Chan’s Church: Small is Beautiful

Francis Chan.[1]2018. Letters to the Church. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is accepted wisdom among those who study ecclesiology that churches go through stages as they grow, which trigger a need to change their leadership style. The stages are roughly 0-100 members (small), 101 to 250 members (medium), and 251 members and up (large). 

In small churches, the pastor knows everyone and everyone seems engaged in some type of ministry. Medium sized churches oftentimes loses its sense of intimacy and many of its founding members as the pastor begins to delegate work to staff and committees. In a large church, the senior pastor is a manager of staff and specializes in preaching while the members are mostly consumers of Sunday morning services. Interestingly, even small churches today are bigger than most churches described in the New Testament that often described as house churches.


In his book, Letters to the Church,Francis Chan writes:

“While overseas [after leaving the mega-church he founded to travel to Asia], I had gotten to see a glimpse of what the church could be and the power it could have, and I felt like God wanted me to take that vision back…I wrote this book to point out areas where the Church is lacking”(19, 211)

His vision for the church includes three goals:

  1. “I wanted all of us to sing directly to God…
  2. I wanted all of us to really hear the Word of God…
  3. I wanted all of us to live holy lives.”(11-12)

Most of this book provides observations and wisdom that lie between these goals and this vision for the church.

Background and Organization

Francis Chan is a Chinese, American pastor and writer, educated at Master’s College (BA and MDiv). He founded and pastored Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California (founded 1994). He also founded and serves Eternity Bible College.

Chan writes in nine chapters:

  1. “The Departure
  2. Sacred
  3. The Order
  4. The Gang
  5. Servants
  6. Good Shepherds
  7. Crucified
  8. Unleashed
  9. Church Again”(v)

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and followed by an afterword and notes.

Weaknesses of the Mega Church Model

The mega church model evolved out of the perceived needs of both the church and postmodern people. Larges churches have the resource base to offer members high-quality programs and services and to offer staff professional level salaries. Yet, Chan observes:

“When I looked at what went on in Cornerstone, I saw a few other people and me using our gifts, while thousands just came and sat in the sanctuary for an hour and a half and then went home. The way we had structured the church was stunting people’s growth.”(15)

In other words, the perceived problem of discipling members that is talked about extensively today is a direct consequence of the church’s basic structure—one does buy a ticket in a movie theater with the expectation of learning and practicing the profession of an actor or director. While this may sound like a brilliant statement of the obvious, many small group planners have essentially been designed with the expectation of snagging a few movie-goers on the way out of the lobby.

Spaghetti is not Steak

Chan offers several really interesting analogies. For example, Chan writes:

“Imagine you walked into a restaurant and ordered a steak. Twenty minutes later, the waiter comes back and puts a plate of spaghetti in front of you, claiming it’s the best spaghetti you’ll ever try. Would you be happy about it?…this is what we have done with the church. God gave us His ‘order’ for the church…”(45)

Chan later notes that “Paul was more zealous for the salvation of others than any of us.”(49).

Traps of Ministry

Chan observes that “Some of the expectations we place on leaders make their success nearly impossible.”(107) He lists these traps:

  1. “Avoiding Criticism.
  2. Fund-Raising.
  3. Comparison.
  4. Meeting Expectations.
  5. Popularity.
  6. Safety.
  7. Greed.
  8. Demonic Attack.”(107-108)

While his list is not particularly newsworthy, it is interesting seeing all of these issues laid out.

Chan observes that we all have a picture in our minds, thanks to cinema, of what a demonic possessed person looks like but what is our image of someone who is spirit-filled? (121) Chan cites: 

“be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  (Eph 5:18-21)

This is an interesting point because we find evil fascinating—otherwise movie ticket sales of the demonic pictures would be flat—but ignore evidence of God’s goodness in our lives every day. Do we look for or even tolerate a pastor who is truly spirit-filled? Would we be willing to vote for our pastor to spend an hour daily in prayer on the church’s dime?

Five Pillars of the House Church Movement

Chan observes that Jesus asked an awful lot more of his followers than the typical church. Jesus said:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”(Luke 14:26-27)

How many new member’s classes read those verses? Apparently, in China and other parts of the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian, those verses get more attention. Concern the five pillars of the House Church Movement that Chan cites:

“The first one is based on a deep, deep commitment to prayer. The second is commitment to the Word of God…The third was being committed to the sharing of the Gospel…The fourth was a regular expectation of miracles…The fifth pillar was we embraced suffering for glory of Christ.”(135)

The embracing of suffering is perhaps the most startling from the perspective of the American church where the numerous New Testament references to suffering are routinely edited out. 

My personal favorite is Romans 8:36:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom 8:35-37)

Romans 8:36 falls in the middle of two other verses routinely cherished by millions, but how many want to be reminded that we are “as sheep to be slaughtered”? Persecution is not something that Americans identify with; we prefer to be referred to as conquerors.


Francis Chan’s Letters to the Churchis a wonderful reflection on the state of the American church. Chan’s language is forever fresh and his observations come across like that hilarious joke that, after laughing out loud, you realize comes very close to home. Who, for example, wants to be reminded that the American church shares a lot in common with the zoo animals in the movie Madagascar? (That is, powerful, but too tame to survive in the wild? 151) Chan is very readable and of obvious interest to church leaders of all stripes.



Chan’s Church: Small is Beautiful

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The Church as an Authority

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Earlier I wrote about the importance of authorities in our own decisions. Each Christian has Christ as a mentor, but we also have human mentors within our families, church, and community. Because I have talked already about the transition from a modern to a postmodern culture, let me turn to discuss the church context. Again, I will speak about authorities in personal terms because I am not a church historian able to address the wider experience within alternative Christian traditions.

Upbringing in the Church

The Hiemstra family has over the past hundred years been associated with the Reformed Church in America (RCA), a church strongly associated with the Dutch immigrant communities in New England and the Midwest. I was baptized in an RCA church and my uncle, John, is a retired RCA pastor who has been a lifelong mentor. When my family moved to Washington DC in 1960, no RCA churches could be found within driving distance and we attended a number of Presbyterian Churches in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA), where my dad and I both have been ordained as elders. My mother grew up in the Baptist tradition associated with Scotch-Irish communities, but in marriage she became a Presbyterian.

Denominational Identities

Both the RCA and the PCUSA arise out of the reformed tradition which has historically focused theologically on confessional faith. Both denominations affirm these confessions:

  • The Apostles’ Creed
  • The Nicene Creed
  • The Heidelberg Catechism

The RCA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Athanasian Creed
  • The Belgic Confession
  • The Canons of Dort
  • The Confession of Belhar⁠1

The PCUSA uniquely affirms these confessions:

  • The Scots Confession
  • The Second Helvetic Confession
  • The Westminster Confession of Faith
  • The Shorter Catechism
  • The Larger Catechism
  • The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • The Confession of 1967
  • A Brief Statement of Faith– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)⁠2

Theologically, the RCA is the more conservative denomination having little or no change to their confessional statements or polity in the last hundred years, adding only the Confession of Belhar, while the PCUSA has amended its polity (the Book of Order) almost routinely every two years and affirmed three confessions written in the twentieth century (the last three on the list).Coming into the twentieth century, the primary confession of churches now affiliated with the PCUSA was the Westminster Confession.

Confessional Wunderlust

It is widely recognized that the RCA takes its identity primarily in its reformed confessions while the PCUSA’s identity is vested in its polity. This observation is, however, a twentieth century development.

For about three hundred years,  the Westminster Confession united Presbyterians in the Americas.  It was written in 1640 and was adopted early on as the primarily confessional document among Presbyterians  and remains in use today. However, the attitude about the confession changed dramatically in the 20th century. Serving first as a bulwark against liberalism in the early part of the century, but the 1930s the General Assembly passed a resolution forbidding any part of the denomination from offering an authoritative interpretation of the Westminster Confession. Later, a Book of Confessions (cited above) aggregated a number of confessional statements leaving the Westminster Confession simply one of many by the 1970s (Longfield 2013, 15, 126, 142-143, 196).

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church.⁠3  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered. 

When the PCUSA removed its ordination requirements centered on the five fundamentals of the faith in 1925 and then moved away from the Westminster Confession in the next decade, it effectively lost the ability to practice church discipline on the basis of common doctrine and to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in the Scot  Confession. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily by a common polity.

Ecclesiastical Authority

The authority of the church is vested in scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit, given on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). The confessions of the church likewise derive their authority from these two sources. When scripture is clear on a subject, the church’s role is to teach scripture, When scripture is silent on a subject, the church’s role is to interpret scripture under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit. At no point should the church’s teaching violate the clear direction of scripture, which is why church discipline is critical to retaining the vitality of the church.

The focus on the authority of scripture has been a distinctive of Protestant churches since the Reformation period of the 1500s while the Catholic Church affirms the authority of tradition in addition to scripture (Sproul 1997, 42-43). The admission of authorities other than scripture, such as new cultural insights, tradition, and philosophy, into Protestant churches represents a return to controversies that led to the first Reformation schism.

In denominations unable or unwilling to maintain church discipline, individual churches are left to themselves in navigating a faithful witness. In churches unconcerned about faithful witness, the members themselves must navigate on their own, placing a burden on families to discern for themselves what to believe and how to act on their belief. Consequently, the absence of church discipline has facilitated the rise of individualism within the church.

While God can sovereignly use unfaithful denominations and unfaithful pastors to prosecute his will, we all strive to remain among the faithful at a time the church is less helpful than it could be in its mentoring role.


1 (as of 16 November 2018).

2 (as of 16 November 2018).

3 “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)


Longfield, Bradley J.  2013.  Presbyterians and American Culture: A History.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. 

Longfield, Bradley J.  1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Sproul, R.C. 1997. What is Reformed Theology? Understanding the Basics. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

The Church as an Authority

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Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.[1] 2014. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Orig pub 1989). Nashville: Abingdon Press. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Fundamental to the problem of the postmodern church is grasping for how much society has changed. In Christendom, a sense of right and wrong permeated the entire culture—even those that never entered a church shared Christian morality even if reluctantly. An important problem in postmodern culture is its fragmentation—kids frequently introduce themselves by who they listen to and prefer communication with friends, not in person, but by texting. One gets the impression that for a boomer a FB friend is an acquaintance, but for a millennial a FB friend is a intimate—in part because of differences in the personal details shared online.


 In their book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (hereafter H&W) described the church already in 1989 as:

“The church exists today as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief…Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in much more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.”(49)

My wife and I had our first child in 1989 right after I received my first job in finance and could afford for the first time the house that we lived in and we attended a church plant in our community that now is a well-established church. We were among the fortunate few because anyone without a post graduate degree still earns probably little more than they did back then.

Church in the Lurch

Churches not serving the fortunate few were already struggling back in the 1980s and have lost members, especially young people, ever since. H&W observe:

“An army succeeds, not through trench warfare but through movement, penetration, tactics.(54)

The old saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, yet most churches never learned to play offense because in Christendom evangelism consisted primarily in keeping those that showed up on Sunday morning. If no one shows up, they are lost as to what to do.

The Importance of Story

The church played defense pretty much throughout the modern era. In attempting to respond to the unscientific nature of faith, churches used abstract concepts, like “God is love”, to communicate the Gospel, but for the most part such abstractions merely served to vaccinate people against real Christianity. Conceptual—ersatz or cultural— Christianity is sterile and cannot reproduce itself.

H&W write:

“How does God deal with human fear, confusion, and paralysis? God tells a story: I am none other than the God who ‘brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ (Deut 5:6)”(54)

 At its heart, the Gospel is the story of Jesus, not the concept of Jesus! We cannot understand and appreciate the Gospel unless we follow Jesus and participate in his story. (55) For postmoderns, it’s all about narrative and the Good News is that the church has the best story around—if it is willing and able to tell it.


In part one of this review, I have outlined a few key points and summarized the book. In part two, I will endeavor to engage their arguments in more depth.

In Resident AliensStanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon outline an approach to a post-Constantine church from perspective of the church and Christian ethics. The text is engaging and is often cited as a follow up to John Howard Joder’s The Politics of Jesus(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), which they frequently cite.


[1] @Stanleymemelord

Hauerwas and Willimon: Christians as Colonists, Part 2

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Prayer for the Local Church

Ceramic churchBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Almighty and Loving Father,

We praise you for the pouring out of your Holy Spirit to establish the church on the day of Pentecost.

To you and you alone be the glory, now and always.

We confess that as your church, we are broken and sinful, yet in Christ we are also forgiven.

For your forgiveness, we are truly grateful. We are also thankful for the many blessings that you have poured out on us as a church. For in Christ, we are able to undertake ministry that would be impossible for us as individuals.

We ask now, Lord, for your strength to carry on with the mission that you have given us, even as many changes are taking place. As Jesus said: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21 ESV)

In the power of your Holy Spirit, protect us from being diverted to other missions and especially from the spirit of the day who harries us relentlessly.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Prayer for the Local Church

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Giving Thanks 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

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Kinnaman Examines the Journey from Lost to Found, Part 1

LostMe_review_06302015David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins. 2011. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith [1].  Grand Rapids: BakerBooks. (Goto part 2; goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I dropped out of church when I went to college.

I was neither angry at God nor questioning his existence—problems closer to home dominated my life:

  • I felt lost when our church youth group vanished overnight after the youth director was sacked;
  • I felt lost when I failed my college audition for music school;
  • I felt lost when the Vietnam draft loomed over me and I had trouble explaining to my parents why fighting in an unethical war was wrong; and
  • I felt lost in my singleness at a time when most of my peers were getting married.

In my junior year, my lostness gave way when I roomed with a persistent navigator [2] who helped me re-engage with the church. This is when I realized that my relationship with God was separate from my relationship with the church. This realization helped me reconnect with God and begin to share my other feelings of lostness with friends in Christ.

In his book, You Lost Me, David Kinnaman describes today’s drop out problem as a “faith development” or “disciple-making” problem (21). Kinnaman classifies drop outs into 3 broad categories:

  1. “Nomads [who] walk away from church involvement but still consider themselves Christians.”
  2.  “Prodigals [who] lose their faith, describing themselves as ‘no longer Christian’”.
  3. “Exiles [who] are still invested in their Christian faith but feel stuck (or lost) between culture and the church” (25).

This drop out problem is critical because the drop outs make most of their important decisions at a period in life (ages 20 to 30) when they have disengaged from their spiritual life in the church. Ironically, teenagers are some of the most religiously active Americans while 20-somethings are the least religiously active Americans (22).

Following George Barna, Kinnaman prefers the term, mosaic, and not the term, millennials, to describe this 20-something generation because of the eclectic (and often contradictory) nature of the relationships and the values that they pursue (29). In this context, the catchphrase, “every story matters”, is helpful because generalizations about mosaics are misleading (25).  Thus, Kinnaman is constantly highlighting the diversity among nomads, prodigals, and exiles even when he writes about these particular categories.  This diversity often takes the form of stories and counter-stories.

Kinnaman sees 3 important areas where the church needs to fill gaps in disciple-making among mosaics [3]:

  1. Relationships. Mosaics are both “extraordinarily relational and, at the same time, remarkably self-centered” (29).  It is hard to get to “we” when it’s all about me.
  2. Vocation. Mosaics receive “little guidance from their church communities for how to connect these vocation dreams deeply with their faith in Christ”. Special problems arise with creatives (artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc) and scientists (29-30, 80-83).
  3. Wisdom. Mosaics are inundated with information, but often lack the wisdom to filter through it (30-31).

Kinnaman sees the need to think of discipleship in terms of apprenticeship relationships where the uniqueness of the individual is both known and cherished (35).

David Kinnaman is the president and majority owner of the Barna Group [4], a private resource group in Ventura, California, which specializes in interviews and surveys on matters of faith.  He is well-known as the co-author of unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity.  You Lost Me is written in 12 chapters divided into 3 parts:

Part 1:  Drop Outs

  1. Faith, Interrupted,
  2. Access, Alienation, Authority,
  3. Nomada and Prodigals,
  4. Exiles,

Part 2: Disconnection

  1. Overprotective,
  2. Shallow,
  3. Anti-science,
  4. Repressive,
  5. Exclusive,
  6. Doubtless,

Part 3: Reconnection

  1. What’s Old is New
  2. Fifty Ideas to Find a Generation (7).

The focus in part 1 is on mosaics, in part 2 on the church, and in part 3 on how to respond to what has been learned.

David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me is a well-written marketing study complete with statistical results, analysis, and recommendations. Kinnaman’s research is thorough and he displays a deep understanding of the literature on dealing with generational shifts in the church.  My first response on finishing this book was to order his other book, UnChristian.  Pastors and lay leaders need to be aware of this research.

Here in part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of Kinnaman’s book.  In part 2, I will look in more depth at his discussion of mosaics and the 3 classes of drop outs.  In part 3, I will explore his discussion of the challenges facing the church.



[3]George Barna prefers the term, mosaic, to millennial because of the eclectic nature of relationships in this generation (29).



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