Francis Chan is making waves. Cornerstone Church, which he launched in 1994 in Simi Valley, California, has grown to reach thousands. Chan's popular podcast has carried his prophetic preaching to thousands more. And in 2008 his first book, Crazy Love, made a significant impact.
Recently he announced that he was leaving Cornerstone to take "a leap of faith" to a new kind of ministry. This interview was conducted before he announced his departure, but it points to the kind of spirit that many pastors long for in their churches, and also gives clues to what motivates Francis Chan.
He is calling Christians, leaders, and churches to complete surrender to Christ. The ramifications in Chan's church have been significant. Cornerstone is actively pursuing a new paradigm for ministry—a shift away from orchestrating large gatherings toward smaller geographic home groups with indigenous elders as leaders. This is part of what Cornerstone sees as the radical commitment Christ expects.
Chan is quick to note that the shifts at Cornerstone are not the result of his leadership alone. The changes have rippled out from the community of elders at the center of the church as they have together rediscovered the importance of prayer and the Holy Spirit.
"We're not making waves," says Chan, an avid surfer, "we're just catching them."
Leadership managing editor Skye Jethani spoke with Chan about how Cornerstone pursues spiritual formation, and what surrendering to the Holy Spirit means for the work of ministry.
Most people know you as a preacher. How do you hope your sermons form the people at your church?
I want them to hear what God is teaching me through his Word. I want them to understand what a passage means, but I also want to be open to what the Holy Spirit may want to do in that moment. So my sermons aren't as scripted as they used to be.
What led you to that shift?
I want to be as real as possible, and if I script too much, especially with four services, it can become mechanical—just going through motions rather than really depending on God in the moment. I also want to be open to the fact that there are different crowds in each service, and when I open my mouth the Spirit might give me different words to say to each different group. If I have a script, I tend to stick to it even if God may be leading me elsewhere in the moment.
Can you identify when you began wrestling more with the role of the Holy Spirit in your ministry?
It's been a gradual thing over the last five years. For several years in my ministry, I really operated as though the Holy Spirit didn't exist. The truth is I trusted in the flesh—the natural abilities that God gave me—the same way unbelievers trust their natural gifts. With my natural communication abilities, I could probably gather a crowd even without the Spirit. But I realized that, with the church, there's got to be something more behind it. There's got to be something supernatural, something only the Holy Spirit can do.
I study the Word because it comes from God and there is supernatural power in the gospel and in God's written Word. But I'm less convinced that sitting down for hours and crafting the perfect sermon is what it's about. I'd rather study the Scriptures and live such a life that when I pray or speak, the Spirit gives me what he wants me to say. As I've seen God be faithful with that, I just want more and more.
Francis Chan is former pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, and president of Eternity Bible College.