It takes two ingredients to deliver a message that really sticks. It takes the right message and it takes the right time. Matt Chandler’s 2012 sermon “God is For God” is an example of this kind of timely message. When I announced this Great Sermons Series, it did not take long for a whole lot of people to ask for it to be included. So here it is: Matt Chandler’s Radical Reminder that “God Is For God.”
This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern, and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.
(Written by Tim Challies & Joey Schwartz; produced by Thaddeus Maharaj.)
Tim: It takes two ingredients to deliver a message that really sticks. It takes the right message and it takes the right time. Matt Chandler’s 2012 sermon, God is for God may not be the best message he’s ever preached. It may not stand as a textbook example of biblical exposition, but it still made waves, it still racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Many Christians count it among their favorite sermons of all time. They love Chandler’s bold declaration of God’s pursuit of His own glory. Well, what many people don’t know is the story of what makes this sermon truly remarkable. Preaching to a rowdy crowd that was reveling in their churches growth and success and excitement, Chandler’s sermon was not only the right message, it was the right message at the right time. Let’s give it a closer look.
This video is brought to you in part by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can download a free book from Southern and learn more about training for preachers at sbts.edu/challies.
Before we get to Chandler’s sermon in 2012, let’s go back ten years earlier to 2002. Chandler was 28, leading a non-profit ministry called Waiting Room Ministries, when he was called to pastor The Village Church. When he arrived that church had around 160 people. Under his leadership though, it soon skyrocketed to more than 10000. Four years after Chandler started pastoring The Village Church, 25-year-old Steven Furtick planted Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He too began with just a little over 100 people and under his leadership Elevation also exploded past that 10000 mark. Similar ages, similar sized churches, but these two pastors took very, very different paths.
Furtick took much of his inspiration from church growth leaders like Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, Bill Hybels. Chandler, on the other hand, he took much of his inspiration from Reformed theological giants, John Piper, John MacArthur, J.I.Packer. While Furtick was preaching about unlocking God’s potential within us, Chandler was preaching about God saving us from our sinfulness. While Elevation Church was drawing crowds by dropping easter eggs from helicopters, Chandler was trying to convince the crowds they ought to go somewhere else. Their differences came to the surface during the 2011 Elephant Room. This gathering of church leaders to talk about controversial church topics. Chandler and Furtick were paired up to talk about the purpose of the church. Listen to what Chandler had to say.
Matt: You just did it, bro, you literally just said, evangelism and doctrine are exclusive. And so that’s the kind of thing, for me, that I look at that, I’m going, oh Steven …
Tim: Chandler’s referring to this clip from one of Furtick’s 2008 sermons.
Steven: And over 500 people have given their lives to Jesus for the first time in this church in the last five months. That’s over a hundred per month. If that doesn’t get you excited and you need the doctrines of grace as defined by John Calvin to excite you, you’re in the wrong church.
Tim: This reveals a key difference between Furtick and Chandler. Furtick deliberately downplayed deep doctrine for the sake of growing his church. Chandler though was absolutely convinced that deep doctrine was essential for bringing true and healthy growth to his church. Surprisingly, soon after this Elephant Room conversation, Furtick invited Chandler to speak at Elevation’s code orange revival. That’s a 12-night event that would kick off a new year of ministry and it would feature some of the top speakers in the country. Each night hundreds of people waited in line to get a seat and thousands more are tuned in for the live stream, hoping to check out just some of the buzz around what God was doing at Elevation Church. Some of the headliners included TD Jakes, Craig Groeschel, Christine Caine and Perry Noble. Then, set against that group, many people thought Chandler was kind of a surprising choice given his very different theology, his very different preaching style. But in his introduction for Chandler, Furtick explained he actually wanted to bring in different kinds of speakers to show that we’re all wearing the same jersey. But as soon as Furtick handed over the mic to Chandler, you could immediately sense the deep differences between the two.
Steven: I want everybody at every location and watching all over the world to stand up on your feet right now and welcome to the stage, my friend, Pastor Matt Chandler. Come on, show him some code orange revival love.
Matt: Oh, sit down, sit down. I only have a certain amount of time and I’m long-winded to begin with.
Tim: With their code orange revival, Elevation Church wanted to start off 2012 with a bang. To be able to pick up even more momentum for the big things they were sure that God was doing in their church. Chandler wanted something completely different. He wanted to dig deeper. He wanted to dig past the big things God was doing to show them the big nature of God. He wanted to point them past how God was moving to show them why God was moving.
Matt: If we’re going anywhere tonight, we’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s going on here and so, we’ve got to get past code orange revival, we’ve got to get past Elevation Church, we’ve got to get past Pastor Furtick. I’m not saying those things are bad or wrong, I love all of those things. What I’m telling you is we’ve got to get underneath all of that so we can gaze upon what’s actually going on.
Tim: Chandler knows his sermon will be very different from what this Elevation crowd has heard before, so he gives them a warning. He wants them to take their eyes off the excitement of this event and to fix them on the character of God. And to do that, Chandler chooses the perfect text, Psalm 23. For all the people who grew up there in the bible belt, this would have been one of the most familiar passages in the whole Bible. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It’s considered one of the best passages about God’s love for us, about God’s concern for us, about God’s provision for us. But Chandler turns their familiarity of this passage around when he shows God’s motivation in Psalm 23.
Matt: “He restores my soul and He leads me in paths of righteousness.” So now, this sounds like God is really into me. I mean, He’s leading me beside still water. I mean, come on, who does that if they’re not into you? He’s leading me into paths of righteousness. But look at why, look at the motivation in God’s heart for all of this shepherding and reviving and restoring. “He leads me in paths of righteousness”, for what reason? For His namesake. So God’s motivation behind His shepherding you, His provision for you, His love for you, His passion about you, really the motive in all of that isn’t that you’re great, it’s that He’s great. So the motivation is His glory, His name, His renown.
Tim: This is Chandler’s main point. God is primarily for His own glory. He knows this key doctrine is probably new to the ears of this crowd. He even goes so far as to call out the kind of man-centered interpretation that’s so familiar within the church growth movement.
Matt: You are varsity, that’s what you are. You’re not JV. In fact, if someone tells you you’re JV, that’s a slap in your spectacularly unique and beautiful face. So, it jostles us a bit, because nobody is saying that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get preached very much either.
Tim: It’s a common practice for today’s preacher to put us at the center of the Bible. And they do that by allegorizing old testament stories. So, we are David fighting Goliath, we are Elijah calling out the prophets of Bael, we are Daniel protected by God in that lion’s den. But if God is primarily for God and the Bible is not about us, then we are not the hero. In one of Chandler’s most classic clips, he calls out the utter foolishness of this kind of reading.
Matt: You keep infusing yourself into the stories of the Bible like you’re the hero. Now this happens all the time. Right, so I want to be straight, I love you enough to be straight. You’re not David. Alright, your trouble in life is not Goliath. And if that’s true, you’re in a lot of trouble bro, because you miss. You fling your stones and you miss and Goliath’s still there, and now what? Well, I had five. You’ll miss all five.
Tim: It may sound like Chandler is coming down harsh on this crowd, but this message is for their joy. As long as they consider themselves the center of God’s universe, then their joy and their freedom and their peace is all wrapped up in their performance. It’s all wrapped up in mere fleeting emotion. But if God is at the center, if He is the main point, if He is the hero, then they are free to humbly rejoice in His rightful place as King. The universe doesn’t revolve around them and that is such good news. As if Chandler wasn’t already directing fire at the church growth movement, he makes sure to explicitly, but pastorally warn Elevation Church at the very end of his sermon.
Matt: Before you know it, just with a little shift here and a little drift there, God did these things and His name’s still on it, but really that Pastor Steven, I mean, it was kind of his vision, it was kind of his deal. Well that lead team, you know chump was lights out, that kid’s just sick. And then all of a sudden, that worship, and we have the best worship in the world, and we’ve got the … You know. And before long, you can weave these things into your culture and your ethos that are opposed to the things of God. And so, when I pray for you and I pray for your pastor and I pray for this place, this is where my prayers are, that God would protect you. Israel never did well with blessing. Never did well with blessing. Tended to do real well with a wack to the head. So, I’d rather that not be your story.
Tim: So, how did Elevation do with Chandler’s wack to the head? Every night after the code orange revival, Elevation rebroadcasted the sermon. Every night that is, except the night of Chandler’s sermon. That night Elevation made a programming change and they removed the sermon. After receiving some backlash, Steven Furtick tweeted out an apology and the following day the sermon was put back online.
Despite clearing the air of that initial controversy, there was a little bit more to the story. Three months after the event, the church created this recap video to celebrate what God had done. There was just one guest preacher that was missing from that recap. You can probably guess who it was. Since 2012, hundreds of thousands of viewers have watched the sermon, many of them have had a very different perspective than the church did that night. Many have praised it for its unrelenting focus on God’s glory and for it’s bold, it’s timely rebuke of man-centered preaching.
The overwhelming consensus is that it was the right message. He preached powerfully, he preached biblically on God’s passion for His own glory. But what makes the sermon stand out above the rest is where and when Chandler preached this message. Instead of stirring up the crowd and then gloating in their applause, Chandler took the opportunity to bring them low in humility so that God could be exalted. It was not just the right message. It was the right message at the right time, and that’s what will make it stick around even when all of those other sermons have long since been forgotten.
If you’re passionate about preaching like I am, I want to tell you about a seminary I’ve grown to trust and appreciate because I know they care deeply about preaching the Word of God. I’d encourage you to visit Southern Seminary which has been under the leadership of Al Mohler for decades now. Southern is absolutely committed to training pastors to know and defend and exposit the precious Word of God. If you visit their site, they’ll give you a free book that can serve as a resource to help you with the kind of bold preaching that we’ve been talking about here today. Simply visit sbts.edu/challies.