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By: Ken walker
Photos by: Roy Cox Photography

January 14, 2024, marked an historic day in Union Church’s history. For the first time, Sunday attendance at the multisite church 35 miles northeast of Washington, D.C., topped 10,000. However, bad news came with the good: about 20% of the people who visited the main campus in Glen Burnie or four satellite locations in Maryland and Virginia found themselves sitting in a lobby or overflow room.

Setting up some of that extra capacity didn’t flow as smoothly as it should have, acknowledges senior pastor Stephen Chandler. The bearded, casual-shirt-wearing, personable leader says that’s just another day in the life of one of the nation’s fastest-growing churches. Whether buildings, construction projects, hiring new staff or developing new sites, not a day goes by without more work needing to be done than there are hours in the day to accomplish it. In his eyes, a megachurch can be described in three simple terms: work, work and more work.

“It’s hard to explain how overwhelming it is,” says the son of the pastor who helped train him for the ministry. “That said, it’s a lot easier than when we had 400 people. It’s one thing to have a lot of work in front of you, which every senior pastor does. But it’s another when you don’t have a lot of high-capacity leaders around you, and you don’t necessarily have the resources to solve the problem. I’ve got an amazing team around me, and God’s given us the resources we need.”

Those resources have grown to include a staff of 70, three years after Destiny Church (averaging about 2,400), pastored by Stephen, merged with Jimmy Rollins’s i5 City Church, then running around 1,300. Rollins wanted to spend more time with his wife, Irene, developing their marriage ministry, Two Equals One. Post-merger, the Rollinses assumed the title of apostolic pastors, networking with the hundreds of pastors affiliated with Union. Jimmy is also part of the preaching team.

Despite the impressive growth Union has seen in recent times, which included more than 5,100 conversions last year, Stephen is quick to point out that it’s not all about numbers. 

“We’re committed to helping people grow in Christ, not just getting people saved,” the senior pastor says. “Converts add to your church, but disciples multiply a church. Leadership is a reason, too. I’ve got a staff and a team who are committed, highly gifted leaders.”

The 37-year-old Stephen’s pastoral journey didn’t always look so prosperous. When he followed his father’s footsteps into the pulpit, a crowd of a few dozen attended New Life International Fellowship. Ron Chandler had always been bivocational, operating a medical courier delivery service. With drivers across Maryland, the company shuttled blood samples, bone marrow tests and other substances from doctors’ offices to laboratories and testing facilities.

Going to work for his father at 16 after securing his driver’s license, the younger Chandler quickly learned about the serious nature of his deliveries. And the consequences if he failed to get a package to its destination on time.

The same year he joined his father’s company, Stephen had another life-changing experience. A missionary from Guyana visited New Life, and at the end of the service Stephen was filled with the Spirit. He barely slept for the next three days amid an ongoing vision of people he knew walking the streets of his suburban Baltimore community. Not only did they not know God, they didn’t realize He had a purpose and a destiny for their lives. This perceived hopelessness brought the teenager to his knees.

“I told God, ‘I want to help people know You and help them know the purpose for their lives,’” Stephen recalls. “Obviously, that was a call of God, but I feel like I volunteered for ministry and said, ‘There’s nothing I want to do with my life other than pointing people toward their destiny.’”

POSITIONED FOR GROWTH

As thrilling as that testimony sounds, getting to the place where Union sponsors its annual BLDERS conference to help church leaders break through various attendance barriers took a lot of time and sweat equity. Shortly after assuming the reins from his father, Stephen sought help from the Association of Related Churches (ARC) to replant New Life.

At an ARC conference, Stephen approached a leader to confess, “I know enough to preach, but I don’t know how to run a church. I need some wisdom and some systems. I promise we’ll do everything you guys tell us to do.”

ARC helped Stephen replant New Life, and although the organization no longer offers a relaunch program, it considers helping in situations in which the existing church can be closed down and reopened as a new church. 

Launch day of Destiny Church saw 331 people and 27 conversions. Over the next ten weeks, as Stephen jokingly told a BLDERS conference crowd last July, he expanded that audience into one of 70. He confessed to doing everything wrong, like deciding to add a second service two weeks before the launch, which was too late to add to the flyer. Eight weeks later, he shuttered the second service and wondered if, instead of the nation’s fastest-growing church, it would be the fastest closing.

After one year, Destiny had reached 150; five years later, they were stuck at 350, having seen zero growth for three years. Finally, Stephen approached a large congregation in the area, telling them he had taken Destiny as far as he could. He suggested they adopt it as a campus and let him join their leadership team: “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”

The answer? “No thanks.”

Somehow, he hung on. Not long after this, at an ARC conference, Stephen ran into one of the founders, Rick Bezet, pastor of New Life Church in Conway, Arkansas. After learning Destiny had about 400 members, Rick expressed sympathy for Stephen, noting that size was the worst place to be. When Stephen asked why, Rick replied, “You’re too big to be small, but you’re too small to be big. It’s no-man’s land.”

Despite that depressing encounter, Union’s pastor kept going. Gradually, he began to appreciate the problem wasn’t solely his but how some of the church’s operational methods were turning people away. Looking back, he says the biggest problem was his failure to have a leadership team around him that had the capacity to go where the church wanted to go. 

To illustrate, Stephen talks about how easy it is to select a worship leader. But if that leader only has the capacity to oversee 12 volunteers, and the church hopes to surpass 1,000 in attendance and hold three services on a Sunday, it may need a worship leader who can manage 24 people. If the leader lacks that capacity, the team won’t grow, and the lack of staffing on that team will affect the church in other areas.

Nor can a large church grow spiritually if it lacks the small group leaders who can disciple Sunday crowds from Monday to Saturday, Stephen says.

“If I don’t have small group leaders who have the capacity to gather people and disciple people, the church has a problem,” he explains. “A friend said something about eight years ago that has stuck with me: ‘God will not send you people to neglect. If you don’t have leaders who can disciple the people who come, then He won’t send them.’”

He had to resolve leadership capacity; another was their building. They could seat 120 at best, assuming the fire marshal didn’t show up for a standing-room-only service. Not only was the building at capacity, but it was in more of a business district than a residential area where people also went to the grocery store, watched movies and lived other parts of their lives.

PAVING THE WAY

The final step in creating Union came through Stephen’s friendship with Jimmy Rollins. Ironically, although their churches were only about 20 minutes apart, they first met at an ARC conference in Jacksonville, Florida. Both enjoyed golf and seafood, hitting it off and quickly becoming friends. Six years later, the conversation grew serious: Jimmy felt an increasing burden for marriage, particularly for ministry couples struggling in their matches.

“He felt the kingdom of God was too silent on this issue,” Stephen says. “That’s how it started. We talked about what would happen if we brought two great churches together. If God was doing this with each of our churches, imagine what He could do with us together. We started talking about it in September of 2020, and by December, we sat down with Dino Rizzo, the executive director of ARC.”

Legal details were finalized the following month, and plans were presented to their respective leadership teams. Despite that combination, Union Church didn’t see an explosion until 2023. Coming into the year, they were averaging 3,800, with hopes of reaching 4,500 by the end of 2023. Instead, in the next few months, they nearly doubled.

Asked what he thinks God is up to, Stephen credits several factors, starting with the Lord’s favor. The pastor says God’s hand is on Union and has given them influence because they are committed to the Word of God, welcoming His presence and making disciples. 

He also credits his leadership team. They include former attorney Temi Pope, the senior executive pastor and chief of staff , and her husband, Damon, a one-time Amazon executive who is senior director of operations. Others include executive pastors Sheldon Andrus and Rashad Shabazz and—most importantly—Chandler’s wife, Zai. Not only is Zai the mother

of children Zoe, 7; Roman, 5; and Jade, 2, Stephen jokes that she irritates him because she is a phenomenal communicator and more popular with the congregation than he is.

“My wife is the other half of the personality God forgot to give me,” Stephen says. “She’s the one who makes this house a home, who makes people feel like it’s a family and they’re welcome. She preaches quite often, too.”

Among the many hats Zai wears is overseeing women’s outreach, which last October sponsored its second annual conference at a downtown D.C. arena and drew a standing-room-only crowd of 3,500. When not preaching, Zai often visits one of Union’s campuses to greet visitors and serve as a quality-control set of eyes for her husband.

The daughter of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Zai’s college studies in nursing didn’t prepare her for ministry as much as painful life experiences. They included losing her first husband to murder and her father’s death soon after that.

Zai says Union’s rapid growth has been “mind-blowing,” particularly in the past year. On her visits to other campuses, she sees many new faces, as well as people who were once last-in-and-first-out-the-door types now occupying leadership positions. During Destiny’s early days, everyone had to do everything, but today’s larger staff allows her to spend more time on preaching, staff development and forming stronger connections with women in the church. 

Still, a larger congregation also means greater challenges.

“As Dr. John Maxwell [who wrote the foreword to Stephen’s book, Stop Waiting for Permission] says, ‘The leader is the lid of the organization,’” Zai comments. “Leading this church has demanded significant growth in our lives. Anyone who has built anything knows that growth is painful. For me, it has called for significant surrendering to God. As hard or challenging as it may have been, the push for growth has been worth it.”

PLANTING NEW WORKS

At last summer’s BLDERS conference, Stephen told the audience that, after they have led people to Christ and helped them discover their life’s purpose, they should “kick them out the door” so they can serve as the hands and feet of Jesus to hurting and needy people.

He calls Union’s first out-of-state campus in North Carolina a step toward spreading the gospel elsewhere. Launched in late January of 2023, Union Charlotte saw nearly 1,700 at its first service, and two months later, it had to move to a larger space. 

While all the greater Washington area locations watch the main service via livestream, Pastor Brian Bullock preaches his own sermons. And though he’s 425 miles from the home location, the former young adults pastor and traveling evangelist still feels like a part of Union.

It’s been that way ever since Brian became a campus pastor in Maryland in April of 2021. When he arrived, his master plan was to spend a year at Union to learn everything he could about pastoring and planting a church and then go start his own.

“I would say three to six months into being at Union, it just became clear this was a God thing,” says Brian, whose wife, Karen, helps pastor the North Carolina location. “This was not just a place I was stopping in; this was family. I was not just there for a moment; these were people I wanted to do life with. Everything that went on at Union was stuff I wanted to do.”

One was how the church focused on those from a non-church background. Everything that happens on a Sunday is geared toward helping newcomers who have never been to church feel comfortable and welcome, Brian explains. 

The other is a commitment to systems and excellence. Raised in a traditional denomination that liked to flow in the Spirit, he found himself drawn to a place where the Spirit moved freely but which also had structure. 

The key factor that connects Brian with the church in Maryland is the vision of uniting people with their purpose, something he says is part of Union’s DNA. The Scripture that persuaded him to become a permanent part of Union appears in Matthew 18:19, where Jesus told the disciples if two or more of them agreed on anything they asked, His Father would do it for them.

“I feel connected to Union because we are asking for the same things,” says Brian, author of Living for Legacy: A Blueprint for Creating a Life that Matters. “We are trying to build the same thing. We are trying to get as many people to God as possible, believing that if we get people to God, it will get them to the reason they were created, and that will ultimately lead them to the most fulfilling life they’ll ever have.”

Fulfillment is an ironic word for Stephen, considering his original vision for the precursor to Union: to plant a church that would grow to 1,000 people by the time he turned 65. He remembers that so well because he wrote it down. Stephen thought if he could do that before transitioning to the next senior pastor, he would feel fulfilled—like he had done something great for God.

“So, needless to say, I didn’t see any of this,” Stephen says with a chuckle. “I didn’t pray for any of this, I didn’t dream of any of this. It’s Ephesians 3:20 in action—God exceedingly and abundantly did more than I could have ever imagined.”

KEN WALKER is a freelance writer and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia, who has profiled numerous spiritual leaders and businesspersons during his career. He has more than 4,600 article bylines and has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 90 books.



This article was featured in the Spring 2024 AVAIL Journal.

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