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."