Matt Chandler on Trials, Leadership

“Grateful” doesn’t seem like a word that would come to mind as a reaction to learning that you have a brain tumor that in some cases may leave you with as little as two or three years to live. But in a recent interview with Outreach magazine, Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, stated that is how he felt after receiving his prognosis and diagnosis. “I was grateful that we would get the opportunity to show that [Jesus] is better in the worst of times since we’ve gotten to show Him as better in the best of times,” Chandler says.

Nearly 10 months have passed since a Thanksgiving Day seizure resulted in a trip to the hospital and the discovery of a tumor in Chandler’s brain. He has chronicled his experience through video logs online ever since. After surgery and chemotherapy treatments that are continuing, Chandler reported Sept. 8 in a video on his blog that his most recent scans show no signs of the tumor recurring.

Chandler discussed with Outreach what he saw God doing through his fight with cancer, his experiences in ministry, reaching nominal Christians with the Gospel, his leadership at The Village (the No. 59 Largest and No. 81 Fastest-Growing Church in America) and more. Here is a portion of what Chandler had to say:

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. 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 who asked that I put in my resume. She’s the one who 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 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 became sacred.

What obstacles to spiritual growth have you experienced in the last 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.

You’ve talked in different settings about the culture of nominal Christians coming to church because it’s expected of them or because it’s good business or a social thing and how The Village has actually been reaching those people and seeing them become true Christians. How you have gone about doing that?

I’m teaching through the book of Colossians right now, and the first two chapters have been entirely Christology—this is who Jesus is; this is Jesus set up and against the Roman empire; this is Jesus set up and against nature, all other belief systems. Then, we get to chapter 3, where Paul’s going to go, “If then you have been raised in Christ,” and now the rest of the book is going to address morality, life change, putting off sin, putting on righteousness. All of those things are objective evidences of salvation. They don’t save you, but if you are saved, there’ll be transformation.

I want to constantly come back to the question, “Is there objective evidence in your life that God is real, that you have a regenerated heart? Is there affection for who He is? Is there a desire in you to know Him? Is there a willingness in you to submit to His commands?” If you continually come back and say, “I don’t find any rest in the Lord. I find no real desire to be obedient to the things He has commanded in Scripture. There hasn’t been in me any transformation since when I was baptized,” I don’t want to say in that moment that you’re not saved, but I want to say you should be worried. You should investigate this. You should look into this. The other thing I want to make constantly clear is that heaven isn’t a place for those who are afraid of hell. It’s a place for those who love God. There’s no such thing as fire insurance. You don’t come to God just so you won’t go to hell. That’s not how it works.

Has your prognosis/diagnosis and the reality of what you’re going through given you even more of a sense of urgency about sharing the Gospel?

I know the right answer should be yes, but I don’t know that a lot has changed in regards to how we personally evangelize or how we look at it as a church. Dr. [David] Barnett—when I was asking “What’s the worst-case scenario? What’s the best-case scenario?”—said that the best-case scenario was that God would heal me, and that’s how he was praying. The worst-case scenario was that I died on the way home in a car accident.

The reality is that I could die in the next couple of years or I could live another 20, and that’s exactly where you are today, bro. And that’s exactly where everybody is. I just get to live on the cliff without all the fog. Most people live on the cliff with a bunch of fog, unaware that today could be their last. I think I’ve been dialed in a little bit more in regards to I might not have a whole bunch of years to do a whole bunch of things. But then for where I am in life, that doesn’t mean I can come up with some crazy bucket list or start writing a ton of books or something like that because I’ve got three small kids, and I want to pour as much of the Gospel out of me and into them as I possibly can with the time I’ve been given with them.

The full interview with Matt Chandler appears in the 2010 Outreach 100 Special Issue, with additional highlights at OutreachMagazine.com.

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Brian Orme
Brian is the General Editor of ChurchLeaders.com. He works with creative and innovative people to discover the best resources, trends and practices to equip the church to leader better every day. He lives in Ohio with his wife, Jenna, and four boys..