A three-day stubble adorns Matt Chandler's handsome, boyish face, belying his booming voice. It's actually "six-day" stubble, says Chandler, 39, laughing. Over lunch, Chandler's metaphor-driven mind is busy condensing big ideas into practical concepts, a trademark of his preaching and writing. As someone who preaches both "the gospel on the ground" (how Christ came to save individual sinners) and "the gospel in the air" (how Christ came to redeem all of creation), he may be well positioned to take a Reformed church-planting movement to new corners of Christendom.
"I think I'm intrinsically gifted when it comes to metaphors," he says. "I am constantly thinking, This resembles that." He tosses humor into sermons and conversations like pitching salt, so fast that listeners may miss words but get the flavor. His energetic preaching makes him a fitting choice to lead one of the fastest-growing international movements of "churches planting churches" today.
The busy Tuesday that Christianity Today visits him, the 6' 5" Chandler wears a black T-shirt and jeans. He chats while wolfing down a mixed salad in his modest office at the Village Church in Flower Mound, a Dallas–Fort Worth suburb. Posters around the building don't explicitly tout his Calvinism as one might expect, just "biblical" teaching. Cubbyholes and hangout areas in the rehabbed Albertsons grocery store promote the coffeehouse-casual feel that's nearly ubiquitous in large evangelical churches. Even Chandler's first book, The Explicit Gospel, takes a scented-candle approach to Calvinism, freshening up its more arcane teachings to attract a new generation.
A leader at the Village Church for 12 years, Chandler is entrancing if demanding to hang with. "His intensity is one of the first things you notice," says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Just sharing a meal with him—the man's intense. He's confident but he's ready to learn." "I can be overbearing at times," says Chandler, a trait he says he wants to tamp.
And just as Mohler became president of the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) flagship seminary at the young age of 33, Chandler has now become the president of the Acts 29 Network. The 16-year-old "gospel-centered" band of churches aims to write the next chapter of the missions described in the Book of Acts' 28 chapters. Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll cofounded the network with late Presbyterian pastor David Nicholas in 1998. In March 2012, during a meeting with board members present, Driscoll tapped Chandler to succeed him, shifting the offices to Dallas. (Driscoll remained on the board for a time, but is no longer listed as a member of Acts 29 leadership.)
Observers expect Chandler's relational wiring to take the network in a different direction from the one marked by Driscoll. How do the two pastors differ?
"There is no question [Driscoll] is an introvert, and I am not an introvert," Chandler says. "I feed off of people where maybe he would grow weary by it."
For Chandler, relationship starts with his wife, Lauren, who reviews his weekly schedules and signs off on travel and outside speaking gigs. "Nobody speaks truth to me as well as Lauren does," says Chandler, who believes men should lead at home and church. "She did it to me this morning."
The morning CT visited, Chandler rose as usual at 5 A.M. "I like early mornings best and spend the first part of my day making my heart happy before the Lord." Later that morning, he began casually critiquing a certain group (and perhaps drawing hasty conclusions).
Lauren asked, "Have you heard them say that?"
"No," he said. "I just said that their hermeneutic would lead me to believe that."
"Well, I think until they say that out loud, we should probably give them the benefit of the doubt," said Lauren.
And so Chandler did. Such openness enlivens the Village Church, which has 11,000 members spread out among four Dallas locations. It has added 1,000 members each year, and Chandler's sermons are regularly ranked among iTunes' top podcasts. Less than 20 years ago, Chandler says, he couldn't define "Reformed"; today he leads a movement that claims five doctrinal distinctives shaped by that theology—justification by grace through faith as the core gospel message; God saves whom he will; the Spirit empowers believers to believe the gospel and live holy lives; men lead in the church and home; and the local church's primary mission is spreading the gospel. The network currently has some 500 church planters, with about 510 currently applying to join.
Chandler wants to help the network expand globally and ethnically. It's like "changing out an engine" on a plane "that's going 500 miles an hour at 30,000 feet. 'Everybody, it's going to get bumpy. Everybody, hang on!'"
In another metaphor, he says Acts 29 is like a greenhouse. Acts 29 church plants have sprouted and grown spontaneously over the past decade or so. But for its plants to keep thriving and sprouting, the greenhouse needs mechanical fine-tuning. And it's about to welcome plants from new climates and environments.
The challenge is to become more of a global network. "We want to plant a lot of churches in Europe, Africa, and South America," says Chandler. "How do you organize around that? You have Fortune 500 companies trying to answer that question right now."
The answer may be at the two ends of a Flower Mound strip mall.
Village Church's main site whispers warmth and breathing room. A 1,400-seat auditorium includes a baptismal that once may have been an orchestra pit. Prayer rooms, children's areas, and high-ceiling rooms jut off the sides. Everything appears unintentionally eclectic, exuding a laid-back vibe that nonetheless takes a lot of work to pull off.
Meanwhile, 300 yards away at the other end of the strip mall, the new Acts 29 Network "Central" storefront resembles an independent insurance agent's office. Half man cave, half hollow headquarters, it houses five full-time staff: Tyler Powell, Leana Adams, Derrin Thomas, Chris Bristol, and Matt Adair. Powell, Thomas, and Bristol moved with Acts 29 from Mars Hill Church to Dallas in 2012.
"Here, we're our own entity," says Powell, North American assessment director. "We're not planting mini–Mars Hills or mini–Mark Driscolls. We're centrally located but decentralized."
Adair became the staff's fifth member in 2013. The 38-year-old director of operations is commuting while pastoring a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in Athens, Georgia. His job is to make hierarchy hip instead of heavy. Among other things, Adair helps Acts 29's 16 regional directors connect and encourage local pastors. Chandler and Adair constituted a new seven-member board to guide the network.
Does all this mean Acts 29 is becoming a denomination?
"No intention," says Chandler. "I'm already involved in the Southern Baptist Convention." Chandler, who was ordained by a local church pastor, not a denomination, adds: "A network has far more flexibility because . . . we are churches that plant churches—bottom-line."
Nonetheless, Mohler quips, "You know the old expression: If you have to keep saying, 'We're not a denomination,' look in the mirror and realize you are one." Some of Adair's PCA peers call Acts 29 "a quasi-denomination or something like that," he says.
"I understand the perception. I just disagree with it."
Adair and the team want Acts 29 to remain fresh, so church planters set their own budgets and choose their elders and worship styles. At the same time, the central office is creating more network events such as regional boot camps and conferences. Adair knows it sounds contradictory. "How do you function as an actual, genuine network, not an organization that's still command-and-controlled from the center and just calling itself a network?" he says.
Maintaining principled passion while navigating growing complexity is the new challenge for Acts 29. Chandler's own story suits it well.
An Army brat born in Seattle, Chandler grew up bouncing around lower-class neighborhoods in many cities. As a teenager, Chandler took a job at a factory, "which was an awful, awful, awful place to work." His mom was a "fundamentalist legalist," his dad, "a mess." In high school, a fellow football player kept the gospel in front of him. Then, on a retreat, a pastor taught from Hebrews 12 about how Jesus, "for the joy set before him," went to the cross for Chandler. He got up, walked outside, and sat in a tree swing. He got me, Chandler thought. I am one of them now.
After graduating, Chandler became a janitor at a local high school, where he also led Bible studies. He was invited to speak at the school's chapel and rocked it. After entering college, the accolades kept coming. "I could preach the walls off," Chandler says. Still, he didn't understand what the church is, let alone how to run a meeting or lead. He became a youth minister in Abilene, Texas, where the senior pastor helped shore up his deficiencies. There Chandler also experienced speaking in tongues and healing. Despite disagreement in Reformed circles about the so-called "sign gifts," he believes they continue to this day.
For a long time, Chandler had prayed for his dad to know Christ. "I remember being confused with the idea of [Dad having] free will, but then me asking God to save him. To me those two things were incompatible."
He found the answer in classically Reformed teachings, especially those of John Piper. Chandler embraces the view that God predestines some to heaven and others to hell. Another turning point came at the first Passion conference in 1997—"probably the most delightfully devastating moment of my growth," says Chandler. Piper spoke on being a Christian hedonist, and Chandler signed up.
After that, people flocked to his Bible studies, and his itinerant preaching drew thousands. In 2002, Chandler took over First Baptist Church of Highland Village, with about 160 members; today, it is the Village Church, ranked the ninth largest in the SBC.
The high-speed trip hasn't stopped. Nor has it been easy.
Just as his church was mushrooming in late 2009, Chandler suffered a seizure on Thanksgiving morning and was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Bald from chemotherapy, he kept preaching, inviting people to pray for his healing via regular video updates. Eight months later, doctors proclaimed him cured. Chandler says God miraculously healed him. Later that year, Chandler told Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition, "I'm not sure how men and women without a strong view of God's sovereignty and authority over all things handle things like this."
It was much easier trusting God when "the stakes" were lower, "when we were a small church with no money, and thousands of people weren't downloading my sermons every week," says Chandler. Today he is familiar with wild rides; perhaps he's been prepared to lead hundreds of pastors on one doozy of a future spin.
Open- and Closed-Handed
Powell's desk is awash in hundreds of membership applications. Over the past seven years, 487 (of 808) Acts 29 applicants have been approved as candidates. (Of those, 106 didn't complete the candidacy process for various reasons, 30 have resigned as members, and 8 have closed their church doors.) Pastors fill out about 50 application pages, take the DiSC ("dominance," "influence," "steadiness," and "conscientiousness" personality types) and Harvard Business tests, and submit to interviews. The tests, most often used in corporate settings, gauge entrepreneurial drive and sociability, among other psychosocial traits. About 50 pastors per year complete the process.
Chandler and other network leaders don't apologize for seeking a certain type of man as leaders. Like a football team, says Chandler, his offense requires quick and agile players. In others words, pastors must be able to adapt to change even as they help create it. They have to set up systems that give feedback, says Chandler, and then listen to that feedback.
The network recruits through conferences, social media, and personal invitations to ministry-minded college students to Acts 29 boot camps. Chandler wants more Asian and African American pastors in the network. He's also starting to lean heavily on new board member Steve Timmis, global director for more than 50 English churches. Acts 29 Central wants more European church plants, though leaders say they wouldn't even try to tell planters how to evangelize and disciple in their post-Christian context.
What attracts pastors to Acts 29? They're encouraged and yet are free to lead in their own personal or denominational style. The annual pastors' conference is like a "family reunion," Thomas says. One pastor in the PCA told CT it's not about political or doctrinal squabbling, but "strengthening pastors' marriages, planting churches, and enhancing their personal walks."
"The beautiful thing about Acts 29 is that it divides doctrinal issues into two groups," says the pastor, who asked not to be named. "One is 'closed-handed issues'—the things none of us as Reformed pastors would ever argue about. . . . Then there are 'open-handed issues,' things that [we disagree on] but that we've agreed we will not argue about." Those would include doctrines that SBC and PCA churches—the two largest denominations represented by Acts 29 pastors—typically differ on, including infant versus believer's baptism, traditional versus contemporary worship, and congregational versus presbyterian forms of leadership.
Although never educated or trained in a denomination or major church association, Chandler has absorbed theology, polity, and pastoral studies. He's a quick study. His passion for reading came in his 20s, on his own terms. "I think I have authority issues. If I can decide what I want to learn, then I can learn anything." He says he doesn't have trouble submitting to theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin, who enrich his understanding of the gospel-centered life.
He recently finished A Separate Peace. A coworker just wrapped up Of Mice and Men. Together they relished its shock ending, exclaiming, "He kills Lennie!"
At press time, more than 40 Acts 29 pastors had published books on topics ranging from theology to marriage to "dead guys" (the category description on the webpage of Resurgence Publishing, founded and still operated by Driscoll in partnership with Tyndale House). Well-known titles from Acts 29 members include Church Planter by vice president Darrin Patrick, Date Your Wife by Silicon Valley pastor Justin Buzzard, and A Meal with Jesus by UK church planter Tim Chester.
The speed at which books have been churned out mimics the speed that churches are planted. But can this all last, or will detail management wrangle everything?
- How will Acts 29 monitor the doctrinal fidelity, and compliance with Network policies, of the swelling numbers of senior pastors? Currently, pastors renew their covenant yearly, says Chandler. They should part company then before becoming divisive. If necessary, he says, "I'll remove someone." (Other Acts 29 staff say no single person can remove a member from the network.)
- Might a pastor receive divergent guidance from Acts 29 and from their own denomination?
- Acts 29 requires senior pastors to give 1 percent of their churches' budgets to Acts 29 Central; is that basically asking pastors to proclaim their allegiance with an offering?
Chandler regularly fasts and prays and turns down a percentage of mounting speaking requests. Such tough calls don't hamper his joy, he says. "It takes one thing to go wrong . . . and your happiness is gone," he tells a seminary crowd. His nimble, long fingers mesmerize as he speaks. "Sometimes joy stings."
Joy stings while battling cancer; while growing up in a poor family; while maneuvering churches toward growth. Chandler expects the sting. But is there a sting limit? Mohler's chief concern is that Chandler "could take on too much. He's in a very unique position at a very young age."
Chandler's Acts 29 staff says their leader won't let Acts 29 interfere with his main commitments to Lauren, their three children, and the Village Church. A hand-carved walking stick in the corner of Chandler's office serves as a reminder that people trump organization pyramids. The stick—a present from a podcast listener—lists his family members' names with verses about loving them.
Recently, as Chandler prayed before a large audience, he said, "What is . . . exciting in my heart is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women who do not yet know you; have not yet worshiped you; have not yet exalted you as God; who will in the future because of your Spirit's work."
That's the Reformed–blue jean movement's goal—to plant churches and harvest lives. Chandler seems ready to lead it. "I've got to wait for the Lord to tell me 'well done,' and I need to live with convictional courage. If you lack courage, you have no business being in ministry."
Joe Maxwell is a former Christianity Today news editor who has authored hundreds of articles for mainstream and religious magazines. His company, LifeStory Publishing in Jackson, Mississippi, produces personal memoirs, biographies, and business and ministry histories.
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