During a year marked by a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter, Stephen Chandler points to a meeting with his father to explain the rise of Destiny Church, a predominately African American church ranked as this year’s Fastest-Growing Church in America, adding 1,261 people last year and, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, drawing more than […]
During a year marked by a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter, Stephen Chandler points to a meeting with his father to explain the rise of Destiny Church, a predominately African American church ranked as this year’s Fastest-Growing Church in America, adding 1,261 people last year and, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, drawing more than 2,700 people to services in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and Baltimore County campuses.
In 2010, the youth ministry Chandler was leading in the church his father planted and pastored exploded to more than 100.
“I realized it’s impossible to have a thriving church where the youth ministry is larger than the Sunday church,” Chandler recalls. “I got a speech ready to tell my father I was leaving—maybe to go to Bible college.”
In August of that year, sitting in the car in a parking lot, Chandler remembers saying to his father, “Dad, I have something to tell you”—to which his father replied: “I have something to tell you first.”
His father said he would like to relaunch the church, and to spend more time caring for his wife and Chandler’s mother, who was battling breast cancer.
He just wanted to ask his son, “How would you like to become the senior pastor?”
At the age of 23, caught off guard, Chandler could find no words.
His father then asked, “Did you have something you wanted to tell me?”
“Nothing, Dad,” Stephen responded. “Nothing at all.” Just like that, he became the senior pastor.
Despite a global pandemic and racial unrest, your church has managed to not only survive, but thrive. Why do you think that is?
Our team has taken on adversity with a tenacity. Growth and giving has gone up exponentially, and our volunteers have stepped up to serve during a time of great hardship. I think we have grown because of clarity. Everybody from our lead team down to our members understands why the church exists. We all speak the same language. When the vision is clear and simple, our people are able to see themselves in it and then use their gifts to build the kingdom.
Your vision is for people to know God, find freedom, discover purpose and make a difference. Talk about those ideas.
To know God means to come into a saving knowledge of Christ and then move into a deeper and more intimate relationship with him. The message for nonbeliever and believer alike is a call to ongoing salvation. Without God in your life—saving you and empowering you—growth is impossible. But as you know God more intimately, it’s possible to do more than you could even imagine.
Finding freedom is the sweet spot of our church. We’re extremely intentional about helping a person find freedom from their yesterday—bondage to anger or lust or insecurity or whatever issue—so they can walk into the tomorrow God has destined for them. Discovering purpose happens when people understand their God-given gifts and talents to fulfill the call of God in their lives. Making a difference happens when our purpose uniquely unites with his purpose: to advance the kingdom of God.
And the vision unites in the church’s name: Destiny.
For so many believers in our nation, Christianity is more about consuming than contributing. I believe God left us here on earth to advance his kingdom; otherwise he would have taken us to heaven the second we accepted Christ. Our goal is to activate as many people as we possibly can to advance the kingdom—to give them outlets for their gifts, passions and encounters with Christ. In our church, serving has created a momentum and a euphoria that is well beyond normal. At the core of all of our values is the idea that we are destiny-driven—we each seek, individually and collectively, to become the people God created us to be.
Is that process as messy as it sounds?
For the first few weeks a person comes to Destiny, we desire to make this the most warm, comfortable, welcoming place you’ve ever been. But after you’ve been here a little bit longer, it’s my job as the pastor to actually make you uncomfortable and challenge you to take a step of faith, to take a risk or do something that might initially be painful—to deal with a pattern of sin; consider adopting a child, starting a business or serving the homeless. We want to create a spiritual atmosphere where our people collectively lean into God because they have to. They’re not praying light, safe or comfortable prayers, but they are literally trying to live by faith, which always involves some amount of risk.
As a P.K., did you always know that it was your destiny to become a pastor?
My dream was to become an entrepreneur, own a restaurant, make a lot of money and fund the kingdom, but I did not want to work in the church. My parents were both immigrants from Barbados and lived in the suburbs of Baltimore County, a predominantly African American middle-class community. I grew up watching my dad deal with the stress of pastoring and planting three churches. He never took a salary over his 30-something years of ministry. Watching his bivocational life, struggling to support five children and a wife, was not something I coveted.
What was your relationship to the church growing up?
I’ve been a believer since I was 13, and had a passion for God; I was actively involved in ministry, but not particularly drawn to it. I grew up playing instruments. The churches my dad started were all small. I began to lead worship, became a youth pastor, sat in on the leadership team, and preached my first Sunday service all by the time I was 16. I was OK with doing all those things, just not for the rest of my life.
A number of things converged when I was 16. My mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous year. She had been a nurse and homeschooled all five of us children. When she was diagnosed, she gave up her job. Watching my mom go through chemo and that terrible journey was difficult. I remember being up late one night sitting next to my mom, who was sleeping and moving in and out of pain. I was watching a televangelist on TBN talk about the supernatural healing of God. I did not come from a Pentecostal background whatsoever. I remember praying this simple prayer sitting next to my mom: God, I don’t know if what this person is talking about is true, but if I have access to God’s healing, I absolutely don’t want to live my life without that. That prayer led to a journey of seeking out the Holy Spirit.
And what did you discover?
About six months later, a missionary came to our church, preached a sermon I don’t remember and gave an altar call. I went up. The elders and trustees of our church, who had no Pentecostal background at all, began to speak in tongues and fall over. The missionary laid hands on me and yelled “Fire!” and nothing happened. I mean, nothing. You can imagine how embarrassed I was, having not caught the Spirit. I went up to my room and I just heard this small voice from the Holy Spirit say, The reason you didn’t receive anything from me is because you are still full of yourself. You can’t please me and be a people pleaser at the same time. It was an encounter I will never forget.
Why did it shake you?
I began to realize what a control freak I was. Later that week, I prayed and literally listed everything I was giving up control of: the choice of career, friends and my lifestyle. At that moment, I just surrendered my future to God. I didn’t sleep for three days. I had visions of friends of mine walking around late at night throughout Baltimore, who didn’t have any purpose, unaware of any God-given destiny. I finally reached a moment where my heart broke and I prayed, “I want to give my life to reaching people who don’t know that you have a plan for them.”
What was it like for you growing up African American in the suburbs?
I think it’s a lot like the experiences you are hearing about today through Black Lives Matter. I remember as a teenager being pulled over by the police four times in one month—for no taillight or nothing at all. I was once detained by officers because I was driving my father’s black Volvo station wagon—because Black people don’t drive Volvos or station wagons. I grew up in a primarily white homeschool association and played soccer on teams that were white. The majority of white people were just not comfortable around me for whatever reason.
How did that affect you?
For me, growing up, change of the racial status quo was never even considered, so survival became the focus. You survive by being excellent, educated, articulate and working harder than everybody else. I think it truly is the Holy Spirit that allowed that environment not to place a bitterness in my heart. I believed that racism could not block what the Holy Spirit had for me.
Tell me about your mother’s battle with breast cancer.
It was earthshaking for the entire family, but especially my dad. He was widowed with five kids—some adults, some still at home, some still in school—so he was reeling. I think it took him about two years to just get back on his feet, but as a son watching him, he was unwavering. Not once did I see him step back from his relationship with God, his pursuit of God or his heart for building the house of God.
How did her death affect you and the church?
I would say I probably checked out for about six months. I put the church on autopilot. She passed in February. I got married in the fall. There wasn’t a lot of vision for what was next for the church. In some ways, it was a confirmation for me about the health of the church; the community and structure made it possible for the church to grow without me being fully engaged. Being involved in the Association of Related Churches (ARC), pastors of other churches came in to preach for me. I learned that the heartbeat of our church was not my preaching, but a community of people doing life together. I think it would probably be news to most people in our church to hear how much I was disengaged. People were still gathering in Connect Groups and building one another up. It was healing to know that the life of our church wasn’t dependent on me.
Growth: +1,261 (86%)
In Part 2 of the interview, Stephen Chandler discusses how being a learner has been integral to being a leader, how Destiny Church’s diversity helps them see God more clearly, and the impact of the church in a tumultuous year.
Read about more Outreach 100 churches at OutreachMagazine.com/church-profiles.