Is it time for a change? This is the central question of Francis Chan’s latest book, Letters to the Church. “From the very beginning, the church has always needed pruning. We’ve always needed reformers and reformations . . . to call us back to what we were meant to be” (189). From Chan’s perspective, it’s time to “kill the consumer mindset in the church” (190).
His essential argument is that the American church needs to return to the biblical basics we observe in the New Testament. Instead, church leaders are following a formula for growth: you need great music (preferably by someone wearing skinny jeans), moving lights, compelling preachers, incredible childcare, and, most importantly, hot coffee (44). But is this all you need? Or better yet, is this what you need? Has the church, by having these things, compromised the biblical model?
Form vs. Substance
Letters rightly pushes us to leave behind the unnecessary tips, tricks, routines, and traditions we’ve elevated above God in an effort to reach people. Chan argues that much of the Western church has sought “to experience biblical awe without biblical devotion” (56). We attempt to create amazing productions that we call worship services, but leave behind ministry to orphans and widows, service to the poor, equipping for personal evangelism, and more.
But Letters conflates form and substance in much of its critique of American church culture. Chan relates this story:
There is a simple exercise I walk through with church leaders. First, I have them list all the things that people expect from their church. They usually list obvious things like a really good service, strong age-specific ministries, a certain style/volume/length of singing, a well-communicated sermon, conveniences such as parking, a clean church building, coffee, childcare, etc. Then I have them list the commands God gave the church in Scripture. . . . .
Far too often we are more concerned with how well the sermon was communicated, whether the youth group is relevant enough, or how to make the music better. Honestly, what is it that gets people in your church stirred up for change? Is it disobedience toward commands from God? Or is it falling short of expectations that we have made up? The answer to these questions might just show us whether our church exists to please God or please people. (46–47, emphasis mine)
Many of the concerns Chan lists (sermons, music, programs) fall into the form category, about which the Bible says remarkably little. Surprisingly, it’s this lack of instruction that has helped Christianity to endure thousands of years and cross countless cultures. In fact, much of the book of Acts is about the church recognizing the cultural elasticity of their religious practices (think Acts 15:1–32).
Can your church be unapologetically attractional in form and robustly biblical in substance?
At the same time, Chan puts forward the biblical example of the early church in Acts 2, and their devotion to the Scriptures/teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer (along with missions), as practices that should be the primary pillars of churches (54–62, 176–80). Such pillars are what I’d call the substance of the church.
I wholeheartedly agree that our churches should be putting these pillars front and center in our body and worship life. Like Chan, I also think many churches don’t do this. We mustn’t lose the substance of what it means to be a church. But are substance and form mutually exclusive in every case? Can your church be attractive in form yet still robustly biblical in substance?
We Reformed types often pit faithfulness against fruitfulness, so that it appears almost as if we celebrate small churches for being small. We think faithfulness means preaching God’s truth, paying no attention to what the culture thinks, because only God converts. That sounds nice on the face of it; the only problem is it’s not biblical.
The apostle Paul was both God-centered and people-sensitive. Galatians 1 shows a man radically zealous for the purity of the gospel and the glory of God, while 1 Corinthians 9 shows the same man radically zealous for the evangelization of the lost. And both truly are radical.
In the first case, the gospel is deeply offensive and will turn many away. In the second, Paul is changing his eating habits, worship practices, language, and clothes so that “by all means [he] might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Paul understands that the gospel carries its own offense; our role is to remove any unnecessary offenses or distractions from the gospel.
We Reformed types often pit faithfulness against fruitfulness, so that it appears almost as if we celebrate small churches for being small.
The questions are, then, does having a certain kind of music or atmosphere help remove unnecessary offenses and distractions, or create them? Have these efforts to remove distractions actually replaced the substance of our mission, or enhanced its clarity and effectiveness?
We should seek to be both faithful and fruitful, and lament when any church leaves behind one for the other.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive
When reading the Bible, narrative may be the most difficult genre to interpret accurately and with precision. We have to figure out which parts are descriptive and which are prescriptive for our present moment. Chan seems to approach the narratives of the early church in Acts as primarily prescriptive for the church today, which allows him to conflate form and substance. He writes, “Our parameters for church expression must revert back to what is biblical rather than sticking to what is normal at this cultural moment” (181).
Chan isn’t the first to make this move (Platt, Hirsch, Cole). But what’s the controlling hermeneutical principle behind it? If you look outside of Acts, do you see direct (or even indirect) imperatives in the New Testament about how large church gatherings should be, or about the use of things like stages, sound systems, lights, or gifted musicians?
If the rest of the New Testament is relatively silent on these things, this should chasten our readiness to elevate every aspect of how the early church formed, met, and grew as normative for us today (John Piper reasons along the same lines here).
Context, Context, Context
The underlying critique in this review can be boiled down to the need to consider context. I actually agree with almost everything Chan writes about the substance of what our churches should be. I even agree that many contemporary churches have lost sight of what it truly means to be a worshiping community. But none of these realities about substance dictates a specific strategy or form.
Pastors should adapt their strategies to their context. If we take modern Western church-growth methodologies and apply them in large Western cities, closed countries, or the first century, then the church’s effectiveness will likely be limited (181–92). But this reality is less about this model’s relative biblical fidelity and more about its cultural suitability. Conversely, if we take the exact model we observe from the descriptive account of Acts, and apply it in certain Western cities and cultures, there may be a similar level of ineffectiveness.
Overall, there may be many church leaders in America today who need to hear Chan’s impassioned plea to biblical fidelity, and I suspect that’s why he felt the need to write the book. But I fear what Letters offers as a potential solution is more reaction than reformation.