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“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. Sam

    Francis Chan might have read about Very Rev. P. T. Chandapilla of India who recently passed away.

    December 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  2. BHSaviour

    Jesus... He loves you no matter... Talk to him.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  3. Jack

    This story was about a MAN, not religion in general, and his journey to become a better pastor. All this back and forth on atheist and religions stop it, this is a good man trying to help others through giving of himself. Had it all, gave it away to get back to his mission, I applaud him and wish there were more like him in the world. I don't have that in me but I have a spirit towards mankind that believes in the good in all.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:52 am |
  4. jaysus

    wait, he wants to downplay himself and stay out of the spotlight so he publishes his story on a widely read website hosted by a major news network? uhhhh. publicity stunt much? then again maybe i'm just being cynical.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:48 am |
    • christrevolution

      I'm pretty sure he didn't go to CNN and asked, "Can you guys put a news about me?" But the other way around. And if God opens a door like that to spread the gospel why should he deny?

      December 22, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  5. Kathy R

    We must remeber that the focus is not on Fracis Chan but the Glorious works our GOD AND FATHER OF HEAVEN AND EARTH ABOVE! It is GOD that is equiping Francis Chan to do these things not him. Francis CHan is simply OBEYING GODS COMMANDS and, we can learn from his examples, but the true teaching comes from GODS WORD, the BIBLE. Which is where we need to look first for truth not to man. Praise GOD HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is HE!

    December 22, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  6. Kerry

    oh good, i was afraid for a minute that the comment section wouldn't be full of people trying to talk others into or out of Christianity, instead of responding to the actual point of the post....come on people, stop being so predictable! 🙂

    December 22, 2010 at 11:44 am |
    • Eel

      Alakazaam-information found, prbelom solved, thanks!

      October 8, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • uckyuq

      YhUFxi fvehcirzylug

      October 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • cajkpmj

      RRInQ6 jbwtcyddkzdc

      October 11, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  7. jos

    Where did Chan's junior, Joshua Harris, derive the authority to tell Chan and other pastors what to do? Many American pastors are overly controlling, hindering the work of ministry, wanting to keep their big, rich churches, and their big, expensive lifestyles. The Great Commission is for us all. I thank God every day for Francis Chan. He is shaking my fifty-something husband into actually doing something risky to help others.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  8. Orwellio Spears

    I like this guy. Having worked as a musician in innumerable churches of innumerable denominations, it's wonderful to see someone not fall prey to ego gratification.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:41 am |
  9. bojangles

    @Rene: Your ignorance even surprises an atheist like me

    December 22, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  10. Name*Richard

    Sweet Jesus! I like the way you move mens hearts like you channel water:-)

    December 22, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  11. jaysus

    wait, he wants to downplay himself so he publishes his story on a major news network's website? uihhhh. and he'll only have been gone for 4-5 months. publicity stunt anyone? then again maybe i'm just being cynical.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • Steve the real one

      Feel free to delete the words "maybe".

      December 22, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  12. TryFocusing

    Don't worship Francis. He's just doing his best to follow orders from his Boss.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  13. Jesus said "Go"

    here is how it works:

    A: A Man named Jesus lived on this earth 2000 years ago.

    B: He was born by a virgin

    C: He told everyone he was the Son of God

    D: He was killed by those that took offense (variety of reasons actually)

    E: He was raised up from the grave.

    F: He ascended to Heaven

    G: Accept Jesus as the Son Of God, accept His forgivness of your sin.

    This is the message:

    I cannot MAKE you understand it........that is not my job or place and in fact who I am is of no concequence.

    The Holy Spirit will answer your questions from here.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:27 am |
    • Risskia

      It's not a matter of not understanding. It's a matter of accepting or rejecting premises.

      If we reject your little List o' Steps, it may have to do more with understanding, than not.

      December 22, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  14. Tommy T.

    Everyone seems to be "skirting" around this, so I'm going to try and spell it out in "simple" terms so ALL may understand.

    CHRISTIANITY IS NOT A "RELIGION"!! Get the proper understanding here. "Religion" is all about man reaching out to God and trying to understand an INFINITE BEING from a FINITE standpoint! Example->If I have an infinite number of apples and I take awy ONE, how many apples do I have?-–>STILL INFINITE!!

    CHRISTIANITY is about RELATIONSHIP!! CHRISTIANITY is about GOD REACHING OUT TO MAN in the form of Jesus Christ and establishing a "one on one" LOVE relationship with the creator of the universe!

    That Jesus lived is a matter of historical FACT! The question remains..."What will you do with HIS message?"

    December 22, 2010 at 11:24 am |
    • Steve the real one

      Amen Brother! Well put! Christianity is a relationship!

      December 22, 2010 at 11:48 am |
    • Kevin

      Quite correct. In its basic sense, one meanings of "Christian" is to live a Christ-like life. Considering the character of Christ, this is actually something everyone should strive for, whether they are religious, non-religious spiritual, or otherwise.

      December 22, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
  15. Sarah

    Rick Warren could learn a lot from this guy.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  16. Focus Please

    It does not matter who he is or if he is the real thing or not.... That's his whole point.... just keep going, once we get past these trees we will see the forest....

    December 22, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  17. kaida21

    much respect for this guy Christians need more REAL pastors like this instead of the money grubbing con men of some of these churches.

    December 22, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  18. emanuel

    Wow??!! Has our concept of Christian humility and authenticity become this shallow? While Francis Chan's recognition of the dangers of Christian fame is commendable, I think it is a shallow read to say that this story is a great feel good story that is indicative of a deep and profound spirituality. It is possible that Francis Chan was nearing burn out and breakdown and needs continued prayer for recovery. It is possible that the congregation – an independent, evangelical congregation – probably with no structure of connection, is now in leadership turmoil because of the abrupt resignation of its pastor. There are a lot of comments on here that suggest that pastors should only receive very low wages (with a family) as they serve Christ, help create ministries for the community, oversee staff, all the programmatics, strategic planning, engage in pastoral care duties, and yes, of course study to hear and teach timely messages from the scriptures. Given the excesses we've witnessed (and they have been ridiculous), I think we now too easily, in a knee-jerk fashion, equate spiritual depth and humility, to low/no wages and romanticize concepts of vows of poverty. 36k for a congregation of his size, with a family, in the area of the country they lived, is noble and almost sounds impossible and irresponsible (to his family), unless there was supplemental income. What about solid compensation for work rendered, given the size of the congregation and needs of the family?

    December 22, 2010 at 10:55 am |
    • christrevolution

      I would encourage you to check out his sermons, and go to wikipedia too. God bless you.

      December 22, 2010 at 11:01 am |
    • Kerry

      i, too, would recommend checking out their website and listen to the other pastors they have there. i truly doubt there's much turmoil – todd nighswonger is an equally effective pastor there, who obviously loves the Lord, and the Church, and the Word! if they were based on the Word of God, as they have claimed, they will be just fine!!

      December 22, 2010 at 11:51 am |
    • John McCracken

      Very well said, Emmanuel!!! You hit the nail on the head.

      January 7, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • jeff

      Crazy Love and Forgotten God are both successful books, and Chan is also involved in some large conferences and I would assume receives compensation from both sources.

      January 7, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  19. Brian

    I am generally skeptical of religion in general and of evangelical religion especially, but I have to give this pastor points for integrity. I wish him well. It is a real pity that most of these guys just use religion to gain fame, money and in the case of "Bishop" Eddie Long, playmates.

    December 22, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  20. Elle

    Rene, you may be "happy," but you certainly don't come across that way.

    December 22, 2010 at 10:54 am |
    • Risskia

      @Elle – even happy people get annoyed. She's annoyed.

      December 22, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.