Book Review

“Letters to the Church” by Francis Chan

Mika Edmondson
Francis Chan
Friday, March 1st 2019
Mar/Apr 2019

In his latest release, Letters to the Church, Francis Chan offers an impassioned plea for the church in America to rediscover the biblical priorities of the early church. “We’ve strayed so far from what God calls Church,” he laments. “We know what we’re experiencing is radically different from the Church in Scripture. . . . We have trained people sitting in the pews to become addicted to lesser things. It’s time for that to change.” Having walked away from a popular megachurch ministry and speaking platform in the States, Chan details his unlikely journey overseas to rediscover the authentic joy, expectation, and simplicity of the Christian faith. Over the nine letters that compose the book, Chan draws on hard-earned lessons, challenging the church in the United States to return to what he believes God intended it to be. As an inspiring call to action, Letters to the Church emphasizes vital gospel imperatives such as Scripture meditation, prayer, and redemptive suffering that encourage Christian maturity. However, I would suggest that Chan’s book also tends to idealize the early and persecuted church in ways that doesn’t consistently highlight the persevering grace of God at work among ordinary strugglers.

He deliberately packs his book full of Scripture, insisting that his readers slowly examine the words of the Bible as they consider the state of the modern church. Sometimes, he awkwardly encourages his readers to reread a passage they’ve just read, pointing out our common tendency to hastily skim through Scripture; other times, he invites us to have “an amazing time of fellowship with Jesus” as we interact with the Scriptures he lists. Chan does not trust US audiences to examine biblical citations on their own time; rather, he asks them to practice meditating on Scripture passages as they read through his book. Despite an increasingly fast-paced culture, the Lord’s people still cannot afford to scurry over the eternal words of our God. In a microwave era, marked by the rapid consumption of information, Chan’s book helpfully calls us to linger over Scripture at a slow-cooker pace.

It’s difficult to read Chan’s book without also being stirred to pray more. According to Chan, prayer measures the heart’s attitude toward dependence upon God, as well as the spiritual vibrancy of a church. He prioritizes prayer in a way seldom seen in the modern West. When he speaks of thirteen-hour impromptu prayer meetings and immediately replacing staff members who don’t pray at least an hour a day, he means to unsettle complacent Christians about taking prayer for granted. With practical examples, Chan rightly stresses prayer as a central and oft-neglected aspect of the Christian life.

He also claims that suffering is one of the most neglected themes among American Christians. “Suffering,” he explains, “is rarely talked about in the American church.” This, he suggests, has twisted our view of Christianity and effectively crippled us. While Chan is right to highlight suffering as an important biblical theme, he is wrong to suggest that it has been rarely talked about in the “American church.” The African-American church tradition represents a notable exception to the general inability of American Christianity to deal with suffering. Redemptive suffering has remained a consistent theme within the Black church tradition for nearly four hundred years. This is why the Black church gave the wider culture sacred music forms such as spirituals and gospel songs, which are distinct for their prevalent themes of hopeful suffering. Songs such as “There is a Balm in Gilead,” “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” raise the question of theodicy, always answering with unwavering hope in the Lord’s wisdom, power, and goodness. Redemptive suffering is also a prevalent theme in the Black prayer tradition. Famous Black leaders—such as David Walker, Alexander Crummel, Maria Stewart, W. E. B. DuBois, A. D. Williams, Paul Robeson, and (most famously) Martin Luther King Jr.—all used versions of redemptive suffering in their messages and activism. The Black church has had to make sense of the horrors of the Middle Passage and 250 years of chattel slavery; Jim Crow laws and segregation; church bombings and over five thousand lynchings; economic, health, and housing disparities; police brutality; and countless other institutional and personal atrocities. Yet it has consistently affirmed God’s ability to “make a way out of no way.” Inspired by the cross of Christ, Black Christians have held to the hope that God works through faith-filled engagement with suffering to bring redemptive transformation to his people. Although Chan does well to learn from the experiences of suffering saints across the world, he would also do well to learn from suffering saints across the street. I’d suggest that any treatment of Christian suffering in the United States should at least mention the 2015 massacre of nine saints at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. A better appreciation of the diversity of American minority Christian experiences could have strengthened Chan’s book considerably, since it would have highlighted what Christian suffering actually looks like in the American context in a way that more clearly resembles the persecuted church overseas.

Finally, Chan offers a somewhat idealized perspective on the early church as well as the persecuted church. While overseas, Chan says, he caught “a glimpse of what the church could be and the power it could have.” Throughout the book, he seems to assume that if Western Christians would just return to the simple purity of early church faith and practice, then we would see the greater power and glory that is so clearly evident on the pages of the New Testament. He offers something of a highlight reel of early church successes, but one wonders whether Chan romanticizes and oversimplifies the actual situation of the early church, making them out to be moral exemplars rather than persevering recipients of grace. Along with successes, the Bible also reveals the numerous struggles and failures of the early church; both the Old and New Testaments tell stories of believers who struggled with temptations, weaknesses, selfishness, materialism, fickleness, and various forms of sin every bit as modern Westerners do. I suspect a thorough assessment of the persecuted church in the East would reveal the same thing. As James 3:2 explains: “For we all stumble in many ways.”

The good news is that God perseveres to keep his covenant promises to save and transform even weak strugglers with a strong redemption. I believe that’s precisely the point. As we look at examples of the early church, I don’t believe the Lord is fundamentally calling us to be more like the super-saints who have it all together; rather, we are encouraged to keep fighting because we see him saving ordinary strugglers just like us. Although we should obey the gospel imperatives that Chan highlights, we must always keep our hope tied to gospel indicatives. Christ still claims the church in America—he died for her, intercedes for her, strengthens her, and will complete the work he has begun in her. As we criticize its current state, we must take care not to inadvertently malign the Lord’s care of his bride. Genuine Christians cannot stray from what God calls “church,” because “church” is not something we do; “church” is something we are, by the grace of God. The same power poured out on the day of Pentecost is still at work among ordinary Christians as the word is preached, as they trust in Christ, love one another, and live for him day after day.

Mika Edmondson (PhD, Calvin Seminary) is pastor of New City Fellowship OPC, a Presbyterian church in southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy (Lexington, 2016).

Friday, March 1st 2019

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