December 22nd, 2010
06:00 AM ET
By, Eric Marrapodi, CNN
He pastored a 4,000-member church in California. He was a sought-after speaker at major conferences, wrote two best-sellers and launched a DVD teaching series.
Then he abruptly resigned and left the country.
But in Francis Chan’s unexpected journey there apparently is no hidden scandal, no money trail, and no ‘other’ woman.
“I just want to disappear for a while,” he said in late September as he prepared to leave Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California for an undisclosed location in Asia.
Before selling his house and packing up his wife and three children, Chan was becoming “Christian famous” in Evangelical circles.
“Even in my own church I heard the words, ‘Francis Chan’ more than I heard the words, ‘Holy Spirit’,” he said.
That was a big part of the reason he walked away at the peak of his professional career.
“I think there has been too much emphasis on me. I want to be used by God, but I think we have this desire to make heroes out of people rather than following God and the Holy Spirit.”
He quotes the apostle Paul, who told his followers “I didn’t die for you.”
In his world of big conference crowds, multiple services each week, and instant access to social media, the notion of pastoral care had begun to change. His fame was straining his work as a pastor.
“When there is a large constituency, there’s a lot of voices,” he said. “It makes you arrogant or it makes you want to shoot yourself. When thousands of people tell you what they think, how can I be quick to listen, like the Bible says? I don’t want to be a jerk and tune everyone out. At the same time you, can’t love every single person and answer them.”
So after lots of prayer and soul searching, Chan decided it was best to leave the church, country, and Internet behind to focus on serving others one-on-one.
Chan’s rise in popularity began with the founding of Cornerstone Community Church in 1994. Like many independent churches in the United States, Cornerstone is not tied to a larger denomination. Chan reluctantly calls it an Evangelical church, but says “titles on churches don’t always match up. You walk in with assumptions.”
His first book, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, has hit the New York Times best seller list since he left for Asia. His second, The Forgotten God: Reversing our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, offers a glimpse into why he left.
“I was giving a lot of people just five minutes here and five minutes there,” he said in an interview, describing the book’s central theme. “I need to get better at just saying no to people and no to the crowds...Jesus worked a lot with individuals and his twelve [disciples].”
Two DVDs in his four-part teaching series, Basic, have been released, with more to come in March.
In Basic: Fear God, Chan says he doesn’t think we fear God enough. He appears starkly lit in front of a black backdrop to hammer home his metaphor, in which a woman tied to a bed watches as water slowly fills the bedroom. The water level rises until she is completely submersed and struggling to get free. Only then does panic set in.
If we were to meet God in person, Chan said, “I think the first thing He would say is you don’t take me seriously. You have no idea how to fear me.”
It is just one way Christians miss the point of the messages in the Bible, he said, a notion he aims to correct in the DVD series.
The New Testament, for instance, calls for a much greater commitment than many churches reveal when wooing new converts, he said. “We almost simplify it. We won’t tell people how painful it could be. It’s almost like joining the Marines and saying how fun it will be. Yet Jesus says, I’m worth it, I promise you I’m worth it.”
Chan was not drawing a salary at Cornerstone before he left, and never made more than $36,000 a year. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing things just because I was paid to,” he said. Mike Steinwender, the current administrative pastor from the church, told CNN in an email that “There were/are no budget or financial health issues that led to Mr. Chan leaving.”
Chan’s departure from his 9 to 5 gig to pursue his passion is something many cubicle dwellers can only dream about. But not every pastor agrees with his choice.
Joshua Harris is the Senior Pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He skyrocketed to fame in Christian circles with his book in the 1990’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which influenced many young Christians to do the same.
Harris and Chan have spoken at length about Chan’s decision, and Harris knows first hand about the rigors of the being “Christian famous.”
“Gifted people often become more the focus than the gospel,” Harris said. “But you can’t build a church around a personality. You get up and you preach a sermon and people walk away thinking what a great guy - and that’s a failure as a pastor. Our job is to proclaim Christ.
He said he understood Chan felt God was leading him in a new direction. But he hopes there won’t be an exodus of pastors from their pulpits. “There’s a tendency to idolize one person’s choices. We have to say, ‘you know what, there are a lot of ways to see what faithfulness [to God’s calling] looks like.’ Not every pastor of a big church should leave.”
Chan has been traveling across Asia, according to his website, where his wife Lisa has posted periodic updates.
She wrote that the family has been to India and Thailand, visiting small churches and missionaries. In an October update, she mentioned Chan was preaching again: “Francis spoke a great message of encouragement to this little body of Christ hidden away in a slum in India . 100 years from now we will be worshiping together. We will look each other in the eye and KNOW that it was worth it."
Chan plans to return to the states in January. He is already scheduled to appear at the Passion Conference in Atlanta, which has drawn a crowd of more than 20,000 in the past, and do a stint in the chapel at the NBA All-Star game in February.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.