Editor's note: Before conducting this interview with author and pastor Francis Chan, I went to the Cornerstone Church (Simi Valley, California) website and watched his welcome video (the interview was conducted before he announced his resignation). In it he describes some of the convictions with which he started the church. He says things like, "Let's teach everything the Bible says, even if it doesn't set well with us at times. Who are we to judge God's thoughts?" "I want to prepare people for the moment when they face God." "He is the judge." That sounds like the heart of a prophet walking in the footsteps of Jeremiah, but like the Old Testament prophets, Francis also says, "We don't want to just live this life in fear. We want to have a love relationship." In this interview, Francis reveals well the heart impulses of preachers who bring a challenging word.
What makes a sermon prophetic?
For those who have the gift of prophetic preaching, it's as though God screams out to them from the words of the Bible. When I want to know what the Lord wants me to share with his people, he has made it clear to me at times, and biblical passages will come to mind. But there are also life callings—things he's given me that I've been passionate about because of my involvement in the church. I see the way people live and the things that are incongruent with the way that believers whom God approved of lived. Things such as the fear of God and a high view of his Word—a trembling at his Word—have been lost in American church culture.
Seven or eight years ago the Lord opened my eyes to the need to care for those who are in need around the world. He did this through my experiences but also through Scripture. All those passages leapt at me. Other leaders around the States were getting the same message from the Word.
Then a few years ago there was a leading to understand and emphasize the Holy Spirit. Those passages screamed out at me from the Scriptures. I don't think it was a coincidence that at the same time a lot of my friends who are leaders around the States were getting the same message.
In the last two years the focus has been on what the church is supposed to look like. What type of relationships are we supposed to have with one another biblically? I saw the stark contrast between the connection of the family of believers in the Bible and what we see today in the American church. Every time I'd read those passages, it just wouldn't leave me alone. And sure enough, as I looked around, other leaders were wrestling with the same things.
It's clear who are not the true prophets. A lot has to do with their lifestyle. When you look at the warnings about false prophets, much of it has to do with their character: their greed, lack of love, self-centeredness, pride. That shows them to be false teachers and reveals their hypocrisy. Paul tells Timothy you need to guard your life and doctrine closely.
So when you feel that God is bringing things to your attention in the Word, that's the first impulse of what becomes prophetic preaching.
Yeah, it seems like the Lord mixes his Word with my daily experience. It's so God-ordained at times that I can't deny it. But I always want the Word at the center of my preaching, because we can be fooled by experience. Satan is the master of deceiving us, so we must not base our preaching on our intellect or opinion. God inclines the heart of certain men to give certain messages, but it will always be in line with the Scriptures.
How do you know when to preach prophetically?
I don't know any other way to teach. I believe the Lord gives me a message every week. It's hard for me to teach unless I believe that God has given me that message for the people. I think it's part of a gifting. I don't know how to explain it, but I have an urgency every time I teach. I really do believe my message is from God, and it was something that he's revealed to me. Not everyone has that, but it seems to be the way that God works with me.
When the Lord is impressing on your heart to challenge people in certain ways, do you find that you preach on these ideas for a season in the life of the church, or is the leading more for individual messages?
I find joy and peace when I preach a hard message in love that I believe is of the Lord, even though I know it's going to be offensive to some people.
It's different all the time. For example, the other night I woke up with Ephesians 5:18-21 in my mind about what it means to be Spirit-filled. Through circumstances and through his Word, God has been speaking to me about my losing some of the joy in ministry. A lot of that is because I'm not living the Spirit-filled life that Ephesians 5:18 talks about: speaking to others in psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, making a melody in my heart to the Lord, giving thanks for everything. I need to get back to being a thankful person, giving thanks all day long, and having a melody in my heart. So that's what I'll be preaching on Sunday. Now, is it going to be a series? I don't think so. Sometimes there are topics that I'll start speaking on, and God will impress on my heart that I need to go a few more weeks on it. Other times he'll put a Book of the Bible on my heart, and I'll preach through the whole Book, and it may take weeks or months.
What emotions do you experience as you prepare and then as you actually deliver the sermon?
Again, it's different. Sometimes I have a deep sadness for people who don't get it. God will give me a deep concern. Sometimes—I don't know if frustration is the word—but I feel a holy discontent over our lack of holiness. I'm bothered by the lack of concern in people over the things that God cares deeply about. Or I'm bothered that people are casual about sin, and God will reveal to me how serious he is about it in his Word. And so that gives me a real passion. At other times, again I don't know the word for it—anger is not the right word—but I see in Scripture leaders that get bothered because people aren't taking God's Word seriously, and sometimes I feel that.
Sometimes I feel tremendous joy. Sometimes I'm teaching, and I experience God's presence with me and favor on me, and when I'm done I feel like I just had the most amazing devotional time with him. When we think about experiencing the Holy Spirit, we tend to think of getting away into the mountains or the beach by ourselves, but there are times when I believe I'm being filled with his Spirit as I'm teaching people, and it really is a spiritual gift or a manifestation of the Spirit. Afterward I'm so grateful to God for letting me be used.
What mistakes have you made in prophetic preaching?
The biggest is a lack of love. There are times when I get so focused on what God wants me to say, but at the same time he also wants me to love the people I'm saying it to. First Corinthians 13 says it doesn't matter if I prophesy well; if it's not done in love, it profits me nothing. I certainly fall into that. Then there are other times when my own flesh comes in, and there's human anger or frustration versus a Spirit-filled thanksgiving and peace about me. So when I preach and I myself am not showing the fruit of the Spirit, I can fool myself into thinking that I nailed the passage because I proclaimed it boldly. At other times I fail because God gives me a topic that is serious, but I fear too much how people will respond. I try to think too much about how to say it in the perfect way to be least offensive. I fear at times I've even backed off from saying everything God wanted me to say because I was afraid of rejection. So it goes both ways.
How much should we think about saying things in a way that will help people receive what we have to say?
Love is the biggest issue. Paul talks about how he cared for the people, that he came to them like a gentle mother with her children. I read that and ask, do I have the gentleness, love, cherishing, and caring of a mother? My attitude should be that these people are like my children. I don't want to offend them unnecessarily. Yet at the same time, as a good parent you have to say the difficult things.
As we think about prophetic preaching, what often comes to mind is Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah. Does the transition to the New Covenant change the nature of prophetic preaching?
It doesn't seem like it changes that much. In Luke 6:26 Jesus says, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets." The false prophets were loved by everyone, and everyone speaks well of them. In verses 22-23 Jesus says when they reject you, your reward is great, for that's what they did to the real prophets. So he's saying that the way people respond to us today should be similar to the way they responded to the prophets of old. There's going to be rejection. In many ways it's great if you get the same response, because it helps you understand that you're in a good lineage. Jesus showed that things haven't changed that much. We serve the same God and give the same message of good news and hope, but many people will take it as bad news and reject it.
As you've listened to others preach prophetically, what have you learned?
I've seen many people get away from the Scriptures, and I've never seen it end up with good fruit. I know I sound like a broken record, but everything has to be centered on the Word of God. If we start getting the applause of man, we can start relying on our intellect or instinct versus spending time in the Word. I've seen guys get lazy with the Word, and I can do that as well. While certain things have to be reemphasized because they're core issues, I've also seen a tendency to rely too much on things that God has taught us in his Word in the past, instead of studying the Word every week and getting a fresh word from the Lord.
How do you feel when you know that your preaching has been "in your face"?
As long as I'm confident it was Spirit-led and I did it with a heart of love, I feel great about it. I find joy and peace when I preach a hard message in love that I believe is of the Lord, even though I know it's going to be offensive to some people. In the flesh there are times when I get sad, because I know I'll lose some friends over it, but in the Spirit there's joy and confidence. If I don't face some rejection, I get more concerned.