Matt Chandler has served for 10 years as lead pastor of The Village Church in Highland Village, Texas, part of the Dallas Metroplex. In the past decade, that church has grown from about 160 to more than 8,000. Recently, Matt was named president of Acts 29, a nationwide network of church planters. He recently visited with Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: At the beginning of your new book The Explicit Gospel (Crossway), you talk about a baptismal service and hearing the testimonies of people who’d grown up in the church. Some of them were saying, “I’ve grown up in the church; but I’ve never heard the gospel, and I heard it here for the first time and responded to it.” You ask a question there: How can you grow up in church every week and not hear the gospel? How does that happen?
Chandler: I think people assume the gospel, which is why we made the title The Explicit Gospel. We assume it and then move away from it. I borrowed the term from Christian Smith, who wrote a phenomenal book called Soul Searching; he writes that we move away from the gospel into what he calls Christian therapeutic moralistic deism—”there’s a God, and this is how He wants you to behave. If you want to be cool with that God, here’s how you better behave. If you don’t behave this way, then you and God can’t have a relationship; if you obey this way, then you can.”
So what we really learned is if you start thinking about the major programming, event-driven stuff in the late-’80s to early-’90s, you had the purity push among teenagers with the True Love Waits Campaign. You had a lot of sacred/secular divide.
I invited a friend to church with me after my conversion, and in our youth group they showed a video about how if you listened to secular music, this is the kind of things that it leads to; it was like secular music was a gateway drug into doing meth and wanting to murder your parents. Then it said: Here are your Christian options for that. So if you like this style of music, then what you’ll really like is this Christian artist. There was Christian music, Christian camps. So really, more than being about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it became about behavior modification.
I don’t think I can lay that on everything, but I’ve experienced hearing the confession of hundreds and hundreds of 20- and 30-year-olds—that they literally grew up in church learning how to behave but not hearing much about how Christ had reconciled them to God via His life, death and resurrection.
Preaching: The tendency for us as evangelicals is to think, “Those liberal churches don’t share the gospel as we would,” but it’s amazing how that whole approach—an emphasis on behavior modification rather than the gospel—has seeped into the evangelical church.
Chandler: I totally agree. I think by nature we want to control things. So morality is one of those things you can control; but the transformation of a soul is one of those things only God can do. So if we’re not careful…
If you’re really paying attention, specifically in the Pauline epistles, he constantly preached the gospel to people who already know the gospel. He wanted to remind people who have heard and received the gospel that the gospel is of first importance, that you don’t move on from the gospel. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 15 text, he said that by it you were saved, in it you now stand, and by it you will be saved if you hold fast to the end. So the gospel not only saves us, but sustains us, sanctifies us and holds us secure till the great coming of the Lord.
I think what’s happened is there’s been a drift away from that into a lot of self-help and “Here’s how to live a fuller life,” or “Here’s how to behave better.” I don’t see in Scripture that we are conformed by our will, but rather that we’re conformed to the image of Jesus Christ by beholding Christ and transforming from one degree of glory to the next.
Think about Colossians 3 where Paul—right after the great Christological picture he painted in chapter 2 of Colossians—said if you have been baptized into Jesus, then set your mind on things above where Christ is. Get your eyes, get your heart up on Jesus; and then he moves in verse 5 and starts talking about putting to death, therefore, what is in you. I think what we’ve done in the church is say: Put to death, and then you can love Jesus. Really, the Bible does it opposite to that.
See, savor, love Jesus and you’ll see. As we sang when I was in church late in high school, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus/Look full in His wonderful face/And the things of this earth will grow strangely dim/In the light of His glory and grace.” The more we fix our eyes on Jesus, the more we’re captivated by Jesus, the more we understand the gospel, the more the sinful longings of the flesh turn to sand in our mouth.
Preaching: In the book, you talk about two frames through which we can view the gospel: the ground and the air. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Chandler: You’ve got to do something with the fact that in Scripture the gospel is very much a personal conversion. We were called. We were justified. We’re being justified, that is, as individuals. Yet within that, God also is creating a people and reconciling all things to Himself in heaven and on earth by making peace through the blood of the cross.
So again, back to Colossians where he clearly said that in the beginning, He transferred us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of His beloved Son. Then Paul moves on from there and says that not only are we individually reconciled, but all things visible and invisible, whether in heaven or on earth, all things will be reconciled to God. So the effects of the fall, the fracturing of the shalom—as God created the universe to exist—is also reconciled to God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So I framed the book to speak about your conversion as an individual. That’s the first part of the book, and that’s where it begins—that the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross rescues me as a sinner. He imputes to me His righteousness. He takes from me the wrath due by my sin on the cross; and now I am seen as holy, spotless and blameless in the sight of God. That’s one of the frameworks of the gospel in Scripture.
The other framework of that same reconciling work of Jesus Christ is that more is happening than just that. A people is being created. Creation is being restored. There is sin and death and its toll on the universe being eradicated by the people of God. To me, I wanted to make sure we understood the robustness of the gospel, because, unfortunately, I think you’ll find guys who are in one of those camps viewing the other camp as really skeptical.
So what you’ll find is that guys really into high atonement theology for individual salvation and conversion tend to look with skepticism on guys who would define themselves more by the kingdom of God, the reconciliation of all things, engaging the world, being on mission. They look with a bit of skepticism on that. Then the “Kingdom of God/push back the darkness” people tend to look at those who are just “atonement of Christ as personal salvation” people as if they ultimately are walking in some disobedience—that they aren’t missional, that they don’t really care about the world as God cares about the world.
Having friends on both sides of that argument, I have found they are saying the same thing using different language. Both are fearful of things that have happened in the past and are letting their philosophy of ministry be dictated not by the Word of God but by things that have happened historically. That was what the third part of the book was about—addressing the fears of what if you’re just on the ground or just in the air and don’t let the gospel be as robust as it is in the Bible.
Preaching: In that second category about the gospel in the air—this concept of God’s restoration of all things—you have a chapter where you mention the dangers of having the gospel in the air too long. What do you mean by that, and what are some of those dangers?
Chandler: What I think we’ve seen historically with people who are in the air, where the kingdom of God turns into social justice sans the atonement. That’s the biggest danger. If you look at the social gospel movement that started with Walter Rauschenbusch and Hell’s Kitchen and all of that, they had a deep love for people, wanted to see people come to know Jesus. They learned that if they served the poor, cared for the poor, that there were parts of the gospel that were offensive and they slowly began to remove those offenses from the gospel message and ended up with no gospel at all.
So the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the gravitational pull on mission. As soon as you lose the atoning work of Christ on the cross and the necessity of that atoning work, you’ve lost the gospel. So that’s the predominant historical danger of the gospel in the air—of the gospel that doesn’t put a high value on conversion and the atonement.
Preaching: Matt, what do you think is the greatest challenge that preachers face today in trying to preach the explicit gospel?
Chandler: I think the biggest challenge is that we’ve created an evangelical culture that values the wrong things and puts an unreal amount of pressure on pastors to appear successful via numerics and fast growth. Ultimately, the barrier is the culture we’ve created. The guys we’ve walked with, coached and loved tend to be extremely encouraged by this idea: You need to be faithful; you need to long for the power of God to fall in your midst and to be saved and to engage the world around them; so be faithful and preach the Word of God, and let God do the work.
So the idea that faithfulness equals success in the eyes of God is undermined in how we’ve built the evangelical machine. We put in front of these guys speakers who have churches such as ours, guys who get to speak at conferences all the time. It’s like you said: We went from 160 to more than 8,000, and that’s not normative. God doesn’t love me more because that happened. He decided to pour out His Spirit. We’re not a complex organization. We’re not cutting edge. I’m not a creative guy. I’m not. I preach for about 50 minutes, and we sing. That’s old school. That’s not new school.
So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using your creativity and doing those kinds of things; but at the end of the day, it’s the power of God. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation for those who believe.
Preaching: You said you preach about 50 minutes. Can you talk about your process of preparation? How does your week look as you move toward Sunday?
Chandler: I think you have to put an asterisk by what I am about to say because I am in a very large church now with a very large staff, so it hasn’t always been this way. I have two full days a week that are complete lock-down study days. So I don’t have any meetings on those days. I literally just get to study, pray, write and put the sermons together. Our process here—because everything flows from our groups—is that in order to resource our groups, our team has to have a pretty good idea of what I am preaching a good bit in advance. So the series that we will start next weekend has been turned in for a long time. What I mean by turned in is Scripture passages and a paragraph about “this is where we’re going this weekend,” and then we’ll build out from there.
So I am almost operating off of an outline or a basic skeleton that I am building out for the future. Right now, I am highlighting and working my way through the Book of Nehemiah on Tuesdays; on Fridays, I’ll really get back into the series I currently am preaching. So Tuesdays are future prep; Fridays are current prep, even though there’s been a prep done on the series that’s starting in two weeks. In fact, I’ve got to be really careful because tomorrow will be important for me being Friday. On your first sermon that you’ve been studying for six months but no one else has even heard, there’s an opportunity for you to vomit out way too much; and you go for an hour and 20 minutes versus where you need it to be. So that’s how I work—Tuesday is a distant future sermon day; if I get too far ahead, then that day becomes more writing or conference messages or things such as that.
Preaching: How far out do you plan your preaching calendar?
Chandler: Pretty far, honestly, probably six or seven months. Some people listening to this will say, “That’s not far at all.” Others will think it seems to be a decade to them!
Preaching: How long is a typical series for you?
Chandler: They differ. I preach through books of the Bible a lot, so books of the Bible tend to go 20- or 30-something weeks. In fact, I was in Luke for two years, and I still get made fun of for that around here; but we also did a holiness series in the month of July that was just four messages.
We did a series on death and heaven last year that was three weeks long. Topical studies tend to be a lot shorter than biblical studies, of course. I’m doing a Sermon on the Mount Series this fall, and it looks as if it’s going to be about 12 weeks.
Preaching: Matt, what do you enjoy most about preaching?
Chandler: To be honest, I feel closest to God in that moment. Here I’ve spent all of this time praying and interacting with the Lord, interacting with His Word and letting it bear its weight on me; then I totally relate to the prophetic “fire in my bones” feeling. There are times I just want to get that thing out of me, and in that moment the Lord is present in a very real way. That’s by far my favorite thing about preaching.
To watch what God does through the spoken, proclaimed Word of God—I’ve never been able to get over that. That no matter how you feel about how it went, if you’re faithful to the Word of God and have spent time in prayer and glad submission before the Lord, pleading with the Lord to show up in ways you know you can’t accomplish what He can—then God is going to do that. Sometimes you’ll hear about it later, and sometimes you won’t hear about it on this side of glory; but He is at work. That interaction with the Lord and the fact He takes my sputtering and draws people to Himself and that He saves and heals and reconciles, it’s hard for me to get my mind around that.
Preaching: You have had some health issues, and many pastors around the country have known and prayed for you. I remember talking to David Jeremiah about cancer, the way that affected his preaching and how people heard him. Have you sensed that in your own preaching or in the way people hear you?
Chandler: Well, I know it’s impacted how I preach. I think the only impact on my preaching is the two years I was going through treatment when I didn’t have the kind of physical energy and physical capabilities I’d had before.
I think it definitely has changed how people hear me. Going through that little two-year beat-down gave me some credibility for a lot of people in regard to what I was saying. In the first video we shot after we found out before my surgery, I said that for years I’ve been talking about how the Lord is a sustaining force regardless of circumstance; but I also was saying that as one who hadn’t suffered much, and everything He touched turned to gold. I had a very happy marriage, great kids who were healthy, money in my checking account and a freedom of life that was really spectacular. So I think there was a sense for some people, in their own sinfulness, who’d say, “Of course he can say this. Look at his life.” To be able to proclaim the same truth through very difficult days—not knowing how many days we had left—I think that changed how people heard me and added credibility to what I was saying. People now will say, “He’s been there. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s been on the dark side of the moon.”
Preaching: One last question: What are you learning about preaching these days that you didn’t know when you were starting out as a pastor? If you could go back to young Matt 20 years ago and say, “This is what you don’t know yet, but you need to know it,” what would that be?
Chandler: That’s tough. I think I probably should have been more careful with the text in my early years. I mean being more careful not to use my prophetic edge against fringe, tertiary things. I think my opinion was more powerful than the Word, and my preference was more powerful than the Word early on.
If I could go back and talk with young Chandler, I probably would tell him to pay attention to what is his preference versus what the Word commands. You really can wound the bride of Christ and stifle what God is doing in other places by pushing hard on your own preference as opposed to what the Bible ultimately commands.