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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