Lauren Chandler stood around the corner preparing food for Thanksgiving dinner in her suburban Dallas home waiting for her husband, Matt, to assure her that the sound of the clanging fireplace tools she had just heard was being taken care of.
Matt Chandler – the lead pastor of the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas – was helping her with their kids. He had just finished feeding their 6-month-old daughter, Nora, a bottle.
But that reassurance never came. Instead, the high-pitched voice of their eldest daughter, 6, cut through the air: “Hey mom!”
When Lauren turned the corner, she saw why no “It’s OK honey” ever came: Matt was unconscious and writhing on the ground as a grand mal seizure overtook his body, tugging at various parts of his being like a puppet master pulling at strings.
But if you ask Matt, he doesn’t remember any of it.
“I was walking back to sit in my chair, I was just walking back to sit down, and literally I woke up in the hospital,” he tells TheBlaze, his 6-foot-5-inch frame peeking above a chair in the church’s sanctuary.
“I didn’t feel anything coming on. Literally, I have no memory of thinking, ‘Oh that’s weird, my hand’s asleep.’”
Because of the lack of memory, Lauren had to tell Matt what happened in between his walking to his chair and staring up at the bright lights of a hospital room.
“So when Lauren came in [to the living room] … she turned me on my side and called 911. And then I apparently started coming back into my senses after the paramedics got there and had put me on the gurney. They were trying to strap me in the gurney, and apparently I didn’t care for that and I punched one of them.
“I don’t know what that says about what’s going on in me subconsciously,” he jokes in his trademark wit. “But they popped me with something to knock me out and that’s what kind of wiped the memory.”
Back in the hospital, the doctor entered the room after reviewing a CT scan and MRI that Matt doesn’t remember getting.
“He scooted his stool right up to my bed and said, ‘Hey, we found a mass in your right frontal lobe. And you’re going to need to go see a neurosurgeon.’”
The mass was the size of a golf ball.
Matt remembers just wanting to get out of there. His tongue hurt – he had bitten through it during the seizure – and it was Thanksgiving, a time to be with his family. He wanted normalcy. But normal was about to be defined in a very different way.
[sharequote align=”center”]“I didn’t feel anything coming on. Literally, I have no memory…”[/sharequote]
Matt Chandler may be one of the most prominent pastors in the country that you’ve never heard of.
A recent online survey of TheBlaze audience, which is generally in tune with faith issues, makes that point. The question was simple: “Do you know who Matt Chandler is?” Out of 3,395 respondents, 64 percent said they had no idea or weren’t quite sure who he was. Considering his accolades, it’s surprising.
Chandler leads a congregation of 11,000 members in the north Dallas suburb of Flower Mound, with many more than that attending weekend services. While he preaches from the main campus (a sprawling, renovated old Albertsons grocery store), his messages are piped into four other locations across the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, which also have their own individual campus pastors: Denton, Plano, Fort Worth and Dallas, where this author is a member. His messages are in the top 10 podcasts under the Christianity section on iTunes, and he has over 279,000 Twitter followers.
Chandler doesn’t just lead a large church, though. He’s also the head of the Acts 29 Network, a thriving, global church-planting organization with around 500 churches. He took over the group from Mark Driscoll, the sometimes-controversial leader of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Chandler moved the headquarters to Dallas.
He isn’t a traditional preacher. He’s casual, wearing jeans, a polo shirt and blue suede shoes during our interview – an outfit he would resurrect on a recent Sunday. He uses as many one-liners in his sermons as he does Bible verses. He’s loud, but not like a fire-and-brimstone televangelist. He’s more like the cross between a high school football coach and an illusionist when he takes the stage: A commanding, motivating cadence accented by distinct and continuous hand motions that draw his audience in.
That ability to lift heavy eyelids on early Sunday mornings was honed during his time as a college minister. Before he became a local pastor, he was traveling around the country as a mid-20-something preaching. He made a name for himself, and people were eating it up.
“If I led it, it blew up,” he tells TheBlaze, not to be cocky but to reflect reality. He was preaching to thousands of people every time he took the stage.
Then, at 28 years old in 2002, he became the pastor of a small Baptist church: Highland Village First Baptist Church. It had about 160 members. And Chandler was content to shepherd the small flock. A year later, it would become known simply as “The Village Church.”
“I had this Mayberry, romantic [idea]: 160 people, digging deep, doing life richly. And then by the end of the first year, we’re over 1,000 and that was just gone,” he says.
And it’s only gotten bigger.
[sharequote align=”right”]“I think I lacked some grace that I wish I would have had.” — Chandler on his early preaching[/sharequote]
His rise wasn’t without its hiccups, though. Visitors to the church’s website who want to listen to Chandler’s past sermons will notice that messages from 2002 through 2006 are gone. A note accompanying it reads in part, “We have removed all sermons prior to January 2006. The decision was made because of secondary concerns regarding tone, language and youthful angst over peripheral matters.”
“I think I lacked some grace that I wish I would have had,” he says candidly. “I was 28 at the time, and 28-year-olds are 28-year-olds. And so I lacked some grace, I lacked some understanding, and so I said some things that I wish I wouldn’t have said. And I poked at things I wish I wouldn’t have poked at.
“And when you’re 28 and preaching to a room of 500 people, you’re not thinking, ‘One day people all over the world are going to listen to this.’”
“I just had a bit more vinegar in me back then,” he continues, “and I wasn’t very gracious and I wasn’t gracious toward things I didn’t understand.” He would later explain he would critique things like megachurches and how they respond to certain situations, or build up straw-man arguments just to tear them down.
Eventually, he got tired of getting emails about things he had said six years earlier – things he would apologize for and in some cases, be in disbelief he had actually said.
“And so I finally went, ‘OK, pull ’em,” he explains, flipping his wrist.
“I had a bit of an edge to me that I didn’t think was helpful, that I didn’t think was loving,” he adds. “I want to stand for the truth always, I never want to be afraid to speak it. But I think there’s a way to handle truth that’s helpful, and then there’s a way to handle it that’s not helpful.”
While he may have less vinegar now, he still has a bold preaching style. That’s required him to find a way of dealing with detractors.
“I try to turn my critics into coaches,” he says, meaning when someone has a legitimate critique he affirms the critic and tries to learn from it. He tells the story of a staff member who recently challenged a finer point in one of his sermons, and how he admitted to them they were right.
As for what he views as illegitimate critiques, he tries to deal with them the way many did with him when he was 28 and full of vinegar: with grace.
Chandler’s seizure happened on a Thursday. By Tuesday, he was meeting with the neurosurgeon. Despite the scary episode, he and his wife weren’t worried. It wasn’t just a nervous it’s-all-going-to-work-out-for-the-best attitude; it was more of a there’s-really-nothing-to-worry-about mentality. They were convinced, after counsel from a “well-meaning” medical professional in their church, that the tumor was nothing.
“We completely thought he was going to say, ‘Ahh, you know what, we’ll just put you on some meds to control the seizures and we’ll watch this.’”
As soon as the neurosurgeon flipped on the screen, Chandler knew something was wrong: The scan looked much different than the one he had seen before, more intricate and full of bright colors.
“He said, ‘Matt, I’m just going to be honest with you. This looks really bad. I’ve created some space for you on Friday. We need to go in and cut this out.’”
That, Chandler says, was the first time “the floor dropped out.” The weight of the situation became real.
“To sit down with a neurosurgeon and him go through the long list of things that can happen when they cut out most of your right frontal lobe, that was when I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” he says with a slight chuckle.
Quickly, though, Chandler and his wife turned to their faith. While the floor may have dropped out, he says, he still found it – meaning prayer became crucial. He quickly started preparing for surgery. The church already long ago had instituted a contingency plan if something were to ever happen to him. He shot a video for the congregation to be played on Sunday since he wouldn’t be able to be there.
It’s the one video, he says, that would increase his reach for years to come:
Every year you can count on three specific messages from Chandler. There are the normal Easter and Christmas sermons. But the third one is very different and very pointed: It’s about abortion.
“I have deep, deep, deep convictions intellectually and spiritually and biblically with abortion,” he tells TheBlaze.
And while it’s popular to disparage so-called “one-issue voters,” Chandler takes a decidedly counter-cultural approach: If there’s one issue you’re going to base your vote on, abortion is the one to use.
“If we believe that – believer, unbeliever, Christian, not Christian – if we believe that life begins at conception in the womb and science backs us up – and I believe it does – then to vote for someone who actively advocates for the murder of human beings is unconscionable. I just think it’s madness.”
[sharequote align=”left”]“I don’t think either party … has kind of dialed in on God’s view of human flourishing.”[/sharequote]
What if both candidates support abortion?
“In that moment, I don’t think the Christian should ever retreat from the polls,” he says. “I think you’ve got to find the one who has a better position on the issue. So if you don’t have one that wants it all gone, but you have one who wants it to be more difficult to get, then I think we back that guy in viewing the whole of his political abilities or her political abilities.”
It’s a strong stance for someone who rarely talks about politics from the pulpit. He doesn’t like to. He doesn’t really want to.
“I don’t think either party … has kind of dialed in on God’s view of human flourishing,” he explains, interrupting himself to make note that the online comments section may light up due to his stance. “And so I feel like if I’m going to take a party line in regards to politics, I’m going to not be able to appeal to the sensibility of the other party members.”
“I won’t back a party,” he adds, “but what I will do is show you from the word of God what is right, good, and true according to the creator of all things.”
It’s that approach, he says, that allows him to preach his abortion message every year, surprisingly without backlash. While there are some around him who brace themselves for an onslaught of negative feedback, he says, “It’s never happened.”
“If anything, across the aisles, I mean I’ve just got affirmation … . Even from here in Dallas [from] our small little group of Democrats.” He explains how one such person, John, has called Chandler’s abortion message, “’One of the best messages I’ve ever heard.’”
“Ultimately I’ve found that by being a Bible man instead of a [political] party man, that I can preach truth into both parties,” he concludes.
Chandler was sitting on his couch the month after his surgery. He had shaved his head so he didn’t have to worry about the hair that had started falling out. The cancer was malignant, and doctors had only given him two to three years to live.
Radiation and low-dose chemotherapy were his life. And he was about to move to high-dose chemo.
There, on his couch, he was about to have his one moment of doubt and questioning God.
“The hardest thing in the world for me was to be around my kids,” he recalls. “I wanted to withdraw. I wanted to just put in headphones, listen to music, and just pull back. Because there was just so much loss I was feeling.”
“So I’m sitting on the couch one day … and so my wife had taken these Christmas cards with everyone’s pictures on them … . And there was a picture of a family that my wife is friends with the wife and the guy has had multiple affairs on his wife and is just unbelievably self-centered and wicked to his wife and rude to his daughters. And I remember looking at that picture and going, ‘Really, me?’ Like, ‘I’m the one with brain cancer? Are you serious?’”
But it didn’t last long.
“I very quickly remembered Luke 15 and the older brother saying, ‘I never. You never even gave me a goat. I never brought prostitutes into your land.’ And I felt wicked in the moment,” he says, looking back with a laugh.
He asked God for forgiveness. He would eventually turn to a passage in the book of Nehemiah where the prophet asked God to strengthen his hands.
“That kind of became a verse for me that I just kind of put in my gut and asked the Holy Spirit to let me marinate in that text and let my hands be strong. ‘I want to praise you and make much of you in this journey,’” he remembers thinking. “’You’ve dealt so generously with me that how could I praise you when everything’s awesome and then not when things don’t look like they’re going my way.’”
Today, he calls that moment a “divine spanking.”
“If there’s anyone that shouldn’t be a Christian, I’m one of them,” Chandler admits to TheBlaze.
His mother emphasized the rules and regulations of religion, but none of the grace. His father, whose job in the Army forced the family to move frequently, was “abusive, angry, and violent when he wasn’t absent.”
He became frustrated with his mom’s Jesus, but didn’t want to become the man he saw in his father.
An encounter in a high school football locker room would become the turning point to changing his attitude on faith.
A teammate named Jeff came up to him one day. “Hey, I need to tell you about Jesus. When do you want to do that?” Jeff said.
Chandler says he didn’t want to believe. He viewed church as a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But he went. And kept going. He pressed Jeff and asked tough questions, comparing himself to the Pharisees who despite asking questions were never truly satisfied.
Jeff was patient and humble. He would admit when he didn’t have an answer. That, and what Chandler calls God’s “mysterious draw,” eventually won him over.
Chandler, an admirer of boldness, saw his intrigue slowly become belief: “I’ve been in football locker rooms. You talk about a lot of things there. That’s not usually one of them.”
Still, there would be remnants of his upbringing that would haunt him. His father’s example would lead to insecurities that would later contribute to what he calls the “terrible” years of his marriage: the first seven years with his wife that they have now worked through but were so difficult.
“There were literally nights where I laid in bed and thought, ‘Surely this isn’t the rest of my life.’ Because divorce was never— it just wasn’t going to happen.”
It all changed when he went to a biblical counselor and stopped trying to point out his wife’s faults and decided to “work on me.”
“The turn has been [unbelievable]: best friend in the world, can’t wait to get home, hate to leave in the morning.”
It’s a Sunday morning in July and Chandler is preaching about grace. But halfway through the sermon, he admits something to his church: He’s nervous.
He talks about how he woke up at 4:50 a.m. worrying. Sure, he beat the cancer after about a year. It’s completely gone. The only remnant is a scar on his scalp that’s only visible when he turns a certain way and only if the lighting is right. He brought the church on the journey with him, religiously filing video diaries that supporters could watch.
Yet twice a year he has to go to the doctor for a brain scan and checkup to make sure the invader hasn’t returned to do battle. He awoke on this morning thinking about the “what ifs.”
He rattles off the questions: “What will we do at the Village if I go down again? What will we do with Acts 29 if I go down again? What’s going to happen to my family if I go down again?”
Eventually, the preacher who reaches thousands every Sunday had to preach to an audience of one:
Now I’m having to preach the gospel to myself. I’m having to tell myself, “Hey, you’re in God’s hands, Matt. There’s nothing you can do. He’s for you, not against you. You have all this evidence. You’ve been in the valley, and you found him there. There is no news you’ll get that will take God for surprise, that will cause an emergency to break out in heaven. God is already there. He is already confident. Regardless of the news, you will not, in the long run, lose.”
Twice a year, he faces the potential of the “what ifs.” Twice a year he has to deal with a big reminder that the cancer could come back.
Still, when it comes to his battle with cancer, the fight and even the “what ifs” where never what scared him most.
“The thought of my children growing bitter toward the Lord [was the toughest], because you don’t die pretty of primary brain cancer,” he says. “I mean, you lose your mind, you lose your functions – it’s a very ugly way to die.”
That thought of them being bitter “was almost more than I could bear.”
Chandler’s story is just a small part of a larger one he hopes his church conveys: The story about what Christ can do. It’s especially important during a time when Christians are increasingly being marginalized.
“This will definitely be a new season for Bible-believing Christians in the United States,” Chandler says.
That includes being pigeon-holed. Combating that for Chandler all comes down to one word: hospitality.
He talks about one of his closest friends who taught his daughter how to ride horses. That woman also happens to identify as a lesbian.
“If someone were to go out and find that I’m a Bible-believing Christian and go listen to my hour-and-a-half message on homosexuality and call me a bigot she would just laugh. I mean, she would laugh until she peed her pants.”
“The idea that I’m hateful or bigoted towards her—I mean, she wouldn’t have a category for that,” he adds.
“By loving people, walking with them, encouraging them and not agreeing with them, that practice of hospitality can kind of transcend the accusations made against many Bible-believing Christians.”
“It’s when you’re afraid of them, and you’re afraid that you might catch the sin, or you buy into fear-mongering that you lose your testimony of the goodness and grace of God.”
Unfortunately, he says, we live in a world where “disagreement means I hate you.”
“I think the country’s been built around this idea that we have the right to disagree with one another and still respect one another and do life around the same place.”
“I think that’s what’s made America so awesome, is that there’s been this freedom of ideas — let me try to compel you, you try to compel me – I think we have the better story. I think we’ve got the better story: grace, forgiveness, healing, wholeness, human flourishing. That’s our story. That’s our message.”
He would know.