From the pulpit of a thriving megachurch of more than 5,000 members and growing, to a home in the poorest region of Hong Kong. From authoring a New York Times bestseller, to being surrounded by people struggling to make it by on just 50 cents a day.
For most, it probably sounds like a tale of riches to rags; an unfortunate result of someone falling upon hard times. But for Francis Chan, it’s exactly what his soul needed—an opportunity to fulfill his God-given purpose of becoming a man who can truly say he practices what he preaches. And it was all by his own choice (with maybe a little guidance from above).
Francis, born in San Francisco, was raised in a traditional Chinese home and navigated a challenging upbringing. His mother died during childbirth. His father remarried, then his stepmother died in a car accident when he was 8. His father remarried again, then, when Francis was 12, died of cancer. Francis was around 14 when he was introduced to a youth group by a friend.
“I fell in love with Jesus,” he says, explaining that it was then he decided if there really was a Heaven and Hell, it didn’t make sense to spend his life doing anything other than telling people about Him.
Twenty-six and newly married, Francis and his wife Lisa founded Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California in the early 90s, beginning with 30 people. Within the first two months, the church grew to 100. In 2000, the church grew even more, to 1,600. By 2008, Cornerstone Community Church was one of the largest in Ventura County and Francis’ new book “Crazy Love” was a New York Times bestseller.
Then, in 2010, Francis decided to leave it all.
But, he wasn’t leaving God. He was separating himself from the megachurch that had started in his living room as he and other elders began to question its direction.
“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?” Francis questions in his second book Letters to the Church. “We began to wonder if our definition of a church actually fit God’s definition.”
“Everything had grown to be very dependent upon one person,” he continues. “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.”
After leaving Cornerstone, Francis wrestled with what the next step was. He and Lisa ended up selling their Simi Valley house and moving their family of six at the time overseas to India, Thailand and China.
And the $1 million his bestselling book made in the first year, plus the money it continues to make? Francis signed it all over to a charitable gift fund helping the poor and victims of human trafficking.
“We witnessed the simplicity of the lifestyles in rural Thailand, and the joy of the men and women who served widows and orphans day in and day out”
“You meet these believers that just blow your mind. It’s everything the Bible talks about,” Francis says, inspired by those he’s met throughout his travels. “Some of the godliest people, the most committed...people that I admire and aspire to become like. If I can get past my own hunger for comfort and enjoyment and really sacrifice like I’ve seen some of these people do, I know I’ll have even more fulfillment in life.”
It was after that Francis believes he was called back to the States, and the Chan family ended up back in San Francisco. This time, much like the beginning of Cornerstone, Francis and Lisa once again felt a calling to plant a church.
What started this time was We Are Church—an organization passionately pursuing what God wants in a church, done through values and practices like devotion to scripture, committing to churches of 10-20 people meeting in a home, and calling everyone to share the gospel and make disciples.
Francis’ extensive time overseas has shown him a contrast between the American church and the spirituality and Godly lives of others across the world, and now struggles with seeing the division in the church, due in large part to growing issues of individualism and pride.
“Try to look at the church in America from an outsider’s perspective, Francis challenges. “Is that really where you would look for answers— knowing the divisiveness; knowing all the scandals; knowing everything you know about it? The church is in a really poor state and it in some ways feels like it’s getting worse.”
“I wish we could learn and see the sacrifice of others,” he continues. “Overseas they’re just obsessed with each other.”
Francis, pretending to hold up a phone facing himself, goes on to describe how he sees this generation as a generation all about taking selfies; noting that you could be in the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls and you’re always in the picture—always the center of everything.
“All we really need to do is hit that little button that switches it off selfie mode,” he says. “And now I can’t even see myself. All I see is God and those around me. People that I’ve found that have spent their lives truly loving others are the joyful people.”
Much like separation from his megachurch setting, preaching in front of thousands, and the continued growth of We Are Church exudes, Francis continues to spread the belief that people are the church.
“It’s not about going to a place and needing a critical mass of 8 people or 1,000 people or this or that; it’s the person of Christ and enjoying that,” he says. “I really believe the Lord wants us during this time to go back to the scriptures, rethink ‘What did he really want the church to be?’ Believers have been scattered since the beginning of the church. People were alone, people were in little groups and found each other and enjoyed Christ together.”
In the throes of a pandemic, quarrels over U.S. politics, a growing divide among people and beliefs, and the unsurety of life, Francis’ vision of where the concept of church is heading—a non-prophetic guess, he clarifies, laughing—can be summed up through a story of his daughter Rachel, when she was 5 years old.
“We regularly visited this rundown place in our city called Paint Pals,” he laughs, reminiscently. “There was this old maze you walked through with only a few walls, some little ceramic things you could paint and this big bubble machine that was just a hula hoop dipped in bubble solution.”
“One day I was just like, ‘Honey, this week I’m going to take you to Disneyland!’ And she was like, ‘What’s that?’” he says. “I go, ‘You have no clue. This is like the happiest place on Earth. You’re gonna go nuts!’”
Francis says Rachel began to get very sad, asking if they could just go to Paint Pals.
“She’s working herself into tears,” he laughs. “Like, you’re crying because I’m about to take you to Disneyland.”
“I feel like we’re just like Rachel when she was 5,” he says, fondly recalling the Paint Pals days. “We’re accustomed to certain things and God has something so much better for us. I believe he’s leading us all into a deeper intimacy with Him that is just off the charts. Sometimes you shed some things and you realize it’s actually better; some of the things we thought would bring us into the presence of God actually now distract us.”
Nearly nine months ago, Francis’ path led him to the Sham Shui Po area on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong with most of his family, including his wife, all but one of his daughters, two sons-in-law and two grandchildren. It’s a place where he later found is where his mother also did ministries in the 1950s, and allows him the continued humbling opportunity to live out his journey through the Gospel, working with the ultra poor to bring relief, sharing the word of God and, you guessed it, planting churches.