The Good Fight
On sanctification, making war against sin, and cannibalism in the New Reformed movement.
September 8, 2009
On the flight to Dallas to interview Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Highland Village, Texas, we read an article about the principles that should guide churches hoping to reach the younger generation. According to the author, the key is customization. The article stated that 18 to 30 year olds have grown up without boundaries, they create their own playlists on their iPods, and they don't want a church that sets high expectations or limits their options.
Obviously the author has never visited The Village Church.
When Chandler arrived at "The Village" in 2002, the church was in a season of restructuring. The primarily Boomer congregation of 150 invited Chandler (27 at the time) to bring a younger perspective. With experience as a college pastor, and a firm commitment to Calvinist theology, Chandler began adjusting the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the The Village.
Rather than lowering expectations and preaching highly practical sermons, his preaching focused on doctrine, God's character, and an unashamed call to commitment and holy living. Today The Village is a multiple-site church with over 6,000 in attendance and with the majority of members under 35. Chandler's impact has also made him a leading voice in the New Reformed movement, which represents the resurgence of Calvinism among younger Christians.
Leadership Journal editors Marshall Shelley and Skye Jethani met with Chandler to discuss what he's learned about reaching young people with the gospel, and why the trend toward pragmatic discipleship is failing to move his generation toward godliness.
When you first came to faith, how did you understand the process of growing in Christ-likeness?
I grew up in a pretty abusive home. There was a lot of sin in my house. So after I got saved in high school, I still had a lot of really big issues. I had massive amounts of anger in my life, and I still struggled with lust. At the time I thought there were really only three sins—sex, drinking, and cussing. So I immediately tried to clean those things up. But I had no idea how hard it was going to be.
We want people to think beyond what's right and wrong. We want them to fill their lives with things that stir their affections for Jesus Christ.
I had been fed a gospel that said, "Do you want a better life? Do you want to be happy? Then come to Jesus." But when my struggles with sin didn't immediately go away, I felt I had been lied to. I felt I had been duped. No one told me how much deeper sin was, or how ruthless Jesus was going to be once he took over my heart.
What have you learned since then?
I've learned that the process looks different for different people in different locations and with access to different resources. It's very complex, and that's the error we make in many churches—we try to standardize the process for everyone. There is a guy on staff here with a very similar story to mine; he's struggled with similar things. But God worked to sanctify him in a very different way than he worked to sanctify me.
But are there certain ingredients that are always present even if the process looks different?
I know there must be surrender. I know we need to have authentic relationships where there is openness and freedom to be honest about where we are and a willingness to let others tell us the hard truth.
One of the most painful days in my own spiritual development was when a friend had the courage to confront me about my sin. I was complaining about how much I hated some of the things I do. He said, "Sins aren't things you do. Sin is about who you are." I'd never thought about it like that. The awareness of my sinfulness was very humbling, and it sent me really running back to the Lord.
How did that change the way you seek growth?
It started making me very frustrated with the church. If you're struggling with anger or lust and the church's answer is a four-point sermon on how to get rid of it, and you do those four points and it doesn't work, it leaves you frustrated. You feel like the church is either lying or is irrelevant, or you are more broken than anyone else.
That quick-fix methodology was so prevalent back then, and it was even evident in the testimonies that people shared. They were always unbelievably victorious. There was always a guy who drank for 30 years, came to Christ, and never wanted to drink again. But I drank for less than a year before being saved, and I still craved a drink once in a while. When stories of miraculous deliverance are presented as normative, it makes the rest of us wonder if we are truly converted.
How has that experience impacted the way you pursue growth at The Village Church?
We acknowledge that most of us do struggle with sin. Most of us wrestle. We work really hard to create an environment that says, "It's okay to not be okay." I'll give you an example. On Sunday morning during the worship set, we'll show a three or four minute video testimony. A few months ago the video was really powerful. The guy was in a bad spot, frustrated with sin, nowhere near where he wanted to be. In the middle of his story, he just started crying, wiped his tears, and stopped the recording. He couldn't say anything else.
We used the video because we thought it would help people understand the reality of growth. It's a process. Sanctification isn't instantaneous. That's a healthy message for the congregation.
A lot of churches wouldn't have shown that video.
There are people I love and respect, good friends, who strongly disagree with my perspective. They believe that if you create an environment where it's okay to not be okay, you will discourage growth. I disagree. We want to say, "Its okay to not be okay, but it's not okay to stay there."
So how have you created an environment of growth that doesn't make people feel crushed?
We've pursued a model we call the Greenhouse. It's organic but it's also controlled. I was at a conference with my friend Darren Patrick, pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, where two church leaders spoke about different spiritual growth strategies. The first guy was very West Coast—flower shirt and flip flops. His approach was very organic. He wants people connected to the Bible and connected in groups. That's it. Everything else will take care of itself.
The other presenter was from the Dallas area—pleated pants with multiple phones and beepers on his waist like a Bat-belt. His approach was very linear and mechanical. He showed us a three-volume, one-year classroom curriculum. But at the end of the year only 23 people out of 4,000 at his church completed the program. That is a lot of work for not a lot of return. That night Darren and I listed the pros and cons of both models—the organic and the mechanical. We wanted to develop a strategy that would take the best of both and avoid the pitfalls of each. That's where the Greenhouse idea came from. We wanted to take the good, relational elements of the organic model and put them into the structure of a system.
What does that look like at The Village Church?
It means having seasons where the whole church is doing the same thing, focusing on the same issue. These are the highly structured, mechanical parts. For example, right now we are in a five-week series on missional living. I'm preaching about it and all of our small groups are studying it. Even our children and family devotionals are using that curriculum. But there are other seasons that are not as mechanical. We try to create multiple lanes people can choose from, and there are on ramps and off ramps—ways people can enter structured settings and ways they can exit.
Where is the relational, organic component?
That is more covert. A few years ago, we approached 13 men in the church. They were all patriarchs—known for loving God, the Bible, and understanding our mission. We asked them to each seek out three or four young men and start pouring into them. It is a highly relational strategy that goes beyond just teaching the Bible.
Our young guys need to know the Bible, but they also need to know how to cook a steak and tie a tie. This is a fatherless generation. Discipleship needs to mean more than studying a book. It should also mean opening our lives to the people we are leading.
Are you doing the same thing with women?
Yes. We have godly older women connecting with younger women as well.
How is this different from a mentoring program?
It's not a program. It is very organic. We've tried a more structured program before, but it rarely worked. If you have people signing up to be mentored and then pairing them, the miss rate is really high. You cannot just throw people together who don't know each other and expect to see a deep bond form.
There are people I love, but that doesn't mean I want to have dinner with them. And then there are people I just click with. It's far better to help the patriarchs in the church understand the value of these relationships, and then set them free in the church to fish for people they connect with naturally.
How have the older people been impacted by this approach?
Something really cool has happened. The number of 50 and 60 year olds in the church has grown significantly.
I started talking directly to them from the pulpit years ago: "I know you're looking around and seeing all these young people, and you think this place is too young for you. As I see it, you've got two options. You can either go find a church of 50 and 60 year olds, talk about the glory days, and die, or you can get in here and help us." That got their attention. A lot of them were very attracted to the idea of helping young people grow in their faith, and a lot of them have stuck around.
But The Village Church wasn't always so young. What changes did you bring that appealed to young people and fostered spiritual growth?
Right out of the gate, I pushed hard for covenant membership. It was the first battle we fought. We wanted there to be a clear understanding of what being a part of this church meant. We wanted to raise the expectations. That was critical if we were going to be serious about sanctification.
I know getting rid of church membership is a popular idea right now. Apparently people think membership is not biblical. I've never understood that perspective. The Bible commands us to submit to elders. Who are you submitting to if you don't belong to a church? And elders are commanded to lead a group of people. Who are they supposed to lead if there isn't an identifiable congregation?
You said covenant membership was a battle. Who was against the idea?
It was usually the Boomers who pushed back. They had a harder time understanding the importance of covenant membership. They thought it would be a barrier for people. It was the 20 and 30 year olds who embraced the idea.
There is an assumption that young people are afraid of commitment, but those who are genuinely converted want to grow and be serious about their faith. They recognize that covenant membership creates real community. It says, "I'm for you and you're for me. We are in this together." And it helps them understand that being part of the church means more than just showing up at ten o'clock. They find that unbelievably attractive.
How does authority factor into sanctification?
An authoritative church is very attractive, as long as that authority is used to shepherd and not to bruise. Sometimes I have to talk to people very honestly, and that can be painful. But first I have to make sure they know I love them. Leaders shouldn't wield authority; they should shepherd toward truth.
I tell other pastors that our authority is a lot like our authority as husbands. That means if you have to talk about your authority, you've probably already lost it. I don't tell my wife, "You know the Scriptures say I make the decision; you follow me." If I have to say that to my wife, I'm already in a lot of trouble. The same is true in the church. We are to shepherd with authority but not become tyrants. That is a mistake some guys make.
Your teaching is deeply rooted in Calvinism. How does that play into becoming more Christ-like? What is God's role and what is ours?
I believe the sovereign God of the universe justifies us freely, and then we are called to run with him in sanctification. In the book of Philippians, Paul tells us to toil, strive, move, and press on. Paul is unbelievably aggressive when it comes to putting sin to death.
That is what drives me mad in evangelical circles, including some young Reformed circles. There is often a sit-on-the-couch-and-wait-for-God-to-do-something mentality that is unbiblical and wicked. It's probably been true of every generation, but I can see it most clearly in the younger crowd. There seems to be so little war when it comes to sin. Like the guy who comes to home group every week and dismissingly says, "Oh, I looked at porn again," "Oh, I looked at porn again," "Oh, I looked at porn again." That drives me insane. I don't even know what to do with him. Where's the war? Where's the hate for sin?
Do you believe this generation has trouble taking responsibility for its sin?
Yeah. There's a strong victim mentality in my generation. I think it's spiritual laziness. They will agree that God is sovereign over all, but then they will say, "Well, I wish he would sovereignly take away my lust issue." There's just not a lot of fortitude, not a lot of fight in them.
How do you combat that mentality?
I preach hard against that idea and plead with people to make war against sin. I tell them it's not going to be easy. Some people are meant to wrestle with their sin a long time before God brings them to freedom, but let's wrestle. Let's fight. Let's do something besides just complain.
What does warring against sin look like?
Sanctification here at The Village begins by answering two questions. What stirs your affections for Jesus Christ? And what robs you of those affections? Many of the things that stifle growth are morally neutral. They're not bad things. Facebook is not bad. Television and movies are not bad. I enjoy TV, but it doesn't take long for me to begin to find humorous on TV what the Lord finds heartbreaking.
The same goes for following sports. It's not wrong, but if I start watching sports, I begin to care too much. I get stupid. If 19-year-old boys are ruining your day because of what they do with a ball, that's a problem. These things rob my affections for Christ. I want to fill my life with things that stir my affections for him. After a funeral I walked around the cemetery and found a grave of a guy who died when he was my age. I felt my mortality in that moment and it made me love the Lord. It really did. Some types of epic films do that for me, and so does angst-filled music.
We want our people to think beyond simply what's right and wrong. We want them to fill their lives with things that stir their affections for Jesus Christ and, as best as they can, to walk away from things that rob those affections—even when they're not immoral.
What do you think this generation is looking for that has been missing in the church?
Transcendence. My generation was raised on a religion of moral control. Do this. Don't do that. And a lot of self-help religion. Feel better. Get out of debt. Six ways to overcome your fears. Seven ways not to lust. Ultimately that message didn't work. It was empty. There was no transcendence. The omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful God of the universe wasn't the focus. I think that's why we are seeing the resurgence of Reformed theology.
The New Reformed movement is sometimes seen as a belligerent group. Do you think that perception is accurate?
I'm unapologetically Reformed, but nine times out of ten I cannot stand the Reformed community. I don't want to be around them. I don't want to read their blogs. They can be cannibalistic, self-indulgent, non-missional, and angry. It's silly and sad at the same time. Reformed doctrine should lead to a deep sense of humility and patience with others. How it produces such arrogance baffles me.
New Calvinism is a young movement, and young people are often arrogant. Life hasn't had a chance to beat the trash out of them yet. I'll tell the young people in my sermons, "You can't get into theological battles while you still live with your mom." Or, "You can nail your 95 theses to the door once you own one." Before these 20 year olds begin passionately defending their view of Scripture, I want to see that they are being obedient to it.
Looking to the future, what challenges are ahead for The Village Church?
As we've gotten bigger, I hear a lot of people saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if we … " That always worries me, because what usually follows is something that will make things easier for people inside the church. And before you know it, we're focused inward rather than outward.
Can you give an example?
Sure. Some people think it would be cool if we had a coffee shop. But I don't want people getting their lattes here. I want them getting their lattes at the four Starbucks in our area so they can get to know the baristas and invite them into our body. I don't want our church doing basketball tournaments for lost people. Lifetime and LA Fitness already have basketball tournaments filled with lost people. I want our guys playing in those games. We are trying hard to keep the church lean, stripped down, very program-light. There are no frills.
We noticed that's true about your building too.
Our building is ridiculous. It's a nightmare getting in and out on Sunday. It can take 40 minutes. I love that. I hope we never solve that problem because everything teaches. Church buildings teach people. I don't think you can proclaim a great mission about being in the world, and then create a building that keeps people out of the world all week. I'm not against the attractional model, it's just not what we've been called to.
Apart from keeping church programming lean, how else do you encourage people to be on mission?
We tell a lot of stories of ordinary people sharing the gospel with others. We've done hundreds of baptisms in six years, but I've only baptized four people. Instead of a pastor, the people who win their friends to Christ are in the water with them. And together they share their story. Once again it's about creating a culture of missional engagement.
We have a guy named Bob who has his neighbors over on Friday nights for steak and poker. But in that time he is also walking them through the Gospel of John. We highlight guys like that. We want to make that normative for our community. Mission isn't the job of the corporate church. It's the job of every individual.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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