I’m sitting here with Matt Chandler in the Minneapolis Convention Center and the Desiring God Conference for Pastors just ended. Matt spoke, I spoke, Mark Dever spoke, and Michael Oh spoke. And we are thrilled with the way it went. We welcome you into this conversation. What I’d like to hear, and I think a lot of these folks would too, is just a mini autobiography.
Like starting in eternity. You don’t have to go back there.
Yeah. Well, I don’t remember then.
Well, but you read it in the Bible, so you know something about your roots there. I’ll tell you if you’re going too long.
And the way I’m thinking about this autobiography is not just random facts, but shaping forces. How did you get to be the things that we just talked about?
I’m a military brat, and so, personality wise, I believe two things happen when you’re a military brat. You either become very outspoken and very comfortable around people, or you go the other way and you become very shy. The Chandler babies (two of us) became very outspoken, my sister and myself, and then my older sister became the quiet one. I was born right outside of Seattle, Washington in Olympia. From there, I was in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. From there, I was in Alameda, California. We were in Alameda for quite some time and then moved across to Texas, and I have been in Texas ever since.
My mother is the daughter of a Baptist minister. My father was a pagan in literally every definition of that word. He had a great deal of animosity towards God, blamed God for a lot of betrayal, a lot of hurt, and a lot of abandonment that he experienced in his life. His father was very abusive and his mother was very dismissive. So for him, the idea of a Father God was just unbelievable. My mom’s great rebellion was marrying my dad.
Marrying a person that her folks would not have been happy with?
Sure. So I was born into that world. My mother was steadfast in her faith through all that time, cried out to God for her family, refused to leave my father, though she probably should have. There was a lot of abuse in my home, every kind of abuse you can imagine was in our home. The first prophetic thing that happened to me was at my grandfather’s death. There were several grandchildren and they divided up all his belongings, little wood burners and golf clubs. He left me a little wood burner and his Bible and his sermon notes.
And what age were you?
I was eight. I had no interest in spiritual things, even then. I smile at some of my daughter’s stubbornness towards those things because that was in me. I grew up with these two pictures in front of me. I had my mom’s steadfast faith, which I did not like because it kept me in the house with this man. I mean, I don’t know how else to say it. I don’t know that I had a real animosity towards God, but I was very indifferent, very indifferent. I sure didn’t understand it. And then we moved to Texas and I was playing football.
In high school, you mean?
Yeah. A guy named Jeff Faircloth just began to share the gospel with me. I mean, just relentlessly. My mom would say I never grew out of the why stage. I need to know how things work, so that curiosity led Jeff and I into a lot of conversations, and it led me to church. But the church to me was comical. It was a bunch of high school kids going, “I’ve got joy down in my heart, deep, deep down in my heart. Spell it. J-O-Y.” It was comical. It really was comical. There was nothing about it that I thought, “Oh wow, look at this.” And so, I was confused. At youth camp, everybody was crying down front, saying they’re not going to do anything again. And I knew that I would have a beer with them in two weeks. I mean, that’s what it was. It was comical. It was funny.
And then I can’t tell you who it was, I really can’t. And I don’t even know that all of his theology was there, but after a year of just conversations with Jeff, I was sitting in youth camp and there was a man up front saying, “How many of your sins were future sins when Jesus went to the cross? All of them.” So then he went and he showed how Jesus knew the future. He showed this is how the time’s going to end. He was telling Peter, “Hey, the devil’s asked, I’ve told him okay, but I’m praying for you. When you come back . . .” He’s just showing us Jesus knows the future.
So how great his love for you, knowing you would be guilty of all that you were guilty of, that he still went. And then he showed us that he could have stopped it. Peter pulls out the sword and cuts off the ear, and Jesus puts the ear back on. Live by the sword, die by the sword. And Jesus is showing, “By the way, I can stop this anytime I want to.” So, for me, a guy desperately wanting his dad to love him, but can’t get there, trying to find bearings, trying to find what’s right and wrong and true, that was overwhelming to me. It made me angry. I just remember being angry.
So I just left. I walked out the back of the University of Mary Hardin–Baylor inTexas. I was sitting on a little yellow swing and the eyes of my heart were enlightened. Almost immediately I began to share my faith. Jimmy Herford, Gina Digs, Brent Baird, some of these guys are still in my life these days. I shared the gospel when I didn’t even hardly know the gospel. And they were coming with me. They’re asking Christ to reign in their hearts. We’re doing a Bible study. It was just from day one.
So, what year in high school?
Oh, this was right before my senior year. And so, then I didn’t know what to do. Now I’m a believer and I don’t know what to do. I was going to go to Texas A&M University. I knew some guys there. We were going to go there.
You started to go to a church or no?
Yeah, I did. It was First Baptist Church of Texas City. It’s funny looking back on it now. I think when you don’t know anything, you just go in. You start seeing little holes. I started seeing little holes right away. I know we’ll get to this, but even in regards to the fact that I wanted to see my dad saved. So I immediately saw this gap of what am I asking God to do if my dad chooses? My dad has chosen. I know what he’s chosen. I know what he thinks of God. What am I asking God to do if it’s up to my dad? I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand how prayer works. Well, I mean, in that setting it just made me unpopular with leaders.
Asking those questions?
Yeah. Even in the way I pastor now, every week when I welcome the crowd, I’m going, “I know some of you here aren’t believers. I’m glad you’re here. Let me tell you this. There are answers to your questions that aren’t, ‘Just have more faith.’” And I say that straight out of the well of being told to have more faith and that there are some things we just can’t understand, which is true, but there are some things we can understand and should understand and should embrace. I know we jumped ahead there. So I started going to church and immediately joined the youth council, youth choir, and the Wednesday night service. I just dove in. I didn’t want to go off to school, so I just went to a junior college so that I could stay around my little Christian community.
And I took a job at Pine Drive Christian School. Here’s how I became a preacher. I took the job at Pine Drive Christian School as a janitor. It’s providential because in the interview they said, “Do you know how to change a ballast?” And I say, “I don’t even know what a ballast is, so no, I don’t think I do.” They said, “Well, what do you know about elevators?” I said, “Well, I know you get in and you press buttons, it goes up and it goes down. That’s what I know about elevators.” They said, “All right, you got the job.” So, that’s how I know it’s providence.
So, there I was, a janitor, just graduated from high school, going to a junior college, mopping floors, and changing ballasts. And Dr. John Merchants, who was the pastor of Pinera Christian School, got to know me, got to know my testimony. There was an accident and he had to go to the hospital. High school chapel was going on at Pinera Christian School. He asked me, “Will you share your testimony in the high school chapel?” And I said, “I’d love to.”
Was that the first time?
Well, yeah. So, I went on and just shared my testimony. A guy came up to me afterwards, Leo Smith, and said, “How would you like to be a youth minister at the church I pastor?” That was our interview.
And you said yes?
Man, I was cleaning toilets, John, of course I said yes. I mean, you’re like, “Toilets, or hang out with kids and talk about Jesus?” I’ll take this one. The funny thing is that this one was a lot dirtier than the toilets. I came over there and it just didn’t work. First, I didn’t know anything about tradition, I knew nothing about history, and I knew nothing about how people work. I could see that this was silly — I blame little on them — but I did not have the sight to see that silly thing had been a deep, life-changing experience for these back here. So, I regarded it as a silly thing and wounded some people’s souls. It was shameful and I wasn’t ready. And that’s what happened.
It became evident that I needed to go. So right before I was probably fired, I decided I was going to go away to school. This would take away too much time, but through some random connections, I ended up at Hardin-Simmons University, which is a Baptist school in west Texas, and it has a little bit of a liberal bent. They would say they don’t, but they do. And they’re smart about it. They phrase it as questions rather than teaching it outright. That’s a very popular way of teaching. And I mean, it was there that I started teaching this little ecumenical Bible study.
So, you went there thinking that you were preparing for what?
I think there were two things happening to me at that time. I didn’t think church work was for me. I just had a very negative experience. I loved the idea of law.
Not like mosaic law?
No, law as in I’m a great arguer. I thought, “This would be a good thing for me.” And so, I’m going, “Okay, let’s just go law.” Until this point, still in my life, I’m not teaching every week. Well, now all of a sudden at Grace Bible Study, which is every week, I’m teaching every week. So, now I go, “Okay, I don’t know what to teach.” So I was taking Bible classes. I was taking Bible classes because I was just trying to figure out what to teach. And then Grace Bible Study grows and grows and grows and grows.
But by the way, all of that was unbelievably difficult because Grace Bible study grew from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand. Here’s the reality of my life. I was a 20-year-old sophomore teaching 2,000 of my peers in the middle of a Baptist school, a Church of Christ school, and a Methodist school. Here’s what’s happening. I’m sitting in class, I’m hearing something, and I’m going, “That’s not right.” So, I’m going, I’m writing, I’m preparing a sermon, and then I’m preaching a sermon going, “Some will say this. Let me tell you why I can’t go there with them. Let me tell you the problem with that. The problem with that, well, it’s the Bible. Here’s what the Bible says.” All right, so the next day, the freshmen from Potosi, Texas was in that same class hearing that same thing, except now he’s going, “Well, Matt Chandler says . . .” And now I’m in trouble. Now there’s a problem. And man, it was a problem.