A Brief History of We Are Church
Excerpt from Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan
Why I Left My Megachurch
In 1994, when I was 26 years old, I decided to plant a church. It wasn’t something I planned on doing. After all, I had been married for less than a month. Lisa and I were having a rough time at our church. The elders and the lead pastor had been fighting, which eventually led to the pastor’s removal. The members were also fighting as they were divided on who was more wrong: the elders or the pastor. Everyone was discouraged by all of the division. Sundays were far from uplifting, and I couldn’t see how any of this could be pleasing to God. It was at that time that I told my new bride that I had a crazy idea: What if we started a church out of our house? Even if there were only a dozen people in our living room, wouldn’t it be better than what we had been experiencing? Lisa agreed, and so began Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California.
I was determined to create something different than I had experienced before. This was my chance to build exactly the kind of church I wanted to be part of. I basically had three goals in mind. First of all, I wanted all of us to sing directly to God. And I mean really sing. I’m not talking about going through the motions of singing out of routine or guilt. Have you ever been part of a group of people that is actually singing directly to God? Singing with reverence and emotion? Singing as though God is really listening to their voices? That is a powerful experience, and I wanted it to be central to our new church.
Second, I wanted all of us to really hear the Word of God. We weren’t going to be those people who gather together to listen to some self-help nonsense nor were we going to ignore half of the Bible. I wanted us to dig deeply into Scripture—even the passages that contradicted our logic and desires. I wanted the presentation of God’s truth to be powerful, and I wanted us to take it seriously. So I began to preach week after week, verse by verse through the Bible. We all set out to truly hear everything the Word of God was saying to us.
And finally, I wanted all of us to live holy lives. I had seen too many Christians packed into too many churches who seemed to have no interest in actually doing what the Bible said. I couldn’t get past the tragic irony of this: These people would come back week after week to hear from a Book that demands that they “be doers of the word, not hearers only” (James 1:22), and yet they never seemed to do anything. Not that I was perfect or expected anyone else to be, but I wanted our church to be a group of people who pushed each other towards action. It didn’t make sense to teach the Scriptures without expecting change. So from the very beginning we challenged each other to action.
And that was basically it. If we could move toward these three goals, I would be happy.
I wish you could have seen how God worked in those early days! Things took off! Nothing was perfect, but there was so much excitement. Visitors found our services compelling, so we kept growing. We rented the local middle school cafeteria. Eventually, we moved into a converted former liquor store right next to Chuck E. Cheese’s. After outgrowing that, we finally bought our own building. Before long, the building had to undergo a major expansion. God was stirring hearts, the number of people who were gathering to sing and hear the Word of God kept growing, and we had to keep adding services. We were up to two Saturday night services and three Sunday morning services when we realized we needed to plant campuses in neighboring towns. It was unreal. Our podcast was gaining subscribers every day from all over the world; we were pouring our hearts out to God with our singing, and there was great conviction.
There was so much life at our services. People would cheer as I would talk about the ways their money helped needy people in third world countries. Many couples began adopting children out of the foster care system. Our attendance and offering climbed consistently for years. Baptisms happened every weekend. Lives were being changed. There was no church I would rather have been a part of. But over the years, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still missing. It wasn’t a problem with the church members or with the staff that God brought to help me lead. We were successful in staying on target with the goals that had set the DNA for the church. But something was off.
There came a point when some of the elders of the church began to question if our idea of success was somehow inadequate. Was this really what the Church is meant to be? Is this all God had in mind when he created His Church in the first place? We began to wonder if our definition of a church actually fit God’s definition. The elders of Cornerstone sought the scriptures with me and challenged my thinking as to what Jesus wanted of the Church. These men of God encouraged and spurred me on through this season, and it was a joy to serve alongside them.
One of the main things that we questioned was the level of love we had for each other. Cornerstone was by most standards a pretty loving church. But next to the example of the early church in the New Testament, it just fell flat. Jesus said that the world should know us by our love. As elders we came to the painful conclusion that when unbelievers came to our services, they weren’t observing anything supernatural about the way we loved each other.
Another issue that we saw was how everything had grown to be very dependent upon one person. Even as we talked about building a new facility, and the expenses involved with that, the elders questioned what would happen if I was no longer the pastor. Would Cornerstone become like so many other churches, stuck with a giant empty building? Again, this is a big issue! Not just because of the waste of money, but because no church should be that dependent on one person. We wanted people to come to Cornerstone to experience Almighty God and the moving of the Holy Spirit, not to hear Francis Chan.
Because my leadership was so prominent in the church, I also began to see that it was holding back others who should have been leading. As I started encouraging some of my staff members and elders to leave, and begin releasing them into new ministries, I saw how much they grew from being given the opportunity to pastor.
The Bible tells us that every member of the body has a gift that is necessary to the functioning of the church. When I looked at what went on in Cornerstone, I saw me and a few other people using our gifts, while thousands just came and sat in the sanctuary for an hour and a half and then went home. The way we had structured the church was stunting people’s growth, and the whole body was the weaker for it.
It was humbling to discuss biblical commands that we had neglected. We decided that we wanted to bring change into the church. At the time, I didn't realize how difficult it was going to be. I became frustrated with the way things were, but I didn't have clarity on what we needed to become. I was certain that things needed to change, but I didn't know how to make it happen. Some of my messages probably sounded like the rants of an angry old man rather than a wise and loving shepherd guiding his sheep to greener pastures.
We tried a lot of different things. We tried having me preach less, to release some of the associate pastors into holding greater responsibility, but found that it became hard for them to lead while still in my shadow, so to speak. We tried getting people to plant smaller churches out of their homes, but people had grown accustomed to benefits of childcare and preaching at the big service. Eventually they would give up. There was even a time when I stepped away from the main gathering in Simi Valley and helped launch several home gatherings in LA County. It started to gain traction, but then I was needed back in Simi. It was a difficult time. I give the church credit for enduring all of the trial and error going on. Eventually, people started to get tired and frustrated, and a small exodus began.
Changing the Rules
One young person in the church articulated it so well. He said it felt like the rules were suddenly changed on him. He explained that for years he was taught that salvation was a free gift and that the gospel meant that he could have a personal relationship with Jesus. It would be like someone gifting him a pair of ice skates. In excitement, he went to the skating rink and learned to do all sorts of tricks. He enjoyed this and did this for years. Now suddenly he is being told that the skates were actually given to him because he was supposed to be a part of our hockey team working together to pursue a championship. He wasn't supposed to just twirl around by himself. That's a huge difference! While he did not disagree biblically, it would take time to realign his thinking and lifestyle.
As I look back now, I realize that I didn't lead very well. I was anxious for change but I didn't have a good plan, and I wasn't patiently helping the people get their minds around such a major paradigm shift. I ended up frustrating some of the people I loved. When I left Cornerstone, it was with the genuine belief that my time was done and the church could move forward better without me.
There were lots of other factors as well. When people ask why I left, it’s really hard to point to just one thing. I was losing peace and humility as my popularity grew as a speaker and writer.
Social media was just invented, so now I had total strangers praising me or cursing me. I didn’t know how to handle so much criticism and flattery. I wanted to run from it all. I also struggled with the sheer amount of Bible teaching churches in our city when I knew there were many places on earth without a strong Christian witness. It didn’t seem like it would require much faith to just keep doing what I was doing, and I wanted to live by faith. I was also very unclear as to how to lead Cornerstone into the future. Needless to say, it was a very confusing time.
Leaving Cornerstone was definitely not an easy decision. During the season when I was still wrestling with whether that would be the best thing to do, I went to preach at an event. Lisa came with me, and on the way there we had a conversation that shocked me. My debate about staying in Simi Valley up to this point had been completely internal. We had never talked about leaving before. Cornerstone was our baby, and Simi Valley our home. But when I finally decided to ask her what she saw us doing for the rest of our lives, she surprised me by saying she felt like we had done all we could do in Simi Valley, and that it was time to move on. She even brought up going to another country, which was exactly what I had been considering.
Fifteen minutes later, I got a phone call from my friend Jeff, who was a member of Cornerstone. He told me that he felt like God wanted him to tell me something: “Just go. Don’t worry about the church. There are others here who will step up and take care of the church.” That was so crazy to me! There was no way he could have known the conversation Lisa and I just had. No one knew what was going on in my mind.
After that, things kept falling into place, and I felt greater and greater peace about leaving. It got to the point where Lisa and I felt like we would be disobedient if we didn’t leave. We ended up selling our house in Simi Valley, and taking our family of 6 at the time overseas to India, Thailand, and China. It was an amazing adventure that knit our family so close together and helped us refocus on the mission. I saw such fearless dedication and boldness from the pastors in India, who had renounced everything for the Lord. We witnessed the simplicity of the lifestyles in rural Thailand, and the joy of the men and women who faithfully served widows and orphans day in and day out. In China I saw the gospel spreading like wildfire as people endured through and even rejoiced in the persecution.
Throughout this whole time, Lisa and I were praying with the family about where God would have us live. We almost ended up staying in Hong Kong. We were looking at housing options as well as schools for the kids. Then one day, I really felt like the Lord was speaking to me. Please understand that I do not say that lightly. My background is one that is extremely conservative. I only trust what I see written in the Bible. While my theology left some room for hearing directly from God, I’m not sure I had ever heard it before that day. Again, I’m not sure I heard from the Lord, but I had more peace in obeying what I thought I heard than in ignoring it. I really believe He was telling me to go back to the States and plant churches. While overseas, I had gotten to see a glimpse of what the church could be and the power it could have, and I felt like God wanted me to bring that vision back. I was pretty scared of what I thought God was communicating to me. It felt like He was asking me to do something that I did not have the intelligence or leadership skills to accomplish.
It was a sad day when I told Lisa and the kids that I felt God wanted me back in the States. We were so happy overseas. We were closer as a family, more dependent on God, and more fixated on eternal matters. While there were feelings of fear when we left the US, now there was greater fear in returning. We didn’t want to lose our focus.
The Journey Home
I’ll spare you some details, but we eventually ended up in San Francisco mainly because my brother had a one bedroom apartment we could borrow. I didn’t have much of a plan. I just wanted to live as biblically as I knew how. In my prayers, I told the Lord that I wanted to live like Christ, and it seemed like Jesus knew exactly who to call as His disciples. I asked for that same grace, that I would be able to just walk around the city sharing the gospel, eventually meeting the people He would call me to disciple.
I made some friends over the first year, and we started a ministry where we ministered to the poor in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. We fed the homeless and went door to door to pray for people in low income housing. It was scary at times, but I loved the fact that I was living by faith in America. I was put in many uncomfortable situations, but it felt right. We saw God answer prayers in so many powerful ways, even though it didn’t result in many true conversions.
I remember asking my kids what they felt after one of our first outreaches. Rachel, my oldest daughter, blurted out “it felt like we jumped out of the Bible.” I knew exactly what she meant. We were experiencing something in America that was congruent with what we read about in the New Testament! We felt alive, on an adventure that required faith, and it was right here in our backyard.
While the daily outreaches were going well, and we enjoyed living by faith, we hadn’t yet planted a church. I saw weaknesses in our ministry because it wasn’t grounded in a strong, elder led church. Knowing this was my calling, we gathered some of our new friends into our home and started a church. Twenty years after launching Cornerstone out of a living room, here we were again. My wonderful wife and a group of friends, sitting in a living room, asking God to build His Church through us.
It has been 5 years now since we started We Are Church, and things are so different this time around. Lisa and I have grown in our understanding of Scripture and God’s design for the Church. God has graciously shown me the good fruit from my Cornerstone days as well as some of the fundamental mistakes I made early on. Hopefully I can help others avoid some traps I fell into.