The lead pastor of one of the country's largest and fastest-growing churches talks about lessons learned in leadership and life.
Interview by Scott Marshall
MATT CHANDLER is the lead pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, a 2011 Outreach 100 Church (No. 44 Largest, 29 Fastest-Growing).
Most memorable worship service:
One of our most memorable services, for me, was one of our baptism services. A guy came up and grabbed me in the front row. He was almost manic and said, “I want you to know you’ve made a real difference. … I was homeless. … I don’t have time to explain, but I brought a witch with me. She didn’t know it was church, so she’s really pissed. I want you to know in case something happens.” I started praying, and I thought if this thing goes Harry Potter on me, I don’t know what to do! And then during the service, one of the women being baptized got up and said “I’ve been in the occult and witchcraft for the past 15 years … and here’s why I think Jesus is better.”
The limits of self-reliance:
I’ve found that I can be extremely busy and fill my days with good things yet still have a restless soul. Was I first and foremost dependent on God, and did I lean on Him today? Or did I say, “I got this”?
I’ve got a ton of regrets, based on a series of things. When you’re young, you see the world differently. You’re skeptical of everyone. I was real arrogant toward other schools of thought. I’ve grown concerned with younger guys. They’re very quick to identify themselves with one stream of evangelism and then believe that’s where it all is. Then you begin to lob grenades at other streams, as if God isn’t working there too. I regret I wasn’t more gracious and patient.
I’ve learned that a lot of life is Camelot—looks pretty on outside, but inside the city, the queen is sleeping with Lancelot. In Dallas, everybody is godly; it’s the Bible belt, everyone goes to church. But underneath there’s a real brittle reality that doesn’t take much to shatter. Everyone needs 2 Timothy 4. Everyone needs to be rebuked and reproved and exhorted.
You can lead a huge church and be completely unsuccessful. I want to be faithful to do what God has asked me to do. I want to see men and women come to know Him.
* * * * *
Tell us a little about your decision to accept Christ.
I grew up in a home where my mom is a pastor’s kid and, I think, always loved the Lord, although it was in a real different vein, a real duty-stricken kind of faith. And then my father wanted really nothing to do with it. So there were seasons growing up where my mom would win, and she’d take us to church for a little bit. And there were seasons where my dad would win, and we wouldn’t go at all.
I was kind of always a thinker, always was a wonderer, always wanted to know how things worked. And so watching my parents play ping-pong over the issue of spirituality—where my dad doesn’t think anything exists and my mom believes in Jesus—I kind of developed this thought of I can’t land where my dad lands because in the end, I just couldn’t fathom the world without a real definition of beauty, without there being any such thing as love. I guess I was a little bit of a romantic even as a kid. So I thought that there was a God, I just wasn’t sure who he or she was, how he or she worked. I just didn’t know those types of questions.
It wasn’t until a guy on the football team—who honestly was quite aggressive, which was one of the things I loved about him—he really did just come up and say: “I really need to tell you about Jesus. When do you want to do that? Do you want to do that after practice? I’m going to let you decide when we do it, but in the end, it’s going to happen. So when do you want to do that?” He began to share the Gospel with me, began to take me to church with him, began to try to answer my questions. Where he couldn’t answer my questions, he would either put me on to someone else or give me a book to read, and so, yeah, I was an agnostic, but not for long. I was converted three days before my 18th birthday.
At what point did you feel led into vocational ministry?
I became a believer and very, very quickly, other people began to notice that I had some giftings. I could ingest and process information very, very quickly. I’ve never been—and my mom would attest to this—just never really been afraid of much. On the fight or flight scale, I’m definitely fight over flight. So then I began to share the Gospel with others and really teach in any place they would let me teach. So whether that was fourth-grade Sunday school or children’s church or vacation Bible school or if they would give me the opportunity to explain the Bible to somebody, I wanted to be around it and in it and of it and all about it.
However, at the same time, I became really disenchanted with the church because I think—and man, I’ve learned enough about Christian history now to know—that we really were in a swing during the time in the early ‘90s, where there was just a real rise of what Christian Smith called moralistic deism, which is just kind of this idea of, “Here are the morals of Christianity, so obey these morals.” Really, the Gospel message began to be assumed and not explicit. I would share the Gospel with my friends and I would bring them to church, and then at church they’re hearing about how they shouldn’t drink. Then I would share the Gospel with some friends and I’d bring them to church, and they’re hearing about how secular music will make you want to do meth and kill your parents. So I became really disenchanted with the church and started operating primarily outside of the church. Until I was doing a Bible study in Abilene, Texas, where I went to college, and it had grown to a couple of thousand, and a guy asked me when I was called into ministry, which is basically the question you asked. Man, I didn’t even know what he meant at that point. I thought he was asking me, “Did the Baptists call?” And they’re the ones letting me do this? I was still a political science major at that point. It wasn’t until then that I went, “Oh, man, he’s taking me into ministry.” And I still didn’t feel like that was going to be in the church. I thought I would travel and speak and do itinerant ministry or maybe be a prof or something like that. But it was at that point, I’m trying to think of what year that is—‘95 or ‘96—that I start going, “OK, God’s leading me into ministry, calling me into ministry,” and so I switched my degree over to Bible and finished it out there.
You did itinerant ministry for a while. When somebody picked up the phone and called you about coming to what is now The Village, had you gotten past your disenchantment with the church?
I had gotten over some of it. David McQueen, who is a pastor in Abilene, Texas, at Beltway Park [Baptist Church]—another church, honestly, that probably is under the radar but has just absolutely blown up. I think it was like 60 or 70 people when I got there, and it’s up to 5,000, 6,000 people now, and that’s in Abilene, Texas, bro, that’s not in the city. So, man, he kind of took me under his wing and just kind of helped me understand and see that it didn’t have to be the way I had seen it done. And so I’d kind of gotten rid of some of it, not all of it.
I definitely didn’t want to spend my life in the suburbs of the Bible belt, that’s for sure, which has been one of the ironies of how my life turned. I began to dialogue with The Village Church, or Highland Village First Baptist Church, because I didn’t think I could get the job. Theologically and philosophically, we were in different universes, and so my plan was to honor my college roommate’s mom. She’s the one that asked that I put in my resume. She’s the one that asked that I enter into a dialogue. And so I did that thinking it was not going to be an issue because there’s no way I was going to get the job. The problem was every time we had a meeting—I mean there were three separate meetings where I left and called my wife on the way home and said, “That’s over” only to have them call me back two days later and say “Could you come back and teach us why you think that or why you land there?” So at the end of all that—and a Q-and-A with the entire church because I thought that if I couldn’t kill it with the search team, I could definitely kill it with the people—and even then they wanted me to come preach in view of a call. At that point, we’re thinking the Holy Spirit is doing something here because there’s no way their theology and their philosophy is lining up with what I’m saying, and yet they continue to want to pursue this. And so we thought that the Spirit was doing something there, and so, decided to come in and preach in view of a call. That was almost eight years ago now.
What has been the most fantastic ministry mistake you have made and what did you learn from it?
I think there’s no doubt that we were naïve coming in. One of the things we did early on is we said if you were going to be a member of The Village Church, then you had to be part of a home group. You couldn’t join the church and not be a member of a home group. What ended up happening very quickly was all of the sudden there were these very godly, missional men and women who were either unable to join the church or didn’t join the church because they were already actively doing ministry, already actively in biblical community, already actively in accountability structures and Bible studies who would have to leave that community. Basically a tool
What obstacles to spiritual growth have you experienced in the past year and how have you overcome those?
The testing thing for me is in regards to me and what I do at the church. The complexity of the organization now is at a place where there are times that I find my role difficult. I enjoy people. People are not burdensome to me. But it’s like the larger we get, the more isolated I become from the people, where there are all these layers to protect my time to study and to get ready for elders meeting or to write this or do this. So there becomes at some point frustration that starts to seep out of my heart or seep out of my soul because I’d rather be more connected to people than I get to be often.
I read in an article in USA Today that you had only asked “Why me?” once since your cancer diagnosis, and that you called that a point of weakness. Can you tell me about when that was and how you were able to not let that get a stronghold on you?
It was after surgery and after diagnosis/prognosis. That moment actually took place late into December. I don’t know if they do this everywhere, but everybody sends you a picture of their family on a little card for Christmas or whatever. My wife takes those and kind of uses them as Christmas decorations. So whether they’re on the tree or on the mantle or on the entertainment center, she kind of decorates that with them.
There was a picture of a guy with his family—beautiful family—who has had multiple adulterous affairs, and then really is just not, he’s just not a good guy, man. And I’m completely aware that none of us are good guys. But really, just in how he treats his family, how he treats his wife, he’s just not a good guy. So I’m on the couch. I’m in the middle of chemo and radiation. I’m starting to get very weak. I’ve been told by doctors that I’ve got a good chance of living a lot longer than two to three years, but in the end prognosis for stage three anaplastic aligoglendrodioma is two to three years. And I’m thinking, Are you freaking kidding me? I’m the one that has this? But then almost immediately, I felt shame for that. Felt shame as though I had done something to somehow earn the approval or earn the favor of God, right? I mean, just felt some real wicked, older brother stuff. Luke 15, prodigal son, older brother not wanting to come in and wants to sit outside and pout as God saves and seeks. So, really, the thing that kept sustaining me was theology, which sounds so crazy because I know particularly when the interest is reaching people, theology or doctrine almost becomes like a bad word. But for me, it was the firm ground that I kept landing on. I mean, I could keep landing on the fact that I understood from the Scriptures that although God ultimately did not cause this, He did nothing to stop it, and He could do whatever He wanted with it at any point. So to be able to land on “I haven’t been abandoned here; God’s working His plan, and I’m not outside of that,” that became a real warm blanket to my soul. And then, bro, I’m only six months into this whole journey, and the type of ministry I’ve been able to do and the people I’ve been able to share the Gospel with and share life with because of this has been unbelievable.