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Matt Chandler

Matt Chandler calls himself a “full-throttle guy,” and you see it in his electrifying preaching – just check out a two-minute YouTube clip called “Jesus Wants the Rose.”

The passion boils over to The Village Church in Flower Mound, Chandler’s home base, which regularly turns people away on Sunday mornings for lack of space – a thing virtually unheard of. The six-foot-five, 37-year-old pastor, husband and father of three presides over a church network that has grown from 160 people in 2002 to average weekend attendance of 8,200 in Flower Mound and satellite churches in Dallas and Denton that beam in Chandler’s sermons. These turn people away too, despite multiple services and overflow rooms. Additional “campuses” are in the works for Fort Worth and Plano, not that Chandler is counting. He twice deflects questions about The Village’s explosive growth before offering gently that all he’s doing is “old-time religion,” centered around the simple gospel of Jesus Christ, and eagerly seized by a generation with “a real hunger for transcendence and serious thinking about God and who he is.”
But there is another reason for the sense of urgency so evident in Chandler’s messages. Three years ago at Thanksgiving, just after feeding and burping his infant daughter Norah, Chandler suffered a grand mal seizure and came to hours later in the hospital. (In between, he bit through his tongue, ripped an IV out of his arm and assaulted a medic, none of which he remembers.) Within days doctors reached a shattering diagnosis: He had a malignant brain tumor that, medicine declares, is 100 percent fatal. After successful surgery, Chandler was given a life expectancy of two to three years. He underwent daily chemo and preached with a bald head. Huge scars furrowed down the front and side of his scalp. Today his prognosis has been extended to seven to 10 years and his hair has grown back (“We Chandlers can grow hair,” he says), but he is still a marked man, living “by the grace of God” and content that, so far, “I feel like I suffered well.”

One thing is for sure, he wants to make the moments count with his wife of 13 years, Lauren, and their three children: Audrey, 9; Reid, 6; and Norah, 3. He told about a recent experience at the beach, where he was digging in the sand, building castles with son Reid. His eyes caught a scene 20 yards away – a dad tossing a football with his teenage son. “A thought I had,” he says, “which I would never have had before the diagnosis is, ‘I wonder if I get to do that.’

“The thing that’s changed,” he says, “is really an acute awareness of mortality.”

Chandler met his wife – a Longview, Texas, native who he calls “far more of a spectacular woman than her external beauty” – when he was in his early 20s and preaching in Colorado. He married Lauren, a gifted songwriter, artist and writer, two years later, settling in Abilene. Matt Chandler left behind a successful itinerant preaching ministry in 2002 to come to the Dallas area and pastor a small church in Highland Village – by any conventional measure, a huge step down. Instead the ministry took off, becoming what is The Village Church today.

The children started coming soon afterward. Ask him about their personalities, and this busy, world-renowned preacher will launch into vivid sketches of each one’s character. Audrey, he says, is “ferocious and fearless,” a skillful entrepreneur with a soft heart who orchestrates bake sales to aid mission ventures such as Gospel for Asia. Reid is “really sweet, artistic like his mama,” but loves to roughhouse with Dad. “He’s always got that kind of sweetness,” Chandler says. “He feels deeply. He’s the one you’ve got to watch your tone with.” Norah, the toddler, is “super-precocious. She talks more than anybody else and talks more loudly than anyone else. So I don’t know if that’s just a survival mechanism being the third child or what.”

Chandler has noted how boys and girls – and his especially – receive love differently. His girls get dressed up and implicitly beg, “Look at me.” Chandler takes care to respond with affirming words: “Oh, you’re beautiful,” or “That looks great.” Whereas son Reid couldn’t care less. He’ll amble around in a rumpled T-shirt and “some orange shorts that I don’t even know where he got them, two different shoes …” Then when Dad gets home, he’ll jump him and pick a play fight. “He wants hard touch,” Chandler says. “He wants me to tickle him, he wants me to body-slam him on the bed – these are the things he desires and feels affirmed in and loved by me. And I don’t know that my girls operate that way. I don’t know that my girls want to be body-slammed on the bed.”

The pastor takes that as guidance in how to raise his kids, adhering to the biblical principle that one should “train up a child in the way he should go.” With his daughters, he instinctively leans toward care – protecting and defending them. With his son, he says, “I’m much more apt to think train to defend and protect.” He speaks movingly about parenting a child’s heart instead of merely modifying behaviors.

“If you get behavioral modification that’s only working while they’re in your house, then I can tell you what happens the second they leave your house,” he says. “But if you go after a kid’s heart and try to get underneath the behavior, then you’ve got a real chance of God doing a transformative work.

“It’s been my experience,” he adds, “that far too many parents are way too concerned with, ‘Oh, how’s this making me look?’ as opposed to a real sense of soul-shaping in their child.”

Shaping a kid’s heart takes time, and Chandler does it, in part, through regular, scheduled “dates” with his wife and daughters, each getting exclusive time with Dad, and what he jokingly calls “mandates” with his son. His latest “mandate” was running some errands with Reid, seeing The Avengers together and having dinner at Chuy’s. And get a hold of this: When Chandler does dates with his daughters – even entire family vacations, like a trip to the beach in Naples, Florida – he leaves the cell phone and laptop at home. (Lauren does carry her phone, but the ministry is only allowed to contact her in case of dire emergency.)

“I want to train my daughters – you need to have a man’s attention,” Chandler says. “I would find it 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 and updating his Facebook status.”

The Chandlers also corral their kids five times a week for family devotions, which Matt calls “chaotic.” He might read the Bible aloud for five minutes then Lauren takes over with a dramatic reading from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. A friend gave him apt advice about launching family devotions: “You just have to do it, man.”

Life does look different when the fuse is burning. Play dates and family time don’t get put off, Chandler says; cell phones, laptops and supposedly important church business can wait when you’ve got no choice but to think eternal.

How has your marriage changed after being diagnosed with a brain tumor?

I think it’s just gotten better and better and better as these realities have fleshed themselves out in my wife. Where I think before – I’ve got a strong personality, I’m kind of a naturally gifted leader – [Lauren] would lean much more readily upon that than she does now. I still lead in all the same ways I did before, but it’s been fun to watch her grow in her own independence and her own pursuit of the Lord, in her mothering. In all those things, I’ve seen a serious growth in my wife as she doesn’t dwell upon but has to face what the reality might be like if I wasn’t there.

What attracted you to 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 I Timothy and in 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 – meaning 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. 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 – I was teaching in London. She came out to San Diego. We rode bikes in Coronado and walked around Del Mar, ate breakfast on the beach and let her see what Daddy does. 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 to live. I would want them to incorporate their children into their relationship with Jesus Christ.

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 emotionally on Cloud Nine with, and there’s no honesty in that, and there’s no safety in that. 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 this in your congregation?
Well, I think I want to do what I just did – I want to point out the error in the myth that you’re being sold. First, that there’s a mythical one, that there is one person who meets all your needs. So what I want to try to do is deconstruct the myth and show that it’s not true. And 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’m much more apt to say, OK, let’s go outside and play. I think I’m less prone to put things off and think that we’ll have time for that later. I try to be more fully present.

Can you characterize the differences in raising boys and girls?
If I made generalizations, it would appear to me that my default with my daughters is care, where my default with my son is training. To put it in a real-life scenario, if one of my daughters falls down, I have a tendency to say, “Oh gosh, are you all right, is everything OK?” Whereas my default with my son is more not to fall again. I think with my daughters, I’m much more apt to think defend and protect, and with my son I’m more apt to think train to defend and protect. A lot of times, [though], generalizations aren’t helpful. It’s good to just really know your own kid and not panic if they like things that make you feel nervous. For the longest time, my son liked my wife’s shoes. He loved those shoes. I was kind of in the back of my head going, OK, I hope he grows out of this. But we never wanted to state it in a way that would shame him or make him feel foolish for liking the shoes. Honestly, Dad’s shoes are really kind of boring. There’s a black pair, a brown pair and some tennis shoes. Whereas with Mom, there’s colors, sparklies, different sizes and shapes. Lauren’s shoes are much more fun than mine.

That’s good to know. So he grew out of that?
Oh yes, absolutely.

What are some other general principles that you’d teach your congregation in addition to the caring and the training?
What I want to try to do with our parents at The Village is really dial them in to the hearts of their children, even more than their behavior. Now you take a step into the world of theology. For me, it’s my understanding that my kids were brought forth in iniquity – which means they were born sinners. A lot of people think sin is what happens when you wake up and realize right from wrong and you choose wrong, but I don’t believe the Bible teaches that. I think the Bible teaches that you were born with a broken heart, and out of the overflow of that heart you do sinful actions because you have a sinful heart. So, the rebellion of a 1-year-old is flowing out of a sinful heart in need of being disciplined, which I would take to mean shaped. When I use the word discipline, I’m not talking about a spanking, although I think that there are times when that’s required and necessary. But when I’m using the term discipline, I’m talking about shaping with an end in mind. So if my daughter is perpetually lying, I want to get underneath her lying to find out why she’s lying. Is she lying because she wants my approval? Is she lying because she’s embarrassed, and if so, what’s driving that embarrassment? I want to get underneath an action. My daughter’s acting out – why is she acting out? The thing that makes this difficult is that a lot of times they don’t know why they’re acting out. But even in that case, simply going after the heart and really encouraging them to think at that level, it pays dividends.

So, with Audrey’s ferocity and strong entrepreneurial impulse, for example, how do you parent her heart?
What I want to do is, I love those things about her. Those are things that I think need to be shaped, not squashed. And so when she has an idea to have a bake sale, I want to help her understand what that looks like. What are we making? Where are we setting up the booth? We’ve even tried to teach her a little bit about profit margin. You’re making all this with stuff that Mom bought, so do you owe Mom any of the money that you made? [Audrey] came to know Christ two years ago, so a lot of times when she’s doing these things, she’s raising money for something. We were recently in New York, and if we’d pass someone who was homeless, she was like, “Dad, give that guy some money.” She’s got a deep feel in her too, an empathy for people in tough spots. So I want to cultivate that entrepreneurial spirit, I want to rein in that ferocity where it needs to be reined in and point in directions that are good and right and unleash it. And that’s a fine line, and that’s why books aren’t always great, because there’s not a grid that’s going to work right on every kid. That’s why it’s so important for you to know your kid, to know your kid’s heart, to know their strengths. Another thing that’s been helpful for Lauren and me is about once a quarter, we sit down and talk about the kids, just where they are, what we’re seeing, where we think we can encourage them, where we need to correct a little bit, where there might be some wandering happening. I think that’s been helpful in devising a plan how to train and teach your children as individuals, instead of just house rules.

What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had with your family?
My favorite vacation that we’ve taken as a family is we went on a Disney cruise several years ago, and I think the reason we loved it was because we could have just as much family time together as we wanted, but then Lauren and I could also pull aside and do things for the adults, and they could do things for the kids that they didn’t want us to come get them from. When you’re picking up your daughter when Cinderella’s watching her, she’s not prone to want to go hang out with you. So that was one of my favorites. Another one we took last summer, when a very generous man at our church who owned a condo out in the Naples, Florida, area [allowed] the family and me to go there and just do nothing. We hung out on the beach, cooked food and swam in the pool, snorkeled and collected shells, and we just did it for days. I didn’t bring my computer or my phone.

Do you recommend that on vacations?
I do. I think guys are wired in different ways, but it takes me a couple of days to kind of let go –to kind of breathe out and get out of gear and just start being instead of doing. I find that if people have access to me, they’re going to take advantage of that access. If that happens, then emotionally and mentally I never really went on vacation. That is the drawback of the mobile revolution we’re in.

What’s the best thing about being a dad?
That’s nearly an impossible question. I think the thing I enjoy most is to watch them grow, and that’s in every way. There’s also a bit of mourning in it, when they stop saying words the wrong way. We’re done now, unless the Lord does something miraculous. I enjoy watching each of them grow in their understanding of the Lord, in their understanding of the world around them, watching their passions come out – these are all the kinds of things that are really exciting. And they give me an excuse to be silly. I don’t feel like I need that excuse, but coming up on 40, I feel like that gives me a card. We were playing around at dinner last night … in fact, I even got in trouble with my wife for that. But it’s fun.

Have you made a conscious effort to lead them to Jesus Christ?
Oh, absolutely. From the second they were born.

Several ways. One, we have actively prayed for each of them by name before the Lord, asking for God to save them, to draw their hearts to him. We do a family devotional five nights a week together. It’s 15–20 minutes, it’s usually very chaotic, you just have to trust that the Lord’s using it. A friend just told me one time, “You just have to do it, man. If you wait till everybody can do it, it’s never gonna happen.” So sometimes that’s just us reading a book and talking about it. Sometimes that’s just us reading the Bible together, but right now we’ll read the Bible for five minutes, and then we’ve been reading a chapter from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and we’re in Book Two right now, and we did Chapter Three last night. We’ve got a big hardback edition that’s got great pictures. The thing that I’ve always wanted to be real careful about is that I don’t want them to say they’re Christians because Mom and Dad are Christians. I don’t want them to sign on as a family heritage; I want them to really have affection for Jesus. So in regard to making that decision for Christ, I have not brought that up with any of my children. I have simply tried to point them to Jesus. And I could be making a horrible error, but it’s been my experience here at The Village that a lot of kids said they became Christians when they were 5, 6, 7 years old, because that’s what Mom and Dad wanted. So I’ve let it be known, it’s very much what Daddy wants. It’s very much what Mommy wants. But that it needs to be their decision, and their mom and dad’s love for them is not predicated on that decision, that they need to own that, and that Dad very much wants for them to love Jesus like Dad loves Jesus but not to love Jesus because Dad loves Jesus. We try to make that as clear as possible.

Why did you call your first book The Explicit Gospel?
In a lot of evangelical circles, the gospel is assumed. And so what happens in place of the gospel, which is not only supposed to save us but sustain us and grow us in holiness, you have 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 that is a result of the gospel in your heart but you don’t have that heart change, then any change you get is a type of counterfeit change and not a legitimate change. So 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 – it lacks a gratitude and love of the God who saved you.