which he started 14 years ago and has now grown to over 6,000 in attendance. ‘There are plenty of people there who are not real,’ he says, as he acknowledges the growing discomfort of hearing his own name more often on the lips of his congregation than the name of Jesus. Partly in response, he has decided to move on from the church and seek a new path he believes God has for him and his family.
The details are not yet in place, but he seems to relish the opportunity of rediscovering his identity aside from being a megachurch pastor and bestselling author. ‘I want to be obscure for a while,’ he says, seemingly oblivious to the irony of that statement given that his UK visit is, for his publisher at least, a chance to raise awareness of Chan beyond the USA. Chan’s first book Crazy Love has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the States, and Forgotten God, which focuses on the Holy Spirit, is expected to do similarly well, along with a DVD series Basic.
When it comes to sales potential Chan is a Christian publisher’s dream, but his statement that ‘I may never write another book or preach another public sermon’ could potentially be a bitter pill to swallow. For the pastor however, it’s about unfettering himself from any expectations other than the call of God. Chan lost both his parents in childhood, a formative aspect of his life that would teach him ‘to depend on God alone’. An undivided focus on what a surrendered life looks like is fundamental to Chan’s speaking and writing.
Years ago he describes himself asking the simple question, ‘Is this it?’ when he looked at the example of the Church in the New Testament and then at the Church around him. ‘At first I thought it must just be me, everyone else seemed happy with it,’ he jokes. But when he started to ask those questions out loud ‘a lot of heads started to nod too’. That single-minded purpose of following God, whatever the cost, will be a challenge to anyone who hears his message. Yet Chan’s winsome personality also makes it strangely appealing. He laughs often, speaks passionately and seems to relish the adventure, even if he may not know quite where it may take him next.
You’ve just quit being pastor of a growing, vibrant church in sunny southern California, and you’re not sure where you’ll go next. I’m tempted to ask – are you crazy?
I sometimes ask myself the same question, but when we started the church it was a crazy idea too. Like so many things in life you can get comfortable after a while and stop living by faith. When you feel the Holy Spirit leading you into something new, you want to hold on to security, but in the end that will kill you. You get so bored and stop living by the supernatural. There’s a certain uneasiness to it, but my family believe the Holy Spirit is leading us to a new place, so we’ll just start moving and then figure it out from there.
How did you come to establish Cornerstone Church in the first place?
Two or three weeks into our marriage I said to my wife: ‘I know we’ve never talked about this, but I think God wants me to start a church.’ The whole premise was that I wanted to be with a group of people who were real. I didn’t care how many there were. I just wanted to know that when we got together we would open up the Bible and do whatever it says, and when we worshipped we would really be singing to him. I just wanted a real experience.
Within five years there were more than 1,500 attending. Why the growth?
It’s unexplainable, but God just chooses to bless certain things. I don’t pretend to be more gifted or spiritual than anyone else – in fact I made some pretty dumb mistakes early on, such as simply appointing jobs to the first person who offered. But here’s where we saw God’s hand. The person who offered to collect the money got in a fight with another guy in the church and decided to leave. That meant we didn’t have a treasurer until someone else stepped in. Two months later that man who had been our treasurer was imprisoned for embezzling money from his company. I just thought ‘Thank you Lord! You made him get in that fight and got him out of here.’ Otherwise we would have had this big scandal of our treasurer being in prison just as our church was starting. I made so many mistakes, but that’s the story of my life – God coming alongside and saying ‘Francis, I’ll fix it for you.’
In a recent sermon you said you now have to be far more careful about the things you say and do because so many people are watching. How do you deal with having such a public ministry?
It’s really hard and that’s part of the reason for me unplugging from the public for a while. I’m starting to question myself, question my boldness and ask ‘Is this still me, or has all this notoriety gotten to me? Am I too concerned about what people think of me – the book and podcast ratings?’ I need to get away from everyone and get alone with the Lord again, and hopefully come out of that time with a fresh boldness. I fight it, but there are times I know I’m being far too impacted by what people think. Until I get away from the crowd I won’t even know what’s wrong with me. I can’t see myself clearly anymore. I wonder if I’m really acting naturally if people are always listening or watching.
What does ‘unplugging’ look like? What might the future hold?
I want to be somewhat obscure for a while. As a family we’ll probably go to a Third World country where they don’t know who I am and they don’t really care. When you get to some of these impoverished places they just want to be fed, cared for and loved, they don’t care who you are. When I return to the States I’d love to find a way to be more of a cheerleader for other young leaders and bring their ministries to the forefront. It’s the right time to move on from Cornerstone – there are lots of churches in Simi Valley and the church is in great hands. But if I just moved half an hour away there are literally millions of people, very few of whom want to go to church.
The example of Christ is of leaving heaven and being humbled. My wife and I have been talking about how we can represent a picture of Christ without being prepared to lay down freedoms and comforts. People say: ‘But it’s ok for you to live here in this comfortable area,’ and I know its ‘ok’, but I just don’t feel like I resemble Christ in my actions. I just want to know that I’m for real – that I really would go anywhere and live in any neighbourhood with my family if that’s where God called me.
Surely it’s natural to want to protect your children from living in a drug-ridden, prostitute-filled area?
You know, I’ve never said this before, but scripture is clear that if we want to save our life we’ll lose it. I bet that’s true with our children too. Children see their parents living a life of comfort and never experiencing God in an environment where he has to come through. That can cause our children to see our faith as very boring and even unreal because they have never seen faith really being exercised. They are the very ones who end up walking away because we’ve tried to protect them from every danger and every risk. By trying to save our children that way, we lose them. How many kids when they turn 18 never set foot in a church again?
You are quite critical of Western Christianity. In your book Crazy Love you ask the question ‘Is this really it?’
There are lots of people who, when they read the word of God, realise we are being lukewarm – they know there’s more. When we look at the way those early believers lived and what they were willing to sacrifice, we know it doesn’t match up. Yet it is in those times that we suffer for God that we feel true peace, and feel most alive.
You take very seriously the statement in Revelation that God will ‘spit out’ a lukewarm Christian.
Actually I don’t see the phrase ‘lukewarm Christian’ in that passage of scripture. He just refers to them as ‘lukewarm people’, and he also refers to them as blind, naked, poor, wretched and pitiable. I don’t see that as a description of a believer.
So a lukewarm person can’t be a Christian?
That’s what I read in Revelation 3. A Christian is not going to be spat out of the mouth of God.
Doesn’t that have a worrying implication that there are many churches in America and the West full of people who are simply not Christians?
Yes, it’s always been that way. Jesus explains it’s going to be the ‘wheat and the tares’ – he’s going to show who’s for real. There are millions of people gathering in so-called church buildings, but they aren’t all followers of Jesus Christ – he says you can look at their lifestyles and tell that. 1 John says there will be people who say that they know him ‘but because they don’t obey his commands they are liars’. It doesn’t say they are ‘believers who haven’t changed yet’ – they’re just ‘liars’. There is a wide road to destruction and a narrow road to salvation which few will find.
Yet Cornerstone is a ‘mega-church’ – isn’t there a danger that can be an environment for ‘comfortable’ Christianity to flourish?
It is a danger, and that’s part of what the church is trying to steer away from. At first we thought ‘We’ll preach a hard message and then the crowds will go away,’ as 2 Timothy 4 says ‘they won’t put up with sound doctrine’. But there is a weird ability for people in the States to hear hard teaching and think they ‘get it’ without actually living it out. That’s one of the weaknesses of this up-front form of platform preaching, where there’s no real interaction. So we’ve been trying to break the church down and have elders in every neighbourhood who interact with people’s lives. They will pastor and shepherd them rather than have people under the illusion that ‘Francis is my shepherd’. If that were true then I would know their lives, but I don’t, I’m just the one giving them a message every Sunday. I love Cornerstone, but there are also plenty of fake people there. Like in the parable, when the trails and temptations come they don’t stick around, and you see they never really had any root in themselves.
Now that you are moving on, will your future still involve writing books and filming DVDs?
I want to surrender that too. I may never write another book, I may never preach another public sermon. I may end up in an orphanage that no one knows about. I want to be faithful if God has given me a platform for a reason, but at the same time I don’t want to be tied to anything. That’s why I haven’t made any longterm deals with publishers – if the Lord leads me to it, I’ll do it, otherwise I don’t want that pressure.
Is it a case of ‘the incredible disappearing Francis Chan’? I must decrease so that he may increase?
There’s certainly some of that. I’ve told my church before that I don’t like hearing my name so much. One of the problems at our church is when I hear the words ‘Francis Chan’ more than I hear the words ‘Holy Spirit’. We’re going to go nowhere fast if that’s the way we keep talking.
I also know there have been times when pride was in me. I remember getting ready to speak at a pastors’ conference and there was a magazine with my face on it on every chair. Quite honestly, there was a side of me that liked it. Then during the worship time, God showed me just how disgusting it was and I began bawling like a baby, asking ‘What have I become?’ I was wailing on the ground, with snot coming out of my nose – a complete mess. Then suddenly the worship time was over and I was invited to come up to speak. I was still a mess, so I just confessed to all these pastors: ‘I’ve become everything I didn’t want to be. I’m so disgusted with myself, and God is disgusted with this attitude I’ve had even coming in here.’ It’s weird, you almost don’t see it in yourself.
Your latest book Forgotten God is about the Holy Spirit – do you subscribe to any theological label?
It seems to change a lot. When you are younger you are so sure of your theology and say, ‘I’m a however-many-point dispensationalist or a Calvinist.’ I see myself as reformed in theology. I was a cessasionist for a while, but am most certainly not anymore.
So you now believe in the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. What made you change your mind?
A simple reading of scripture. I learned in seminary that there will always be people more intelligent than me on both sides of that debate. So is it just the case that the most intelligent person will arrive at the truth? I don’t see that it in scripture, instead I see the Holy Spirit playing a role in revealing truth to us. So I said: ‘Lord, let me read the scriptures and the Gospels over and over again like I’ve never read them before. Let me forget what all these theologians have told me. Let me read it like a ten or 12-year-old would – what would be the obvious teaching of this book?’ As I read it that way I thought ‘God give me the Spirit, I need the Spirit so badly. How in the world did I get to this other theology?’
What sort of miracles have you seen?
I see answered prayers all the time where no one could tell me it was coincidental because the specific things I prayed for happened. We’ve also seen it financially when we’ve given everything away and thought ‘Ok Lord, I think we were being obedient in doing that’ and then he blesses us even more. I remember one time my wife could barely even talk because God had blessed us so much and she asked, ‘Can we ever give to God without him blessing us in return?’ It gets overwhelming at times.
I haven’t seen anyone receive their sight back – though that would be cool. It’s just in everyday life that stuff I pray for happens. I don’t pray more than anyone else, but when I do I receive such clear answers to prayer. Then when I read scripture I see how much faith I’m still lacking, and I keep praying, ‘Lord, give me more faith.’
Francis Chan’s mother died while giving birth to him in 1967. He was born in Hong Kong and subsequently raised in the USA. Chan’s father died of cancer when he was 12. After embracing Christ as a teenager, Chan worked in restaurants before becoming a youth pastor. In 1994, soon after marrying Lisa, he founded Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California. Chan’s first book Crazy Love sold more than 300,000 copies in its first year. In April 2010 Chan announced his resignation as pastor of Cornerstone Church to pursue a fresh ministry. Lisa and Francis Chan are parents to three daughters and one son.