A Manic Sprint Up a Down Escalator: The Francis Chan View of Discipleship

There has been a bit of a kerfluffle the past week over at one of my favorite blogs about a video clip that Francis Chan just came out with, which led to a follow-up post that critiques Chan’s 2007 book Crazy Love.

I get Francis Chan.  Chan is passionate to see renewal come to the Church.  The driving message of Chan’s preaching and writing is that there is a serious disconnect between the early Church that we read about in the New Testament and what we see around us as we survey the landscape of contemporary American Christianity, and that renewal starts with us wrapping our minds around the fact that God is something completely and totally other than us and ordering our lives accordingly.  As a consequence of this, Chan challenges all of us to bold and risk-taking engagement with the cause of Christ.

Chan is a needed corrective in a world which says the only things that matter are a good job, a family, a nice home in the suburbs, etc.  And many people in present-day American Christianity believe this.  For them, Christ is nothing more than a marginal character who stands on the sidelines and gives His approval to those who follow the right principles in order to live a life consistent with the priorities of middle-class suburban America.  But Chan challenges us to see that He is so much more than that.  When Chan prays, it is obvious that he is freaked out by the idea of being in the presence of a God who is completely and totally other than us.  How many of us in contemporary America share that feeling?

But there is something else in Chan’s message, something that I would go so far as to say is completely and totally wrong.  In Crazy Love, Chan divides believers into two categories, lukewarm and obsessed.  Unless you are obsessed–consumed with Christ, fixated on Jesus, risk-taking, radical, and wholly surrendered are words Chan uses to describe what this looks like–then you are a lukewarm believer and you may not even be a believer at all.  That’s all there is to it.  In Chan’s words:  “As I see it, a lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.”

Chan devotes a full chapter to providing us with examples of people who live a lifestyle that fits his criteria of obsessed.  These include well-known leaders like George Mueller and Shane Claiborne as well as many others you have probably never heard of.  These people have done outstanding things like start churches and orphanages, serve as overseas missionaries for years, endured excruciating torture, sacrificed much in the way of physical comfort in order to live by faith, performed breathtakingly extraordinary feats of prayer and faith.  These people can, and should, serve as an inspiration to all of us.

But what about the rest of us?  What about those of us who just don’t feel called to make such extraordinary sacrifices?  What about those of us who will never do anything more extraordinary for Christ than just show up at our jobs every day and do the best work we can, show up in our homes every day and be good husbands/fathers/wives/mothers/etc?  If that is all we ever do for Jesus, will that be enough?

In Chan’s universe, the answer is no.

In the book, Chan gives the example of his wife’s grandmother Clara.  He uses her as an example of someone who was passionately devoted to Christ.  He and his wife took her out to see a play one night.  In the middle of the play, they asked Clara how she was enjoying the play, and she said she wasn’t.  She wanted to leave because she did not think Jesus would want to find her there in that theater if He were to return that night.

I had the opportunity to hear Chan speak a few years back, and he used that example in his talk.  It rubbed me the wrong way then, and it still rubs me the wrong way now.  I thought of my own grandmother, who likewise was devoted to Christ but who would never in a million years have asked to leave a play because she felt that He would not have wanted to find her there when He came back.

What do I do with that?  Was my grandmother less of a Christian because she was willing to enjoy a night at the theater or the opera or the symphony without feeling any pangs of conscience about Jesus not wanting to find her there?  Am I less of a Christian–or perhaps not even a Christian at all–because I happen to think her example in this regard was normal and perfectly acceptable?

Evangelicals in some places are squirrely about the theater because it has historically been condemned in some varieties of fundamentalism.  But that is a different issue.  The issue here is whether or not it is OK to just live and enjoy the pleasures of life, such as a night at the theater, without constantly fretting that I should be down on my knees in fervent, mind-numbing and knee-numbing prayer or out doing some heroic deed of service to those who are less fortunate.

In Chan’s universe, the answer is no.

Another quote from the book:  “If life is a river, then pursuing Christ requires swimming upstream. When we stop swimming, or actively following Him, we automatically begin to be swept downstream. Or, to use another metaphor more familiar to city people, we are on a never-ending downward escalator. In order to grow, we have to turn around and sprint up the escalator, putting up with perturbed looks from everyone else who is gradually moving downward.”

Discipleship is walking with Christ.  Since when did walking with Christ come to mean a manic sprint up a down escalator?

It is possible to make a case for this, I suppose.  Jesus did say “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30), “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14), and “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

But didn’t this same Jesus also say “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29)?  Because there’s nothing restful about attempting to swim upstream or sprint maniacally up a down escalator.

Oh wait.  Maybe I’m just imagining things here.  Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong Bible all these years.

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2 thoughts on “A Manic Sprint Up a Down Escalator: The Francis Chan View of Discipleship

  1. You raise some great points here. I can’t help but think of my own life. When I was younger, I was a Christian in name only: I would discuss ideas with you, but my life didn’t reflect what I believed. As I grew older, I began to see the disconnect and worked on repenting from an obviously carnal life. Still later I felt called to commit my resources and talents to teaching and preaching what I have learned. If I am interpreting Chan right (and I’m only going on what you have shared here), then everything in my life up until recently would be classified as “lukewarm”. On the surface, that would be true. However, due to my experiences, I can go places where most Christians do not dare to tread; a light in dark places.

    If Chan’s point is that we have to be passionate about our faith, then I agree. The appearance, however, is not to be judged. Each person stands or falls in front of the Lord on their own, as Jesus pointed out to Peter when he looked back at John.

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