By Julie Lyons
How’s this for a church growth plan: Preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ—skillfully, passionately, without compromise—like it’s the last sermon you’re ever gonna preach. Bust through the 30-minute attention-span threshold, weaving in popular (ahem) themes such as suffering and holiness.
Dispense with the elaborate youth programs, the Starbucks in the lobby, the other frills and thrills designed to pacify the spiritually ADD. When the sanctuary gets too full—and you have to arrive early just to get a space in the overflow room at the satellite campus—toss a handful of stun grenades from the pulpit, exposing sin and complacency. You call these “space-maker” sermons, because they clear a few seats so new sinners can come, hear the gospel, and repent.
And you keep doing it week after week, because you’re a man with a fuse.
For real. The fuse is burning. You literally have a death sentence, and you know this generation is deceived, thinking they’re saved because they grew up in a Baptist church (like yours, but not like yours), or because they recited the Sinner’s Prayer at the age of 6, or because of any other straw-and-stubble assertion that skips over the simple gospel and its costly grace…
This is the growth plan for The Village Church and its young pastor, Matt Chandler. The Village has increased from 160 people in 2002 to an average weekly attendance of 8,200 today at the flagship church in Flower Mound and its campuses in Dallas and Denton, which beam in Chandler’s sermons. (New campuses are in the works for Plano and Fort Worth.) And they regularly turn people away on Sunday mornings—even at the satellite locations.
Did we mention that Chandler, 38 and a father of three, spent the last few years fighting a malignant brain tumor that could reappear any day and claim his life? Truth is, Chandler preached the same way before the tumor, which he found out about after suffering a grand mal seizure on Thanksgiving in 2009. So there is no reason for the explosive growth of The Village churches apart from the appeal of Jesus Christ to sinners, and a man who’s been obedient to what he calls the “explicit gospel.”
Visit one of The Village churches, and you’re struck by a few things: Parking is a problem. Even at the campuses, you’ve got to get there early or get sweaty hiking from your parking spot to the sanctuary. And these churches are packed with young people, with just as many men as women. Everyone brings notebooks and Bibles, like they’d be naked without them. No one’s looking to impress; Chandler himself, all 6’5” of him, is usually dressed in jeans and an untucked shirt, and a lot of the guys in the pews could easily saunter out and join a beach volleyball game in their sandals and plaid shorts. Say what you will about the dress code; no one could stick here unless they had a receptive heart to the good news of Jesus Christ.
And that is exactly what you’ll get. As one member put it, nothing about The Village is “seeker-friendly,” and Chandler pretty much preaches the same message every week—what it really means that Jesus Christ paid the sacrifice for our sins; how big God is, and how small we are. If you’re looking for anything else—like the Starbucks he sometimes jokes about from the pulpit—you’ll have to go somewhere else.
We sat down recently with Matt Chandler in his simple corner office at The Village Church in Flower Mound, where he talked about everything from his cancer diagnosis, his marriage to wife Lauren, and his first book, The Explicit Gospel (Crossway, 2012), written with Jared C. Wilson. Chandler gave us his undivided attention; he makes you feel like you’re the only person on his schedule. You can tell he relishes what he’s doing, preaching the Word of God. It’s hard to believe that, not long ago, he’d been given a life expectancy of two to three years.
So why is it that you’re turning people away at The Village churches? That’s unheard of in this area.
You’re not even appearing physically at some of those locations. I hear from multiple sources that people are turned away even at those services.
It’s a lot better now than it was because of the campuses, so that doesn’t occur as often as before.
But that’s been happening for some time.
Yeah, for years.
I think there’s a real hunger in people for transcendence–I think predominantly among sub-45-year-olds. That’s a vague generalization. But I think there’s a real hunger for transcendence and serious thinking about God and who He is. And the funny thing about The Village is, we’re doing nothing here but old-time religion.
You’re not pioneering any new trends or coming up with any new paradigms?
No. There would be nothing innovative about The Village Church. We preach the Bible, sing songs, get people together to talk about the Bible. I preach for about 50 minutes, which is about 30 minutes longer than the supposed attention span, and then we want to point people to the seriousness of God and His gospel and our hope found only in Jesus Christ, and let the Scriptures bear weight on life and practice. So, the only thing I can attribute that to is that there is a real hunger in people for not just pragmatism but a holy, transcendent God that can make sense of the universe. And I’m saying that based on the feedback we get from the people who come here. We’re not a highly programmatic church. We don’t have a lot of stuff for your kids to do.
You mean you don’t keep them continually entertained?
No, not at all—but we’ll give you a sheet to take home to walk your kid further into the lesson we taught them on Sunday morning.
Is your prognosis still the same?
They’ve shifted my prognosis from two to three years to seven to 10 years. It’s never over. They’re always waiting for it to come back. For most people, it does come back once treatment stops. But they’ve upgraded me. The only thing I have to do now is get MRIs.
How has your life changed with the cancer diagnosis?
The thing that’s changed wouldn’t be the thing people are expecting, because I was already kind of a full-throttle guy–I was already trying to live life to the fullest. I think the thing that’s changed is really an acute awareness of mortality. I have thoughts that I wouldn’t have had before. Last year we were on vacation, and my son and I were digging a hole in the sand, building sandcastles together, and the waves were higher that day so he didn’t want to get into the water. And out 20 yards from us was a dad throwing a football with his teenage son. And so a thought I had now which I would never have had before the diagnosis is, I wonder if I get to do that? I wonder if I get to throw the ball with my teenage son, or I wonder if I just get to build the sandcastle with my 5-year-old son.
What attracted you to your wife Lauren?
Well, first of all she’s a spectacularly beautiful woman externally, but really she has a profound giftedness in multiple areas. She’s really artistic—she writes a lot of the songs that we sing here. She’s a far better writer than I am. She’s got a real gift for communication. She’s got a love and trust for the Lord. I’d lived enough life to know that being externally beautiful was going to be a fleeting thing and a thing that wasn’t great at holding a relationship together. And so really, for all the comments that she could draw because of her physical beauty, she’s far more beautiful inside than she is out.
How do you carve out time for your kids with the tremendous responsibility of multiple churches?
I’m going to take very seriously God’s command on my life in 1 Timothy and Titus, which basically says that if I am not a good manager of my house, if I do not love my wife well, if I do not love her like Christ loved the church, if I do not teach my children—love them, don’t exasperate them to anger, things that the Scriptures would command me as a father—then I’m disqualified from doing what I’m doing here. It’s my understanding Biblically that my first ministry is to my home. And if I am faithful at home, I get to play in other places. And if I’m not faithful at home, I’m disqualified from being in other places.
My family is my first ministry. I have scheduled dates with my wife, with my daughters, even with my son—we call them “mandates.” And so we had a mandate yesterday. Reid and I, we ran some errands together, then we saw a movie and went to dinner at Chuy’s. Those are some of the things I’ve just tried to wire into our lives. When I travel, Audrey in particular is old enough to come with me. She’s 9. So she flew with me to London, where I was teaching. I don’t view what I do as a job as much as what I do, so as much as I can incorporate them into what I do, I want to do that. So they’ve been with me to the hospital to pray with people. I’m trying to live a life that I would want any member of my church—I would want their lives to look like that. I would want them to incorporate their children into their relationship with Jesus Christ. I want them to see what Daddy does.
What do you think when you see prominent people in ministry getting divorced?
I think it’s heartbreaking. It’s a sad state; it shows a misunderstanding of what the word “covenant” means. Honestly, the vow holds us together some days. I’m afraid that our culture has a view of love that’s horrifically lacking, because if love is some sort of emotion I possess, then that’s terrifying to me. That has no comfort, so you’ve got this message from our culture that love’s an emotion–right alongside this myth that there’s one person who’s going to fulfill all the desires of your heart. When you put those two together, you’ve got a serious poison. Because you have an expectation now that there’s this singular person out there who’s going to solve all the woes of your heart, that you’re always going to be on Cloud Nine emotionally, and there’s no honesty in that and there’s no safety in that. How safe are you in your marriage if that’s the definition of love? But that’s what culture is trying to teach us, which is why you see this epidemic of divorce and marriages that last a nanosecond. It’s the air we breathe, and it’s a poisonous air.
How do you counter it in your congregation?
Well, I think I want to do what I just did—I want to point out the error in the myth. First, that there’s a mythical one person who meets all your needs. Then I want to teach on covenant and on what it means to enter into a covenant relationship with someone, and then to hold fast to that covenant through thick and thin. And that really, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ are going to give us what we need to be obedient to what He commanded us to be, which is in the man’s case for him to love his wife like Jesus Christ loved the church and all the implications of that, and for a woman to respect her husband and submit to a glad, self-sacrificing type of leadership that is concerned first and foremost with the woman becoming what the Bible calls a well-watered vine.
Have you changed as a dad?
Yes. I think I’m less prone to put things off and think we’ll have time for that later. I try to be more fully present. And with the mandates and the dates with my girls, I don’t bring my cell phone. The cell phone stays at home. Just little things like that. I want to train my daughters—you need to have a man’s attention. I would find it to be disrespectful if you’re dating some guy, and the whole time you’re trying to share your heart with him and get to know him, he’s tweeting or updating his Facebook status.
Why did you call your book The Explicit Gospel?
One of the things we’ve picked up on is that in a lot of Evangelical circles, the gospel is assumed. And so what happens, in place of the gospel that’s not only supposed to save us but sustain us and grow us in holiness, you have instead replaced it with a kind of pragmatism that doesn’t have the power to do what the gospel has the power to do, which is to transform your heart, life, and the way you see the world around you. Which then, in fact, transforms the pragmatics of your life. So if you skip the gospel or assume it and go straight to the pragmatism but you don’t have that heart change, then any change you get is a type of counterfeit change. What God’s after and what the gospel does is transform hearts, and then our behavior changes because our hearts have changed. If you skip the gospel, then what you’re doing is modifying people’s behavior but not transforming their hearts. And without transformed hearts, you get a type of cold, dead religion that’s judgmental and hateful and lacks the love of Christ—that lacks a gratitude and love of the God who saved you.
Are you suffering well, going through this illness?
I feel like I suffered well. I tried to do the best I could with the grace the Lord gave me, to walk in trust of Him, having my life in His hands. He’s been really gracious. He would have been gracious if it hadn’t gone like it’s gone.
Portions of this interview first appeared in DallasChild magazine.
Julie Lyons is the editor of MannaEXPRESS. She lives in Dallas with her husband and son.