“Christian famous” pastor quits his church, moves to Asia
December 22nd, 2010
06:00 AM ET

“Christian famous” pastor quits his church, moves to Asia

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.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Asia • Belief • Books • California • Christianity • India • Pastors • United States

soundoff (343 Responses)
  1. justlanita

    Reblogged this on justlanita and commented:
    Let's just say this made my eyes swell with tears. To God be the glory. May our motive ALWAYS be to lift Jesus us and draw all men to HIM and not us. Thank you Francis Chan.

    July 27, 2014 at 6:04 pm |
  2. eccelesiaofburningones

    Reblogged this on ecclesiaofburningones and commented:
    NO Celebrities ....

    July 27, 2014 at 4:47 pm |
  3. bolderdoers

    Praise God for this Bolder Doer of The Word – Francis Chan. Churches have put the focus on building buildings instead of building up people Heads up church leaders... It's not how big your church buildings are. It's not about how much money your church brings in. . It's about the quality of disciples your church is making(The Great Commission) Churches are becoming a form of Sunday entertainment instead of true discipleship training. Churches are filled with spiritual glutton – Christians who constantly feed on the Word without ever doing the Word(James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Guess what? Church leaders are OK with a church filled with spiritual gluttons because they are afraid to speak truth for the fear of loosing members and money. Thank you Francis for doing a bolder doer move and not living in fear of man
    Love you man, the pink preacher Bolder Doers Ministry

    July 26, 2014 at 8:25 pm |
    • bolderdoers

      Do you agree or disagree?

      July 26, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
  4. Dave

    Almost every Christian in the U.S. needs someone like Mr. Chan to lead them. I understand why he disappeared, still we need people as real life examples, whether they are perfect or not. I know he's not perfect, but when people see him living his life and putting every decision first before God, then others follow that example. In some many ways his cross is his popularity within churchianity. He needs to overcome it like we all need to overcome our personal distractions and always put God first.

    January 12, 2014 at 5:14 pm |
  5. anonymous

    He did the right thing. He did exactly what Jesus would do. He did exactly what Jesus did. Jesus wasn't the center of attention he made it about God the father. When the crowds grew to thousands, Jesus would ALWAYS withdraw to be alone with God.

    December 12, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  6. cyberpipe8

    Amen! I personally believe, this was the inspiration of the Holy spirit and all pastors of mega churches should be thankful for this revelation and should plan for a time in their ministry to step back. where they go is up to them. but those who are honest, will admit that you can't help but to proud. with such powers, how can you truly humble yourself and have time to spoil God with just been in His presence, learning from the Holy spirit?

    Pastors who try to suggest that Chan's heart of rejecting fame and choosing to give all he has to the poor is because of his childhood, should seriously repent and know both God and men can see they are not humble enough to let go of the power and influence. Try it for some time and in that time, seek your God and see the way He will renew your ministry and above all, restore your relationship with Him.


    November 21, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.