Review of “Letters to the Church” Chapter 9 – Church Again

This is the last chapter in Francis Chan’s book “Letters to the Church.” This is the chapter where he gets practical and discusses some of their structure and practices. He is trying to get people back to be more like the first century church. This should hit home for those of us in Churches of Christ as this has been our plea for some time. And yet, we continue to adopt structures and practices that can get in the way of our goal.

First, I appreciate Chan’s desire to get his message out without creating a book that can be weaponized against congregations and ministers who operate out what has become our traditional, institutional paradigm. I believe that is both wise and mature.

The gist of their approach is simple and small. They meet in homes with a goal to hit roughly 20 people. Each house church has two people who fill the role he calls pastor. Then there are elders. He explains that they have authority but that is about all he says about the elders. I would really like to know more about how they set this up. It seems like they would have to be over several house churches and rotate around to their meetings since the groups are 20 or less and two of the families there already represent pastors. In Churches of Christ we wouldn’t traditionally make this distinction between pastor and elder. We would say pastors are elders and pastors aren’t preachers/ministers (unless they have additionally been appointed elders). We can talk about that a bit if you like in the comments.

Next, he has left me with a lot of questions in reading through the first eight chapters, some of which he finally addresses is this final chapter and others he does not. I already brought up elders. I also wonder how they utilize women in their assemblies. They stress 100% participation and use of gifts. It sounds to me like women are utilized in the assembly. I would guess women are probably not elders, not sure if they are pastors or not in this system. It would be nice to get more explanation on those things.

I would also like to get a bit more information on their worship. It is completely possible that Chan didn’t give more details because he doesn’t want us to run out with a cookie cutter and try to reproduce it in all the ways they have landed on. For instance, he says on page 180,

“I don’t believe we have found the solution for the future church, only a solution. But the changes we’ve made have felt more like the New Testament Church than anything I’ve ever encountered in the States. Again, I ‘m not trying to push the model we’ve been running with, but I do think we’d all benefit from innovating thinking where we jump back to the essentials, forget about ‘what we’ve always done,’ and ask what expression of Church God wants to see in our setting.”

He calls for fasting and prayer (p.194) and he has a curious thought on the same page, “Our country needs to encounter churches that cannot be explained by strategic planning.” I agree with this in one regard – that if our success is just the result of planning that we are only operating out of our own strength. At the same time, there is a need for planning. Even this book has come from some degree of planning. I believe Chan would agree that planning is needed but where the plans come from is what is essential and he and I would both agree that the Bible, prayer, fasting, and reliance on the Holy Spirit all have to be front and center and we make decisions about the future for our churches.

He ends the book with a strong warning from Revelation to encourage us to get serious because we will meet Jesus sooner than we think.

Summary

I had a lot of people point me to this book and I am glad they did. Part of me says just read the last chapter and get the practical parts but you really won’t appreciate that without the first eight chapters.

This book really left me with one big question that I don’t think I have asked to date but many of you have asked the same question – what are traditional churches to do with this information? Sell the building, split up in homes and take it from there? That would have been a fantastic epilogue or final chapter to give some guidance on that. I think all I can get from Chan on where he might go on that is going back to what he did write – pray, fast, go back to the scriptures, rely on the Holy Spirit and see where your convictions take you.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this chapter or the book as a whole. Let me hear from you in the comments!

4 Responses to Review of “Letters to the Church” Chapter 9 – Church Again

  1. Paul Castleman says:

    A lot of churches have innovated towards small groups. This is not necessarily a bad innovation. It just isn’t complete and they aren’t working. Church attendance and membership is still dropping. The difference? Mike Breen discusses the Rabbi system that Jesus uses in his time and ministry. We need to return to that. There needs to be leader(s) that are willing to maintain the concept of High Invitation and High Challenge. As well as the concept of High Accountability and Low Control. Jesus does all of these perfectly. To make disciples isn’t about anything but the intentionality behind what it means to MAKE disciples.

    I think Chan says what he needs to say. But it is not a complete picture of what it means to make disciples. Do we need a better model? Yes. Does Chan want us to seek out that model? Yes, whatever is needed to restore the 1st century church. Here’s the thing: “If you build a church you rarely get disciples, but if you make disciples, you always get the church.”

  2. Jerry Starling says:

    On Elders and Pastors:

    Several years ago, I heard a professor from ACU in a class at what was then Michigan Christian College state: “All elders are pastors, but not all pastors are elders “ This is somewhat like the statement: all apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.

    I see an overlap. A pastor is a shepherd. When I was in New Zealand in churches that had no elders, there were new converts who needed Shepherding. I, at the time, was in my early 20’s to early 30’s. Was I to shepherd the flock? I didn’t carry the title of elder or pastor – but I certainly, to the best of my ability, did the work.

    I’ve also heard many say that the man appointed to serve as an elder should already be doing the work. Doesn’t this suggest that we should go beyond the lists of ‘qualifications’ to find elders? Where would we find them if not among those who are actively doing what shepherds do: encourage the weak, teach the untaught, heal the broken-hearted, and generally be someone who can be depended on in the congregation.

    I like what Chan is suggesting: having cell groups of up to 20 led by capable ‘pastors’ with oversight by a body of elders. From what you report about his book, it doesn’t sound as if his structure has one man as THE PASTOR over the whole congregation. You also do not comment on whether or not there is ever an assembly of the entirety of the whole body. To have such a meeting would keep the cell groups from feeling isolated and would help inculcate a feeling of belonging to the army of God.

    As I said, I like his proposal – it I do not know how to be there. I do know that North Boulevard in MURFREESBORO is experimenting with something like this model with a new church-plant in Orlando. I’ll watch with interest to see how that progresses.

    • Matt Dabbs says:

      There are several movement who are educating on these kinds of models. It is going to take some big paradigm shifts for us that will actually get us back to more of what the Bible teaches us rather than less. We have just confused some of our forms with Bible and then lack flexibility to make changes because people think we are violating some kind of biblical mandate when we change some things.

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