I met John Chandler just a year or two ago when he came to speak at the Revival at my church, but my family has known him a long time. In fact, my mom played at his son’s wedding. So John feels like an old friend, and I’m eager to share his words and information about his new set of books that have just been released.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
I am releasing three books that intend to help people who are interested in biblical guidance for daily decision-making and leadership wisdom. Most of my work is with young, high-potential leaders who want to create or serve in ministries of some sort. One of the critical steps for them tends to be establishing a rhythm of life conducive to listening – listening to God, to others, and to themselves. Frankly, most of their lives are so noisy and busy that there is very little space for listening, even to God. So I try to model and teach a different way, and these books are attempts to do that. The premise is that you can’t go from “information” to “innovation” without passing through a process of “imitation.” The books are a vehicle to help leaders imitate this way of listening to the Bible so that it impacts how they go about decision-making in an ordinary day.
Along the way, I got some great feedback from some of these young adults who were visual learners. That led to the decision to illustrate the books – and before I knew it, one book had turned into three, with a fourth and fifth in the pipeline and due out within a year.
I first began writing these reflections for a very prominent leader, but really, they are for non-specialists. One reviewer said they are “mature, adult-type reflections,” and that was really what I was shooting for. They are academically and theologically informed but definitely non-technical.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
My grandmother went blind when she was sixty, but afterward set a record with the North Carolina Recording for the Blind for the number of books she listened to in the last twenty years of her life. She would memorize entire chapters of Scripture. And my mother still reads over one hundred books a year, organizes book clubs, and always recommends to me great Southern fiction. My family set a great example for me.
In terms of writing, I didn’t have an extraordinary childhood. But I was pastor of a church for twelve years and was taught as a manuscript preacher. The thing about Sundays is that they come around every seven days. So I had to learn the discipline and rhythm of a writing life in order to preach.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
We talk to our young leaders about “winning the first battle of the day.” What gets your first attention – your phone and inbox, or the Bible you need to read and words you need to write? What wins, the urgent or the important? So my practice for years has been to wake up, get my coffee, invite my cat to join me, and study the Bible and write for an hour (and sometimes two) first thing in the day, every day. Email can wait. My friends know I won’t answer the phone if I’m in the middle of “winning the first battle of the day!”
4. Who are you reading now?
The book of Exodus, slowly. I’m learning Spanish and reading through the Bible out loud in Spanish as a way of making me hear and think differently. I just finished Wiley Cash’s first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. O my gosh, it was fantastic. The last two pages was one of the most redemptive descriptions of the church I ‘ve ever read. And I want his Thomas Wolfe quote at the beginning read at my funeral! I’m now on a Ron Rash jag. I just finished The Cove, which gets better the more I think about it. I’m in the middle of his short stories, Nothing Gold Can Stay, and Serena is next on the list.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Well, the Bible, obviously never ceases to fascinate, invite, and challenge me. But beyond that, in fiction, I’d say Shusaku Endo’s Silence because of its profundity, Lee Smith’s Oral History, and maybe Ferrol Sams’ trilogy because I’m a sucker for Southern fiction. And on the popular front, I loved the Ken Follett books Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. They were randy page-turners.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
I’m not sure I understand the question. But if by “building the platform” you mean creating the space and forming the audience who will read what you write, I guess I’m just blessed in that regard. Because I work in so many churches, I’ve just had the opportunity to get to know and share with a lot of people, and so that’s the core of my platform.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
Other than winning the first battle of the day, no two are alike. I travel about 35,000 miles a year in Virginia, as many as I can on my motorcycle, and listen to books as I do. I also take one overseas trip per year and find that the cross-cultural experience really helps my writing. Last year, I spent a month in Argentina and it deeply affected the way I think and write.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
My desk at home. Same place every day. I also wrote my dissertation and my first book at our family’s home on Lake Norman in North Carolina. It’s a place that helps me think clearly.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
When I was at the University of North Carolina, I had a religion professor, Grant Wacker, who once returned to me a paper covered in a sea of red ink. He marked every instance that I employed the passive voice – just about every sentence, it seemed. I think I was trying to sound impressive. But he said it obscured the good ideas of the paper and made the content boring and lifeless. He challenged me to write my next paper without a single use of the passive voice. I found that I had to think clearly because there was no hiding behind fussy writing!
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Thomas Long, my professor of preaching at Princeton, used to encourage us to “live life homiletically.” We all carried around little books and pens in our pockets, and whenever we heard or saw something interesting – a turn of phrase, an analogy or illustration – jot it down. And as long as you had that little book with you, you would never get caught off guard in a speaking situation. It taught us a way of looking at our life while wearing a writer’s and preacher’s lens.
The other thing I would say is that writing is discipline. It’s not something that just “flows out” for me. It’s like building a muscle. If you want to be a better writer, you need to establish a rhythm of life which includes the discipline of listening and only then responding. From the first chapter of the Bible, time and space are the media through which God creates. And every act of creation since requires time and space as well.
John, a North Carolina native, leads the Ray and Ann Spence Network for Congregational Leadership, a network that connects leaders with each other and with best ministry practices. Since 2007, the Spence Network has been the catalyst for starting over three hundred new networks serving over two thousand ministry leaders. If you’d like more information on John’s books, please comment below. Thanks.