Right Questions, Wrong(ish) Answers

If you follow this blog, you will notice a number of book reviews.  Almost all of these reviews are critical but positive.  I review the books that I think people should read.  Books that I don’t recommend, I don’t review.  I am going to make a partial exception to this in this review of Letters to the Church by Francis Chan.   This is for two reasons.

Firstly, people know Francis Chan and many people love whatever he says.  He speaks and communicates with passion and many Bible passages are thrown in.   Some stuff I have loved, some I have had some issues with.  But simply because his name is on the cover people will read this book.

Secondly, the content of the book is a “let’s see what is wrong with the church” kind of book.  This is not the first of its kind nor will it be the last.  But it is the kind of book that, read by someone who is disaffected by the church, could be used to justify their disaffection.  In Chan’s defense, I imagine he would be horrified to see that happen.  But this is what happens when someone writes a “let’s see what is wrong with the church” kind of book.  And this is my major reservation with the book.

Chan has written a set of letters to the church.  It does not take long to realize that when he means “church”, he means large churches in America who are using all sorts of seeker-sensitive marketing to grow.  These letters address things like our attitude to the church, are we taking the role of mission seriously, what should we expect of leaders, what should we expect of each other and our community, etc.

At the end of the day, I think he is asking the right questions which is why I don’t want to completely dismiss the book.  Are we (as the church) really doing what we should be doing?  Or have we become enamored and distracted by strategies that “work” but leave us blind to our true role.  The first chapter on how we are talking about the church is fantastic.  Are we really treating the church as the object of Jesus’ love or an institution we can complain about?

If you are able to read the book discerning the difference between the questions and the answers, then this can be a productive read.   But the answers have problems.

The first problem with the book is that it assumes we have got it all wrong and hence we need to start all over again.  “What if we bulldozed what we currently call “church” and started over with actual Christians?” (p132).  This assumes that the Spirit is not at work in the church now.  It assumes those at church are not Christian.  Chan might be right that we have the bar too low on what we see as maturity, but that does not mean the church needs to be bulldozed.  There are many hard working pastors in American (where he has targetted the book) and other places that do not deserve the accusations that he has placed with “the church”.

Yes, we need to fix the church.  Fix, not bulldoze.

The second problem with the book is that it elevates community.  This is not a bad thing in and of itself.  Jesus reminds his followers that it is the love that we have for one another that is the sign of true discipleship (John 13:34-35).  But Chan sets up the community in a way that holds Acts 2:41-47 as THE model of church.  In fact, there are times when I am not sure if community or Jesus is at the centre.

Throughout the book, the warning from Dieterich Bonhoeffer kept running through my head in his book Life Together.  Before you read this, keep in mind that Bonhoffer actually had the kind of community that Chan was idolizing in Finkenwalde where Christian community was at the heart of his seminary and if there is one book to grapple with the idea of community in church this is the one.  But Bonhoeffer has a solemn warning for people who have an idealistic view of Christian community:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.  The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself.  He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.  He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren.  He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community as if his dream binds men together.  When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.  When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash.  So he becomes, first accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”  Life Together, pp27-28.

Community is important to the church.  But it is not the centre, Jesus is.  But more to address Chan, the Christian community has many different forms according to the people who are meeting together.  It doesn’t always have to look like his “Church Airbnb”.

As I mentioned, this book is asking good questions, the right questions of the church.  But some might see these questions as reasons to leave the church.  This is what makes this book dangerous.  The answers are unhelpful as we are rejecting one form of church over another.  It depends on why you are reading this book as to whether I recommend it to you.

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