Gangs are more like family and more committed than the Church.
I am writing this because I care about the glory of God, the Bride of Christ, and the expansion of God’s Kingdom. I am writing this for the sake of the Church. I made a statement many years ago that Francis Chan has quoted and referenced many times. While I don’t believe that Francis intended for people to attack the Bride of Christ, many have used my statement as a weapon to do so. For example, I regularly meet individuals who come across the content of We Are Church and become a nuisance to their pastor. Upon learning of the church model that We Are Church ascribes to, they conclude that the traditional church is doing everything wrong and they feel they have a license to judge their pastor and congregation. As a basis for their argument, they quote my statement as if its authority on the matter. I’m the one who said, “Gangs are more like family and more committed than the Church.”
Gaining Greater Context
I’ve watched the impact my statement has had at a distance for many years. Because Francis didn’t associate my name with the story, it’s helped. It’s only over the past year that I’ve been increasingly upset and agitated. Every time I share my testimony with Christians aware of the story they put the pieces together. What has become bothersome are the messages I regularly receive from weary Pastors who are forced to combat the license some people take. I often encounter immature individuals who are happy to drag the Bride of Christ through the mud and quote my statement along the way. When Francis spoke at Facebook not too long ago and quoted me once again, I knew that it was time for me to share my story.
Don’t Take this the Wrong Way!
Before I begin, I want to ensure that this gives no license to anyone to bash Francis Chan. I consider Francis a spiritual father, one of my heroes, and one of the godliest men I know. There are few people I have encountered who are as driven by conviction as Francis. I am what I am today because the Lord used Francis in my life. Francis is a disciple maker, a lover of God, and far more committed to Jesus than many pastors I know and so-called Christians who are emboldened by the platform social-media allows. Furthermore, before I wrote this statement, I sat in Francis’ living room and shared my heart. In humility, he received what I had to say, and we got on our knees and prayed to Jesus together. He was not defensive, nor did he share the conclusions that many people draw. I have also sent this statement to him personally. Our generation is far too comfortable trash talking God’s appointed leaders. We need to tread lightly and watch our mouths.
What Led to the Statement
In 2007, I began attending Cornerstone Church. I had recently returned from living out of state. My wife and I had moved to Oregon to escape gangbanging. I was a member of a prominent gang in Los Angeles and continued to struggle with leaving it behind. By this point, I had been shot, stabbed multiple times, and spent years of my life incarcerated. I would do well for a little while and then fall back into the streets. It’s never good to ride the fence: you have to be in or out. This produced problems for me. To escape these difficulties we moved.
Our time in Oregon was good for us. I had met Jesus in California Youth Authority before I paroled. But, the lack of discipleship, along with the persecution I experienced, produced confusion and disillusionment. When I met my wife, she was selling drugs, and I was struggling to make sense of life. In Oregon, we were able to connect with a local church, and my wife decided to follow Jesus. Over time, we felt isolated and wanted to come home. My mother-in-law had recently moved to Simi Valley to escape the violence of her previous location. Jennifer’s brother was also a gang member, and he was getting into a lot of trouble. We decided to move in with her mom to get on our feet. At that point, we began attending Cornerstone.
Moving back was difficult for our marriage and faith. Immediately, we were surrounded by old friends, and the pressure to return to our previous life was overwhelming. We had no Christian friends, we lived in a community that was incredibly out of our element, and family put a lot of pressure on our marriage. For my wife, her family did not trust me. I was a gang-member, recently off parole, tattooed, and no good for her. In their eyes, it was only a matter of time before I ran out on my family or ended up back in prison. To prepare for this, they pressured my wife to prepare herself for the inevitable. For me, I felt powerless, disrespected, and misrepresented. Now, I understand their fear, but, at that moment, I was having a tough time. This season produced a lot of tension for us, and I was desperate for help.
During this time, I was attending a Men’s Bible Study at Cornerstone. The church was teaching about Christian community, and different terminology was regularly used to describe the Church. Of this language, “family” was the most prominent term used. As a gang member, we also used this word in the hood. Therefore, I had preconceived notions as to the gravity of this definition. In the hood, we were together all of the time. Being from the same gang meant that we were willing to die for one another. To say that we were family carried the expectation that my burdens were the responsibility of my homies to shoulder with me. As for me, my father was a heroin addict, and I had a distorted picture of a family. Joining a gang met the relational needs for which I longed. When my marriage was falling apart, and I was regularly being called to return to my previous lifestyle, I decided to reach out to this Men’s Bible Study for help. I had never been vulnerable with anyone, and I was afraid of being rejected. On a Monday night, I decided to share what I was going through, and I was rejected.
In detailing my struggles, they met me with moral platitudes and busy schedules. I asked if I could spend time with someone, hang out, or call them when I needed to talk. In response, they told me that I was asking for too much. That if I wanted to hang out I had to schedule it with them a week or two in advance. They overemphasized their busy lives and how it’s not courteous to call someone at random times. I was perplexed and hopeless. At that point, I gave into the pressure, went back to the hood, and tried to make sense of everything that happened. My wife and I moved out of Simi Valley, and things began to crumble. Following up with me, Matt Moore, a Pastor at Cornerstone, reached out to ask why I left. In pain, I told him that I was confused. I mentioned that I didn’t understand why the church would say they were a family when they treated one another like business colleagues. At this point, I said, “It feels like gangs are more like family and more committed than the Church.”
Now that you understand the context in which I said this statement, it’s even more critical that you know what happened after.
What Happened Next
Sometime later, I found out that my wife was pregnant with our second child. We were both on drugs, I was regularly hanging out with gang members, and our marriage was on its final leg. To be honest, my second daughter was sent straight from God. Somehow, we ended up at an apartment complex late at night, and I was smoking weed with my homies. I left my wife in the car, pregnant, with my first daughter. Looking over at the car, I became terrified and realized something desperately needed to change. On the way home, I apologized to Jennifer for failing her, and we went back to Cornerstone that weekend. Sitting behind us was a mighty woman of God. It was as if God spoke directly to her and she was not letting us get out of her sight. She grabbed me by the shoulder, pressed us for our phone number, and relentlessly followed up with us. She wasn’t a leader in the church, she had no agenda, and she was going to make sure that we did not slip through the cracks. Over the next few weeks, we were at her house for dinner, she came over to ours, and she displayed what authentic biblical family was. She wasn’t afraid of us or impressed by our story. She loved us. She was a Christian. Her name is Adriana Federoff and her husband John was right by her side. I thank God for Adriana. I love her so much.
Soon after, my wife gave birth to our second daughter. What happened next blew my mind. We were still struggling to escape the grips of our previous life and Adriana and John were the only real community we had. However, she knew that her job was to plug us in with other Christians so we didn’t fall back. On her own accord, she reached out to Matt Moore and shared what had happened to us. She explained that we had a new baby, and without our knowledge, she gathered an entire Community Group to randomly show up at our house and bring us a meal. When they decided to come, we were having a BBQ with some of our old friends. In attendance were armed gang members full of tattoos on a dead end street in a dangerous neighborhood. Knocking on the door was a group of fearless suburban Christians who cared more about us than their safety. Over the next few weeks, they brought us meals and talked us into joining their group. In the coming months, they would pay our rent, talk with me at random hours, speak into my marriage, and invite us over in the middle of the night to play video games. They loved us. They were Christians.
Gangs Are Not a Better Family than the Church
I don’t like the conclusions that people draw from my statement. In fact, I retract it altogether. I made it in confusion, ignorant of the historical witness of the Church, and void of real Christians in my life. Gang members are not more like family than the Church. Gang members sell each other out, kill one another, are selfish, and most gang members I know won’t die for their hood if they have a way out. Many of the gang members I know weren’t expecting to die when they did. It’s preposterous to say that gang members are more courageous than Christians. Fear, not love, drives gang members. Gang members perpetrate society, destroy families, and turn on each other more than not. Any experienced gang member will tell you that there is no loyalty in gangs. Gang members are committed to themselves.
The Church is not so. Christians are courageous. Christians are selfless. Christians care about the good of others and will give their life for their enemies. Christians are loyal, gracious, selfless, and more committed to God than any gang member I have ever met. For example, William Tyndale was strangled and burned so that you could access the Bible. The Apostle Paul voluntarily stayed in prison so that others might know Christ. Jim Elliot and a group of missionaries willingly walked into an ambush to share the Gospel with a violent tribe. After his death, his wife embraced the killers so that they might know Jesus. This is courageous. Matt Moore is brave. The Church of Jesus Christ is the most daring, selfless, and devout group of humans I have ever encountered. These are ordinary Christians, not the exception! What’s even more critical to understand is that each of these Christians was part of the institution.
My statement is being regularly used to tear apart the Church as an institution. I recognize that many would like to do away with the traditional models of Church altogether. While you may come to this conclusion apart from my statement, you don’t have my permission to use it to do so. I do not share the same sentiment. In fact, I am part of the institution. I am a pastor, a church planter, and part of Acts 29, which is a global church planting network. I support church planting and believe that church planting is the primary vehicle that God uses to build his Kingdom. However, I am a reformer. I also think that the church needs reform. While some would like to turn to the Book of Acts as a guide to go back to the “early church fairytale,” I would ask you to include the Letters to the Corinthians in your descriptions. The Church has always had problems. Our methodology isn’t what produces transformation. We are saved by grace alone, by the Spirit of God, because of Jesus. Jesus builds his Church, not any model.
I planted Refuge LA close to 5 years ago. In doing so, I’ve eaten a large piece of humble pie. It’s easy to look at everyone else and think that somehow you’re God’s gift to the Kingdom. It’s tempting to believe that your seeker-sensitive methodology is going to produce results. But God’s church is not built upon methods. I’ve seen all kinds of methodology work and fail in different situations. God will grow his Church. God forbid we preach a different Gospel that accredits church growth to metrics and strategy.
Is it no different to assume that we will win people with our house churches? In fact, when we place more emphasis on our church model than we do on Jesus, we set people up for disappointment. House churches will hurt people just as fast as a traditional church. Possibly, even quicker. For example, in whose house do you meet? Are the leaders aware of the cultural differences people possess? Is the form of Christianity dripping with cultural marinade? I felt more like an outsider when I went to a suburban birthday party than I ever felt at Cornerstone Church.
On another note, the traditional church has done remarkable work. The great theologians we read were part of the traditional church. The traditional church founded many mission organizations. We possess our Bible because of the institution. In more impoverished communities, the traditional church has stood as a semblance of hope. Pastors who are bi-vocational are often overworked, overextended, and more likely to burnout. Let’s not forget that Francis is part of the institution.
We Have Greater Problems than the Traditional Church
The issue is not the institution, or that Christians aren’t doing a good enough job. The problem is that we’ve believed a false gospel. We’ve taught something other than Christ alone is the hope of sinners, and we’ve given way to syncretism. We’ve appropriated Americanism, racism, cultural identity, and worldliness. We’ve allowed for it to invade the Church. The gospel that we have preached from our pulpits is inconsistent with the historical message of Christ. We’ve allowed for people to say that they are Christians while their lives are void of the evidence. The reason it appears as if gangs are more committed than Christians is that many people who profess to be Christians are not actually so.
I think Francis beckons us all to ask ourselves, “Do I preach Christ alone?” Do I hope in my methodology or do I hope in Christ? Do I produce authentic disciples of Jesus or do I proclaim another gospel? The road is narrow that leads to righteousness, and those on the road are the only ones reliable of bearing the name “Christian.” Those who love Christ, and his Bride, will ferociously live and die, to preserve his name. If we aren’t making disciples in our churches, we need to be challenged and awakened to do so. I stand with Francis and challenge you. However, I don’t believe we have biblical precedence to disrespect and speak of God’s church so flippantly as in our day.
Do not be so quick to dismiss the work of the Holy Spirit. God is working in his Church through many forms. Often, our expectations can shape our experience. The Pharisees were expecting Jesus to show up and defeat Rome. In doing so, they missed the work of the Holy Spirit right in front of their eyes (Matthew 12:22-45). In this passage, Jesus says that demons control them. The reason was because they possessed a worldly hope. In doing so, they blasphemed the work of God.
Maybe a house church will provide a great community. It may meet your needs and longings. However, it may not be the best model or good for the Gospel in every city. A.W. Tozer offers much wisdom when he says that, “You win them to what you win them with.” The hope of the Christian is Jesus. Jesus heals our brokenness. Jesus takes away our shame. Jesus makes us clean and gives us the power to defeat sin by his Holy Spirit. Like the Apostle Paul, we must rejoice wherever anyone preaches Jesus and in whatever form (Philippians 1:18).