From his home in the working-class neighborhood of Mount Greenwood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Professor Chris Vlachos sets his alarm clock earlier and earlier every morning. He can’t wait to get to Wheaton where, as adjunct assistant professor of New Testament and administrator of Wheaton’s doctoral program in biblical and theological studies, he teaches undergraduate classes in New Testament Literature and Interpretation and the books of James and Revelation.
For Chris, teaching and mentoring is about much more than the transfer of information—it’s about inspiring and nurturing spiritual and character formation in his students.
A central aspect of Chris’ approach is to infuse his classroom instruction with narrative. The son of a Greek immigrant father and a Greek-American Idaho farm girl, Chris draws heavily from his own story-steeped past.
Chris shares with his students the story of his own trajectory toward salvation: immersion in the drug-infused moral decline of early 1970s America while an undergraduate frat boy at the University of Idaho at Moscow. Then he tells of the day when, bowed down by moral, spiritual, emotional, and physical decline, he wandered into a Christian bookstore in Moscow, Idaho, and someone handed him an individually bound copy of the Book of Romans. Although Chris had been raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, he had never encountered the Word of God in such a transformative way. “Somewhere between chapters three and four, I believed,” he says.
Chris next landed at L’Abri in Huemoz, Switzerland, and was counseled by Francis Schaeffer to finish college. So Chris returned to the Chicago area and in 1977 earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies from Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois. (He later earned a master’s degree in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1995.) In 1981, Chris and his wife Patty ran a bookstore/coffee house in Provo for 10 years; pastored Calvary Fellowship in American Fork for 18 years; and taught Greek and New Testament at Salt Lake Theological Seminary (formerly Utah Institute for Biblical Studies) for 22 years.
Eventually, the seminary invited Chris to come on staff as a full-time professor. So in 2002, at the age of 50 and with 30 years of frontline ministry experience, Chris entered Wheaton College’s Ph.D. program in biblical and theological studies. Chris and Patty fully expected to return to Utah. But when the Salt Lake Theological Seminary folded, they found themselves at a crossroads and reinvigorated by a calling they had felt prior to coming to Wheaton that it was time to “exchange the pulpit for the lectern, and the church for the academy.”
The couple bought a house in the same Southwest Side neighborhood where Chris had grown up, only four blocks from Chris’ 92-year-old mother for whom the two serve as primary care givers.
In addition to sharing stories from his own personal spiritual journey, Chris draws liberally from the narratives that shaped his 30 years of in-the-trenches ministry. A popular story among students has been the one he tells when the curriculum intersects with that of the demon-possessed man in the Gospel of Mark—the one who wandered naked in a graveyard, mad as an animal, until Christ’s words restored him to his “right mind.”
One day, during his eight years as a prison volunteer in the Utah State Prison system, Chris was asked by a friend to visit a relative incarcerated in the wing for the criminally insane. Although Chris had frequented the maximum security and death-row sections, he had never visited this area of the prison before.
Chris spent an hour visiting with the man and sharing from his Bible. As he was making his way back down the long corridor, a voice called out, “Hey preacher man!” It came from a giant man standing stark naked in a dark cell. The light bulb above had been broken and the cell caked with feces and urine. The smell was abominable.
The prisoner reached through the bars and said, “Give me five!”
Challenging himself to respond in the same manner as Jesus, Chris accepted the man’s hand and then asked the guard to unlock the man’s cell. He sat down on the cot. The cell door re-closed, and Chris began a conversation. Chris began to visit the man every week and, little by little, began to see evidence of transformation. A new light bulb appeared. The man cleaned up his cell and began to wear clothes.
Two years later, the man was released; he inaugurated his freedom with a night at Chris’ home followed by breakfast and a fishing excursion.
Chris bases his narrative-infused pedagogy on the architecture of Scripture itself, much of which interweaves storytelling and teaching, narrative and discourse.
“Just as faith without works is dead, so discourse without narrative is dead,” says Chris.
One outcome Chris aims for is to help students understand their own place in the greater Kingdom narrative. “Evangelicals are big on discourse,” says Chris. “We’re good at saying, ‘this is what I believe.’ But we are often less conscious of how each of us fits into the larger narrative.”
Another outcome Chris strives for is to simply help facilitate the learning process.
“Stories are never told at the expense of academic material,” he says. “Rather, they help illustrate biblical truth while helping students learn. My students often write to say how much they learned in my classes. Narrative invites the opportunity to learn.”
In addition to his experience as a prison volunteer, Chris has served as an animal-assisted therapy pet partner volunteer, played bass in a contemporary Christian rock/folk trio, and survived a diagnosis of stage 4B Hodgkin’s Disease in 1984. He and Patty, a substitute registered nurse in the Chicago public schools, run half-marathons together and have three grown children and five grandchildren.