In Letters to the Church, Francis Chan tries to accomplish two things. He wants to call out the modern American church for its failings, especially its culture of consumerism. And Chan is proposing what he thinks is a vastly better model: the home church model that he has launched in California.
The book is somewhat autobiographical, tracing Chan’s history from planting a church in Simi Valley, to seeing that church grow into a “megachurch” and then Chan growing dissatisfied with his church, leaving it and taking his family overseas for a short season. His point in sharing that history was to recount how he missed the boat before and how he has now come to understand what church really is or should be.
The value of the book is that it forcefully identifies significant failures in many American churches. That value is tempered, unfortunately, by the overly-sweeping nature of those criticisms. He is aiming this critique at all churches in America. And his criticisms are over-the-top condemning: the church in America is not loving, not a community, does not pray or read the Scriptures, and is full of shallow consumerists. Of course, all of us should hear these criticisms and be warned against these things. But there isn’t an acknowledgment that there are many loving churches in America, full of sincere Christ-followers living life on mission. There are many churches that don’t follow the house church model and yet are, by the grace of God, healthy New Testament churches. Chan doesn’t seem aware of this.
I think the book has 4 serious shortcomings. First, it takes enormous hubris to say You are ALL doing church wrong. We are doing it right, and you should do it like us. Chan doesn’t say it nearly that bluntly, and he throws in humble lingo at many points. And while I don’t question his sincerity, I do think that is the message he is conveying and it takes hubris to convey. I have no doubt that Chan’s house church model/movement is going well, but the church was not rediscovered in America five years ago when he launched We Are the Church. He seems to think otherwise.
Second, Letters to the Church gives a rather short-sighted presentation of what the church is. Chan’s criticisms seem to hover mainly over church gatherings (especially in large churches) because all the members are not, in the gatherings, exercising all their gifts all at once. He fails to note that the gathering is merely one aspect of the church. Surely, he is aware that the church is all of life, and in that 24/7 context, every member is able to exercise his or her gifts, even if a smaller number are able to do that at gatherings.
Third, Letters to the Church gives a grass-is-always-greener view of the local church in other countries. I can’t question Chan’s experiences overseas, but I can say that my own observation after spending many years in other countries is that churches in other countries have problems too. Lots of them. Very similar to, say, the church in America. Many churches in those places have far fewer resources so they might not be tempted towards church-consumerism in the same way, but they still struggle with pride, loving one another, fostering community and protecting unity just as we do.
Fourth, Letters to the Church gives a grass-is-always-greener view of the early church. We should, of course, learn from the early church in many ways (and the apostolic teaching – the Scriptures – is the infallible authority for how to do church). But concerning its example, it is helpful to remember that the early church didn’t always get things right. Read any of Paul’s letters to the churches!!! I’m preaching through 1 Corinthians in my church right now, so that’s the early church I was thinking about as I read Letters to the Church. The early church was in so many ways like the modern church. Full of people, and therefore often full of problems.
In the end, I’m not sure this book will be helpful to the church. The shortcomings outweigh the strengths, in my opinion. And since many Christians will read this book uncritically, it is sure to cause problems in many local churches. This book doesn’t, on the whole, urge people to love their churches. It urges people to be critical and negative. For that reason, I hope it doesn’t gain the traction that I fear it will.