The other day I watched a video clip from a message he gave at the 2012 Verve Conference in which he asserted that genuine Christian fellowship is missional fellowship.
I think Francis Chan is partly right there, but the way he said it was striking and revelatory of the way many evangelicals today read and interpret Scripture.
I have included a transcript of what Chan said below. If you want to watch and hear him say it, click HERE.
If I just read the Scriptures, I wouldn’t even think so much about the gathering. You know–Like, my first thought wouldn’t be, “Let’s have a gathering.” Out of the Scriptures, I would think, “I’m on a mission. Like, I love this God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and now I’ve got to go out and make disciples.” That’s what I would think. I need to go out there and just reach as many people as I can! I’m supposed to teach them to obey everything that’s God commanded–that’s what I would get out of Scripture. And then what would happen as I did that–what I believe would naturally happen–is suddenly I would find those other people who are on that same mission because we’d be the weirdest people on earth. Right?
We would stick out, we’d be so different, and that pressure to always stay on that mission, everyone else would be beating me down, so I would actually need these brothers and sisters in my life and tell them hey don’t let me slow down, and I won’t let you slow down, we’ve got to stay on this mission together. See this is why I wasn’t into fellowship before–because I didn’t need any more friends. Okay, it wasn’t like “Oh yeah, let’s get another gathering together so I can have someone to talk to.” Like, I didn’t need accountability groups so I wouldn’t sleep around or whatever it was–I could do that, I can do that on my own. Like–not sleep around, you know what I mean? You know I don’t need that to do American church, I don’t need fellowship. But to stay on mission everyday? I need people because I’m going to get distracted–there are so many things I would rather do than make disciples. And so I need people in my life to tell me this. That’s what I would get out of Scripture, is I got to go out and start making disciples. And as I did that I really believe that I would start gathering with other people doing the same thing.
The Greek word “koinonia” (fellowship) is used as a commercial term in ancient literature to describe a joint venture or mutual project in which people become “partners” in the business at hand.
This is why Paul tells the Philippians he is thankful for their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (NIV). The church had “participated” (NASB translation) in Paul’s work through financial support and sending a church member to be with the apostle and help him in prison (Epaphroditus, see Phil. 2:25-30).
Part of fellowship involves working together, partnering together in the mission of the Gospel. And too many churches neglect this in favor of what I’ve called a “temple mentality.”
The problem with much contemporary American evangelicalism is that it has created an alternate “kingdom,” one which is OF the world but not IN the world (the opposite of what Jesus intended). The freedom and prosperity we enjoy in this country has allowed us to withdraw from meaningful interaction with our neighbors in the context of real life situations so that we might spend time in “Christian” pursuits.
Churches are organized to satisfy this centripetal impulse. Life for many American Christians revolves around the “temple” and its program of activities for all ages and interests. It seems that the purpose of the church is to provide what Luther called a “roses and lilies” experience for people that protects them from the harsh realities of the world and the challenges of learning to relate authentically with those who don’t share our faith.
Francis Chan rightly objects to temple-oriented “churchianity” and the kind of “fellowship” that primarily serves the personal comforts and needs of the church members. Too many churches, of course, are inwardly focused. Our fellowship is greatly enhanced when we break up the “holy huddle” and serve together for the sake of others.
But to say — “If I just read the Scriptures, I wouldn’t even think so much about the gathering. You know–Like, my first thought wouldn’t be, ‘Let’s have a gathering.’ Out of the Scriptures, I would think, ‘I’m on a mission…'” — that is the kind of reading and application that gets evangelicals in trouble regularly.
This view ignores the Story of the Bible and its consistent testimony to the ecclesial nature of salvation. The Story of the Bible is not only not about “me and Jesus” it is also not about “me on a mission.” It is about God forming a people, a family, a holy nation, a kingdom, a community for the new creation. It is a missional community, yes, but that’s not all it is.
It seems that the same “soterian” gospel that turns the Story into a “plan of salvation” also turns “fellowship” into a joint partnership focused on getting out that message.
It’s as if the Great Commission were the only tool in our toolbox.
The Scriptures are so much richer and more complex. The life of the Christian is a great adventure in learning to be truly human in all of its aspects, including the great adventure of living in community with others.
For example, note Luke’s description of the first Christians following the Day of Pentecost:
That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.
Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
How can someone read this fundamental text on the nature and practices of the church and say, “If I just read the Scriptures, I wouldn’t even think so much about the gathering”? The first Christians were devoted to it! Every day! And if this passage is any indication, their “mission” grew out of their “fellowship,” not vice versa.
Every epistle in the New Testament verifies this. Where is this constant drumbeat of mission, evangelism, “going out and reaching as many people as I can” and then joining up with others doing the same thing as my “fellowship”?
Chan has a point, but in the end, I think he must be reading a different Bible than I am.