One night during Spring 2006, Francis Chan turned to his wife, Lisa, and said, "If Jesus had a church in Simi Valley, I betcha mine would be bigger. I betcha if the Apostle Paul had a church, mine would be bigger. In fact, I betcha people would be leaving their churches to come to mine."
Chan, founding pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, knew he could draw a crowd—over 3,000 a week—with his entertaining preaching style. He could inspire them, make them laugh, and they'd return the following Sunday. But, Chan realized, he didn't call his people to the same commitment Jesus did.
Chan feared that if he demanded what Jesus demanded, the church would think he'd gone overboard. They'd leave, or worse, reject him. "I loved their friendship. I loved their following me. I loved their love of me and was afraid to say exactly what the Word of God said."
But Chan knew that serving them meant caring more about their love for their Lord than their love for their pastor.
In early 1994, when the church where Chan had worked faced a split, he was asked to lead a small Bible study for some of the members. Within months, the study had grown into a new church—Cornerstone. Still a newlywed, Chan was now starting a new congregation. "It was kuh-ray-zee," Chan says.
Dark eyes full of life and a body full of energy, Chan prefers wet suits to business suits and has been known to have church meetings while surfing the California coast. His personal convictions for Cornerstone included preaching the whole counsel of God's Word. He wanted members to be intentional about their faith, their worship, and their service.
"This is what I'm supposed to do—to preach well and to lead well," says Chan.
The ministry and the membership grew. Offerings were used to increase the staff and strengthen the programs. In its twelfth year, Cornerstone was the epitome of success—a vibrant, growing mega-church—and Chan was celebrated as a leader to watch.
But to Chan, it still didn't feel right. He knew how easy it was to do the things that good pastors do without being a sold-out follower of Jesus. And so on that spring night in 2006, Chan faced a crisis. Not a leadership crisis of whether he was the right pastor for the church, but a personal crisis of whether he was the follower Jesus demanded.
When Cornerstone started, growth had been the goal—get bigger and better. But in 1999, a missionary from Papua New Guinea pointed out that Cornerstone's whole focus seemed to be on themselves.
Chan now admits, "I was very self-centered, and therefore, I led a church into being self-centered."
In 2002, a trip to Uganda changed Chan forever. There he saw real poverty, and it became personal. Little girls the age of his daughters rooted through dumpsters for food. Chan began to ask himself, What does it look like to love my neighbor as myself?
His answer was to move his family of four out of their 2,000-square-foot house into one half that size so they could give more to missions. "I couldn't reconcile how I could live in such a nice house while others were starving," Chan says.
But while he was beginning to respond to God's difficult calls in his personal life, Chan wasn't sure he could do whatever God demanded of him as the leader of his church. So in May 2006, he announced his plans to resign as Cornerstone's pastor. He wasn't sure he'd ever return.
That summer, Chan kept up his speaking schedule at Passion conferences but spent more time studying the Word. He began to see God as the perfect father. Chan asked himself what he'd do if one of his daughters said, "Dad, I trust you with my entire life. Tell me what to do, where to go, and who I should marry."
Given that opportunity, Chan realized he'd work overtime to make sure his daughter had the best of everything. She might complain about hard work, but that would build character. There would be times she wouldn't like what he'd have her do, but ultimately it would all be for her good. Chan began to appreciate the fact that if he, an imperfect earthly father, could do this for his daughter, how much more would our heavenly Father do if we trusted him?
Chan decided he could trust God—follow him anywhere, allow him complete control. But he worried that his zealous new commitment might destroy the church he founded. In September Chan had a conversation with his wife, and then with his executive pastor. He told them he planned to leave Cornerstone and start a new church.
Their identical responses surprised him. "These people have followed you this far, it's not fair to leave them now. Give them a chance."
So he did. In October, Chan returned to the pulpit. In his sermon, called, "Lukewarm and Loving It" (available on YouTube), he explains riches and security make it harder to enter heaven. Consequently, many Christians settle for a lukewarm faith.
"I don't want to stand before God and watch him spit church members out of his mouth," Chan says. Instead he wants to stand in front of the throne with sold-out Jesus followers, even if there are only a few.
The sermon marked the beginning of a new Chan and a new Cornerstone.
Convicted by the verse to "love your neighbor as yourself," Chan showed up at the next board meeting with an agenda. In the early years, Cornerstone gave away 4 percent of its budget. Chan asked them to give away 50 percent. Cuts in staff salaries and serious sacrifices in programs would have to be made, but it only took a half hour for the board to agree.
Rick Utley, an elder, says that decision "has produced a heart in Cornerstone unlike any church I have ever been involved with. The blessings that have come with it are hard to quantify." Utley says it would now be hard for him to worship in a church that didn't make the adjustments and sacrifices Cornerstone made to give at this level.
In 2008 the church will give away 55 percent of its budget to the poor and hungry through various ministries, including a $1 million annual commitment to Children's Hunger Fund and a sizeable contribution to World Impact, which plants churches in urban America.
The growth continued. With it came the need for more space. The elders researched a solution and laid the plans on the table for Chan to see. "This is repulsive!" said Chan, who later regretted his outburst. "When I saw all the buildings, it was just so hard to stomach. The price tag on it was 50 to 60 million dollars. It looked like a mall."
Chan didn't want any part of it. "I kept thinking about all those people I'd seen in third world countries and it made me sick."
Chan thought he knew what Jesus would do. He'd say, "Meet me at the park." That was what Chan wanted. Just a patch of grass where the church could gather.
The solution was an outdoor amphi-theater, a simple structure enjoyed by the community during the week and used as a gathering place for worship on Sunday. The plan would save tens of millions of dollars. Even the elders got behind the idea.
If it rained, they'd get wet knowing their money was feeding the hungry.
Chan's new book, appropriately titled
But is he crazy? Chan readily admits some of his ideas are, well, kuh-ray-zee.
There is, of course, the radical practice of giving away more than half of the church budget. But the "craziness" shows up in more typical practices too, such as baptisms. There are no baptismal robes at Cornerstone. When someone wants to be baptized, they just come on down for the dunking—no matter what they're wearing. Chan says that people remember their baptism when they go home in dripping-wet clothes.
"The greatest things that have happened to this church haven't been planned and haven't been orchestrated by me," Chan admits. "I have no clue where we'll be a month or two from now. I'm just trying to be led by the Spirit; I'm trying to be led by the Word of God."
Chan wants believers to eliminate every excuse for not living a radical love-motivated life in response to God's passionate love for us. He says he isn't crazy for trying to live this way. In fact, he believes living this way is the only thing that makes sense.