Buildings can limit a church’s growth. If God wants to move powerfully and save thousands, they won’t fit. Buildings also limit a church’s ability to decline. If God wants to prune the church, we won’t be able to pay the bills. If our church model requires God to work within a narrow “sweet spot,” something’s wrong. I can’t tell you how much freedom I feel now that I’m ministering in a church with no salaries and no potential for any of us to be pastoring a large church. (We try to multiply our churches as soon as they hit twenty people.)

I remember when Cornerstone moved from a two-hundred-seat sanctuary to a four-hundred-seat sanctuary. It was an exciting time. We could all fit comfortably in two services. That lasted for maybe a few months. Then came the third service, then the fourth, fifth, sixth, and satellite services. In less than a year, we were looking for more land or an expansion of our campus.

After years of working with the city and raising funds to build a thousand-seat sanctuary, we moved in. It was an exciting time. We could all fit comfortably in two services. That lasted for a few months. Then came the third, fourth, fifth …

Sound familiar?

Each time I went through this, I thought to myself, There’s no way Jesus would do it this way! Would He really halt Kingdom growth until He found more land, appeased the city officials, raised money, and built a bigger place? It never made sense to me, but I couldn’t think of any other options at the time.

We eventually decided to buy a giant plot of land and worked on plans for the three-thousand-seat meeting area. Then another problem arose in my mind. What if we spend a fortune on the huge sanctuary and thousands of people don’t show up? How would we pay the bills? Would I feel pressured to keep the sanctuary filled in order to keep the budget afloat? Then my ego gets involved. I hate empty seats. Would this cause me to avoid controversial topics and become more political? Paul told Timothy, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3). What would I do if people began to be turned off by sound doctrine? We would have wasted millions of dollars to build a sanctuary that never filled up. We’d get behind on the payments without enough satisfied givers, and we’d lose it all!

The alternative is worse—I could preach more politically to keep the masses coming. Not to be dramatic, but I would honestly rather die. I have seriously prayed for God to take me off this earth before He allowed me to dishonor His name, and that would include teaching aimed to please the crowds rather than God Himself.

This was hard enough in Simi Valley; now take into consideration the big cities in our nation. Have you ever tried to purchase a large building in a big city? Price out a building that would seat a thousand people in New York City. Even if you could raise the money, the population of New York is 8,537,673. What’s your plan for the other 8,536,673? Let’s say the Lord wanted to save 10 percent of the city. Even if you had the billions of dollars to spend, is there room to build enough sanctuaries? Of course not!

Meanwhile, everyone has a home. If it’s possible for a church to fit in a home, then we have an infinite number of potential churches no matter where we go. Going small is our best shot at getting big.

If we don’t consider the possibility of multiplying smaller churches, we have given up on the big cities. We have to at least try. Our current plan shows that we don’t expect God to reach more than 1 percent of the population of the large cities. We must be open to new ways of doing things. Or we can just keep highlighting a couple of “large churches” on the covers of our Christian magazines and pretend we are making a dent.

We all know our world is changing. If we built our current church models on a society that has now changed significantly, why do we assume we must simply keep doing what we’ve always done? Blindly insisting on our current models might not be that different from trying to maintain a Blockbuster video store in the age of Netflix. I’m obviously not arguing that we change the gospel or water down the truth. I’m simply asking us to reconsider the vehicle we use to deliver it. I’m not even trying to argue that we “keep up with the times.” I’m actually calling all of us to go back to Scripture and recover what we’ve lost. If we find ourselves lost on a detour, why not go back to the right path?

Francis Chan, Letters to the Church (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2018).

I have just completed a nine-session Bible study based on Francis Chan’s new book, Letters to the Church. It is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription plan. The idea is to invite each participant to purchase their own book. Sessions include:

  • Chapter 1: The Departure
  • Chapter 2: Sacred
  • Chapter 3: The Order
  • Chapter 4: The Gang
  • Chapter 5: Servants
  • Chapter 6: Good Shepherds
  • Chapter 7: Crucified
  • Chapter 8: Unleashed
  • Chapter 9: Church Again