Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

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.

Final Sermon Prep Checklist

As a pastor, I have the joy of preparing sermons to preach every week. That means 15-20 hours for each sermon, studying a passage of Scripture, thinking through how to communicate it, and finally writing a sermon. When I near the finish line of this process, I do one final check. I call it, uncreatively, the Final Sermon Prep Checklist. I basically go through the sermon, point by point and line by line asking the following questions:

  1. Is the main idea of the sermon the main idea of the text?
  2. How does the sermon demonstrate that this is the main idea of the text?
  3. How does the sermon show people how to know that this is the main idea?
  4. In what ways does this sermon exult in Christ and show ties to Christ?
  5. How clear is the gospel in this sermon?
  6. Is there material in the sermon that isn’t necessary? Cut this material.
  7. Is there material in the sermon that points more to the speaker than the Author? Cut this material.
  8. Does the sermon show the congregation how to apply this passage?
  9. Is the application specific enough?
  10. Is the application general enough?

This process has been great for me and has probably saved many sermons from being ineffective and a waste of the hearers’ time.  One of the huge benefits of expository preaching is that the preacher is ALWAYS aiming (or should always be aiming) to put the text before the congregation, and preaching in such a way that the text can be understood, cherished, and applied by God’s people.

To that end, this step has been crucial to my sermon prep process.

Ingredients: Just Add Love & Respect

Pastors (whether they like it or not) regularly have the privilege of helping people walk through difficult seasons in their marriages. Often, by the time a couple decides to see a pastor, things are quite bad. So I think I have heard and seen everything. In fact, I am considering writing a book on marriage called, “Creative Yet Totally Proven Ways to Quickly Wreck Your Marriage“. 🙂 I think it would sell well.

Of course, problems in marriages come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the needed behavioral changes to right a marriage. However, it is not an overstatement to say that most marital issues can be traced to a deficiency of two things: love and respect.

In Ephesians 5:22-33, the Apostle Paul gives clear guidelines for a healthy marriage. Verse 33 is the summary: “…Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” For a marriage to thrive, it must have love and respect.

Of course, men and women both need love and respect. And all of us should show both love and respect to our spouses. But the Apostle Paul indicates that there is a special significance in the husband’s responsibility to love his wife, and also the wife’s responsibility to respect her husband. I think that’s because men need, more than anything else, respect from their wives. And women need to be loved by their husbands above all.

A lot needs to be said, more than I can say here, about what real love is, and also how a wife can genuinely respect her husband. The point I want to make with this post is that those are the two main ingredients in a thriving marriage: love and respect. Husbands, love your wives. And wives, respect your husbands. In my experience, when both parties apply themselves to their respective responsibilities, their marriage begins to drastically improve.

A common mistake we make is to become concerned primarily with how our spouses fail at their responsibilities. But we are not responsible for how well or how poorly our spouses do at this. As we often tell our children: we are responsible for our own actions.

Thus, the solution to your marital issues, if you are going through a difficult season right now, probably has to do with love and respect. A great question to ask as you try to diagnose your problems is this: Am I doing what God requires of me in this marriage? How can I love my wife better and show her that I love her in ways that she will see and appreciate? Or, how can I respect my husband so that he knows that I am for him?

God created marriage, so it stands to reason that he knows exactly what is needed for a marriage to thrive. And, thankfully, he has shared that information with us. A healthy marriage, more than anything, needs love and respect.

My Weekly Wrestling Match

Bible study is very much like a wrestling match. Every week, I go onto the mat with the heavy-weight champion and dare to put myself against him.

Of course, I would never win, except for the grace of God.

So we hit it, me and the text – and I try to make it capitulate. In the course of the match I will throw every move I know at the text. I will ask it questions and consider its context. I will compare it with other texts and think deeply about the words chosen and sentence structure. Late in the match, I will try to get it in a hold – to pin down the main idea.

It is a huge struggle. I know from the outset that I am outmatched. But I still have to try. It would be way easier to give up and just go watch other people wrestle (I could go hit the commentaries or listen to sermons, etc.) but I know that a better reward awaits if I will just keep trying. And so on we go, round and round.

Until, at some point, the text simple yields its meaning to me. Unlike a real wrestling match, the text willingly pounds the mat to let me know I have won. God opens my mind, connects the dots, and it becomes so clear and obvious to me that I wonder why I could not see it in the first hour of the match.

This is the first phase of sermon preparation – the exegesis. It isn’t everything, but there is nothing more foundational than this. This is the hard work of a preacher’s Monday and Tuesday (at least) and without this crucial part, the sermon will have little life on Sunday.

There are so many reasons why I love preaching. The early-week wrestling match is chief among them.

Open my eyes that I may see the wonderful things in your word.” Psalm 119.18

The Good & Bad of Cultural Christianity

As a follower of Christ, one of the things I do every week is go with my family to church. The other day, as we were on our way to church, my wife noted the many other people that we were passing who were doing the same thing – heading to various churches. We live in a place where most people go to church and call themselves Christians. We are surrounded by a culture of Christianity.

It’s not that way everywhere. In Russia, for example, the opposite is true. 70+ years of having a secular worldview taught and imposed by the government has all but snuffed out the influence of Christianity. But not so here (for now, at least). Most people in this town still consider themselves Christians, even as they demonstrate varying levels of real commitment to Christ.

So is cultural Christianity a good thing or a bad thing? I think it’s both.

Christianity has significantly influenced our worldview which, in turn, has enhanced our social well-being. The reason Chadron has a low crime-rate and the reason that a stranded driver on the highway will likely find help from a kind passerby (who doesn’t just pass by), is due to the historic influence of Christianity in forming the western worldview. In a very real way, the values and moral standards of Christianity create human flourishing. So a culture of Christianity is good for a society.

But it can be perilous for one’s soul. That is because only genuine faith in Jesus reconciles us to God. The forms and values and culture of Christianity cannot do this. If our Christianity is only cultural, then it is empty. And worse, it breeds a profession of faith that is profoundly unhelpful: a person might look to his heritage and culture and say, “I’m a Christian.” but never actually follow Christ by faith.

Cultural Christianity is good for society because its values lead to human flourishing. We should be thankful that we live in this culture (it might not always be this way!). Even so, it can be dangerous for our souls, because our cultural environment could lead us to think that we are right with God by default – or that the Christian faith is merely a set of values. Yet, the only way for sinners (and that’s all of us) to be made right with God is through personal faith in Jesus, the one who paid our sin-debt on the cross. Christianity is more than culture – it is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

I pray that your faith is more than culture.

On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’… And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you…’” – Jesus

How to Keep the Spring a Bubbl’in

Preaching week in and week out is the most wonderful job on the planet. In fact, it is not a job. It is something way more than that. In every sense of the word it is a calling; and a joyous one at that.

Even so, it is not easy. I am working right now on a pretty big project: preaching through the book of 1 Corinthians. It is a very practical letter, but it is still really hard to preach through verse-by-verse. I am about 15 sermons into it, which places me at 1 Corinthians 4. One of the pressures I acutely feel is how to not sound the same every week, especially when working several weeks through a long passage. If the big theme of the text is the same, then sometimes the sermons sound the same. The tone, the emphasis, and even the kind of illustrations can sound the same. That is dangerous because the preacher can lose his people and the urgency of the message if he doesn’t break up the monotony (and being monotonous with glorious things has to be a sin!). So the question is, how do we keep things fresh?

The answer for me is to keep the spring bubbling in my heart. If each new nook and cranny of truth is exciting and fresh to me, I couldn’t make it monotonous if I tried. So I have to read the text each week with fresh eyes and a longing heart, asking God to continue showing me the wonderful things from his Word. The spring of my preaching does not flow from me (which is a good thing, because if it did, it would make the Gobi look tropical). So I have to keep seeing the glorious things as they are, and not let my ministry of preaching (or other things) get in the way of personally seeing and feeling the message of God’s Word.

Besides reading the passage closely and carefully and even devotionally, here are five other things I do to keep the spring bubbling.

1. I have developed a habit of listening to other preachers’ sermons. We expect our people to listen to sermons to help them in their spiritual lives (usually our sermons). We should expect no less from ourselves. This is actually pretty important to me, because I dry up so quickly. As an added benefit, listening to others helps me gain a fresh perspective on ways to say stuff, and helps me get better at illustrating concepts, etc. I think it’s best to listen to several different preachers (if I listen to just one I will sound just like him after a while.) I listen to mostly reformed guys like Piper, Keller, DeYoung, Chandler, Carson and also Begg, McArthur and a few lesser known pastors with podcasts. I find the time by listening while I walk to my study each morning (20 minute walk, so the round trip is one full sermon), and while I run, mow, walk the dog, cook breakfast and as I do odd mindless jobs around the house.

2. I work at developing and maintaining strong reading habits. I try to keep a non-fiction (biography or theology) and a fiction book going all the time, and I work to finish the books I begin (unless they’re awful). I try to read at least one book a year on preaching, pastoral ministry, and missions. This helps me to stay fresh, and also helps me collect material for illustrating theo-concepts. And, of course, it helps me grow in many other ways. Spurgeon was right, the man who doesn’t read has no one to quote and will himself be quoted by none.

3. I try to get good feedback. This is the most difficult because people who 1) know what good preaching is and are 2) willing to give constructive feedback are rare. But it is important. I look for people who are willing to be lovingly brutal.

4. From time to time, I try to shake up my preaching schedule. I see the value in taking breaks from the big project and either hitting a topic (which I try to do expositionally ) or a “mini-series” on a different type of text (like a Minor Prophet, for example). I do this especially with special annual events (e.g., Advent, Thanksgiving, and even Labor Day). Currently, I go on 6 to 10-sermon stretches on 1 Corinthians, and then take a one to three-week detour. Your mileage may vary.

5. I get good help from my church. A church and a pastor develop together, so if the church wants me to improve in my preaching they have to put forth effort too. Mine does, and I love that. They benefit and so do I.  They give me a generous book budget for my use, and fully fund at least one pastors’ conference a year. They also give me no grief about the amount of time I spend in my study; they want me to study. They want me to do other things too, like counseling, follow up, administration, vision forming, elder retreat planning, ministry oversight, community representation and visiting people in the hospital, etc., but they see (and hear) the value of my study time.

Those are ways that I have found helpful to keep the spring bubbling and, consequently, the sermons fresh. I hope sharing that helps someone out there.