Laughter and Brimstone
Flower Mound’s Matt Chandler updates that old-time religion for a new generation.
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Matt Chandler strides to the stage of the Village Church, all six feet five of him, dressed in an untucked blue button-down and dark jeans over boots. He has shown up this particular Sunday to deliver a sermon about Internet pornography, and he begins with a warning that things might get uncomfortable—and they certainly do. “Those men and women you click on and watch—have you ever wondered what their stories actually are?” Chandler asks the silent auditorium. That kind of lapel grabbing has become his trademark. But lest the congregants exit feeling crippled by shame, Chandler reminds them that redemption is possible. “Please don’t feel like you’ve already blown it,” he implores. “The cross gives us a mulligan. Take the mulligan, man.” After the service, they line up to shake his hand, give him a hug, or share a whispered prayer.
Everybody here knows Chandler well. They’ve laughed at his jokes. They’ve prayed with him. They’ve come to recognize his verbal tics, like how he asks, “Are you tracking?” to make sure no one has gotten lost. They’ve leaned back in their pews when he shouts like an exasperated coach at halftime. But this is the first time many of them have seen him in the flesh.
Most Sundays, Chandler preaches at the main location of the Village Church, in Flower Mound, where he is the lead pastor and featured attraction. Those services are beamed live to satellite campuses in Denton and in North Dallas, the site of today’s rare in-person appearance. (This spring, a fourth campus will open in Fort Worth.) So many people show up at the Dallas campus to watch Chandler on a giant screen that if you don’t come early, you won’t get a seat. The crowds at the Village Church are, for the most part, largely white, suburban, upper-middle-class, and young; the average age is 32 (8 years younger than the average age at other American megachurches). You’d think such a youthful assembly might yearn for a sunnier message, yet Chandler’s blend of laughter and brimstone draws them in droves. When he took over the Village, in 2002, it had 160 active members. Today, the three branches have more than 10,000.
Why do they come? The short answer is Chandler, who once said he’s drawn to preachers who are “full of angst, like the text has possessed them.” This is a perfect self-description. Chandler doesn’t preach Gospel lite. He chastises Christians who “put silver and gold in the cups of beggars” but don’t tell them about Jesus. He scolds pastors who focus on “buildings, budgets, and butts in the seats” yet lack “any real depth or substance.” He mocks those who turn the Bible into a self-help manual and pretend the Almighty is an omnipotent wish machine. “I think people want God to be Tinker Bell and sprinkle fairy dust on them,” Chandler says. “But that’s not who he is.” Chandler isn’t there to give you a pat on the back; if that’s what you need, Joel Osteen is five hours south.
As his Dallas-area ministry has expanded, the 38-year-old pastor’s national prominence has exploded. He has more than 160,000 followers on Twitter. Thousands download podcasts of his sermons every week. Chandler’s first book, The Explicit Gospel, published in March, was blurbed by arguably the most influential evangelical in the country, Rick Warren, who raved, “If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It’s that important.”
Chandler weaves his own life story into his sermons. He grew up in Texas City with an abusive alcoholic dad and a Christian fundamentalist mom who “made the Pharisees look laid-back.” After graduating from Abilene’s Hardin-Simmons University, in 1999, he enrolled in seminary the following year but dropped out. He reenrolled in 2002 and then dropped out again. By that point, he was already preaching; attending seminary felt, he once wrote, like “laying a foundation in a house I was already living in.” Even without that degree, he was in demand as a speaker. Audiences loved his rapid-fire wit, his sense of urgency, and—the word they use most—his authenticity.
James Bielo, an anthropologist at Miami University, in Ohio, and the author of Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity, and the Desire for Authenticity, believes the Village Church is repackaging traditional theology—homosexuality is an abomination; evolution is unbiblical—for a young, savvy audience. Chandler is “circulating some pretty old ideas,” Bielo says, and doing so in a style that’s more palatable than that of the stuffy Southern Baptist preachers of yesteryear. The Village Church is part of Acts 29, a national organization of more than four hundred churches that gives people that old-time religion in language that’s culturally sensitive while at the same time eschewing a hip, anything-goes theology. (Chandler was selected as Acts 29’s president last spring.) “At the core of this movement within Christianity is a critique of existing Christianity,” says Bielo.
Over soup and soufflés at Rise No. 1, an upscale French restaurant near Dallas’s Highland Park neighborhood, Chandler talked about the challenges of his newfound celebrity. People often tell Chandler he’s changed their lives, a compliment he is unwilling to accept. “I’m an awesome motivator,” he says. “But to transform people’s lives? That’s God stuff, man.” In Christian circles, Chandler has emerged as an aggressive critic, not only of prosperity preachers like Osteen but of a growing liberal movement among evangelicals that questions the existence of hell and suggests some non-Christians may get a ticket to heaven. “It’s a belittlement of God to say rebellion is not worthy of hell,” Chandler says. “When you start going with what sounds right, rather than what the word of God says, you get yourself into trouble.”
Of course, faithfulness to the word of God is no guarantee of a trouble-free life. On Thanksgiving morning three years ago, Chandler suffered a seizure, bit through his tongue, and had to be wrestled into an ambulance. A scan revealed a growth on his brain. During seven hours of surgery, the growth was removed, along with a sizable chunk of his right frontal lobe. The pathology report was grim: the tumor was malignant, and the cancer was a type that almost always recurs. What followed was weeks of radiation, months of chemotherapy, and everything that comes with cancer treatment: nausea, fatigue, depression. Chandler struggled not to cry in front of his three kids. He had officiated his share of funerals and comforted cancer patients, but none of that fully prepared him. “The funny thing is,” he says, “I was like everybody else. I didn’t think it was going to be me.”
Originally the doctors gave him, at best, three years to live. But his MRI scans have been clear, and now they give him seven to ten. He looks healthy and says he feels great. But during the weeks leading up to each scan, his anxiety returns. What’s fitting—or, if you like, ordained—is that Chandler has never preached that the Lord smooths the paths of his followers. In fact, he often points to counterexamples. John the Baptist was beheaded. John the Apostle was boiled in oil. Saint Peter was crucified upside down. To teach that God always heals is to misread the Bible, Chandler argues. “Follow God,” he once said, well before he had any idea he would fall sick. “It could end badly.”