On Seeking Faithful Institutions and Alliances
For this is what it means to be a king: to be the first in every desperate attack, and last in every desperate retreat, and when there is hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis, 240.
Leading a Christian organization for the past few years has been difficult. The church is in desperate need of courageous men to lead in such times of tribulation. Sadly, this has not been the posture of many evangelical leaders.
The American evangelical landscape has lately experienced the pains of the Big Sort. Christians are self-sorting according to various religious and political convictions that reflect broader national trends. Regardless of the reasons for such a sorting, whether it be the idolization of politics as some might claim, or simply the natural result of broader cultural trends, the evangelical Big Sort is in full swing.
An example of these trends is the Acts 29 Network, a network of approximately 700 churches, which projects a niche expertise in church planting. Founded in 1999 by David Nichols, of Spanish River (Presbyterian) Church alongside Mark Driscoll, who eventually became the primary leader, Acts 29 discovered its market position in the midst of the nascent and now fractured Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement.
Acts 29 was always committed to gospel-centered ministry, complementarian theology, missional innovation, Spirit-led pneumatology, and Calvinist soteriology. However, the scandal-plagued organization has failed to meet the needs of the hour with grace and truth. Churning through leaders and tolerating trans ideology in pulpits, this once strong church network has outkicked its coverage, losing the moral clarity our times of disorder and particular depravity demand and the courageous conviction it once possessed. Constant board turnover, network realignment, and bloated bureaucracy speak to an organization building the plane as it flies rather than instilling confidence and stability in its member churches.
Our church joined Acts 29 in 2011. At the time we were already on the ground in Boulder holding worship services for our church plant.
For young church planters, joining Acts 29 was attractive because of the access to influential voices within the YRR movement such as Darrin Patrick, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Sam Storms, Steve Timmis, and Ray Ortlund. The benefit of joining Acts 29 wasn’t monetary as they did not give money to church planters at the time. The benefit was found in the trusted relationships based on theological alignment and the credibility the brand provided. It was like joining a trade organization or guild so that you could put the logo of the network alongside your brand ensuring credibility and gain access to people and conferences which could help you plant a church. Not to mention, the network was the “it girl” of church planting. Mark Driscoll was being discussed in the New York Times, Darrin Patrick was going on Fox and Friends. These guys seemed to have two things that don’t normally go together, a commitment to biblical fidelity and an attractiveness to a wide audience. What church planter wouldn’t want to join their network?
Over time the focus of the network shifted. Rather than lauding the glorification of God in all things through a rich commitment to the historic Christian faith and church planting, Acts 29 began to talk less about theological convictions and more about cultural diversity. As busy church planters, much of this didn’t catch our eye. We were glad to be part of the club and assumed the best of the talented leaders directing the network.
That changed in 2020. There were four events which led to a slow erosion of trust.
First, the sudden firing of Steve Timmis under the claim of “abusive leadership” based on a hit piece from Christianity Today seemed suspect. Whether there were biblically justifiable reasons to dismiss Timmis is unknown, since to this day, the network has not shared any investigation which would justify arriving at such a conclusion. When one network leader was asked what abusive leadership is, his reply was simply “Anytime a leader misuses power.”
Second, COVID created a confusing and at times contentious environment amongst churches in the network. Some stayed closed and others stayed open. Acts 29 provided pragmatic opinions on the best practices for churches but offered little theological instruction surrounding the importance of churches remaining open.
Third, our friend Darrin Patrick took his own life. Darrin was a recent friend to our church and a former board member of Acts 29. His own life unraveled as he had a moral failing and falling out at his own church plant. Darrin’s experience was emblematic of broader problems in evangelicalism in dealing with once-famous pastors who were voted off the island.
Fourth and most significantly, with the death of George Floyd, churches in the network became deeply divided and did not receive clear leadership from Acts 29 central staff and regional directors regarding biblically sound approaches to this matter. Acts 29 executive chairman, and former president, Matt Chandler, blamed the church for making BLM necessary. Vice president of church planting, Tyler Jones, proclaimed that those who have been silent regarding racism are walking in unrepentant sin. Acts 29 itself parroted worldly talking points about systemic racism. On a network call for pastors, the Director of Pastoral Care stated that “America has designed a system where white folk always win…This system sprung up from the church…My prayer is that God would use our generation of pastors…to dismantle it with the gospel truth.” One former board member, and current Acts 29 pastor, Leonce Crump, referred to the revolutionary war as an insurrection. He went on to say, “God is always standing on the side of the disenfranchised, marginalized and the oppressed” all while claiming to be neither left nor right. Furthermore, claiming that if we don’t participate in BLM, we will dishonor the heart of God and that we must be anti-racist. In an interview with Acts 29 pastor Guy Mason, pastor Crump said “Blood, violence, and hypocrisy are the soul of this nation.”
All of this led us to begin asking earnest questions to restore trust and build unity within the network and our own church. We have had over a dozen phone calls over the last three years with vice presidents, former board members, and other leaders in the network to seek clarity on doctrinal and financial matters. As part of their membership in the network, churches agree to give 2% of their annual budget to the network to further their mission of planting churches (think of them as member dues). If our church was going to support church planting in this way, we wanted to ensure that the churches that were being planted were not worldly.
Unbeknownst to us, our inquiries were being discussed at the board level of the organization. Without prior warning of the possibility of our removal, we were summoned to a Zoom call on January 17, 2023, during which we were unilaterally removed from the network because the board declared us no longer a “good fit” for the network. The claims against us were about as ambiguous as the network’s stances on the foremost cultural issues facing the church. We were charged with publicly critiquing the network and a critical and combative pattern of behavior.
In the evangelical Big Sort, Christians are seeking out networks and institutions that are aligned with their values and convictions. People are making affinity-based choices and many affinity-based, inter-denominational networks exist today to serve an increasingly fractured evangelical populace. The Acts 29 Network functions as an excellent case study for this trend. Depending on how things shake out, one can imagine a slew of seminary thesis projects focusing on the meteoric rise and slow demise of Acts 29. Just this year, the Texas-based Redeemer Network, a subnetwork of twenty-two Acts 29 church plants across Texas and Oklahoma, saw many of their churches exit Acts 29. In the wake of the successor ideology securing a foothold in nearly every cultural institution in America, it is important that Christians carefully consider the nature of their fellowship with such networks.
While many positive things can come from collaborating across denominational lines via “big tent” coalitions, it often leads to confusion at the top. At one point, Acts 29 boasted about having over 20 different denominations represented in their network. The leaders of these sorts of networks then must lead in a way that tries to keep everyone happy or at least content with a ceasefire predicated on the lowest doctrinal common denominators. But invariably, said leaders will be forced to pick sides on theological, cultural, and practical issues. In which case, the decision-making becomes pragmatic instead of convictional.
It is vital for networks and para-church organizations to clearly articulate and regulate their core values and beliefs. This has always been the case but never more so than now in the face of mounting pressure to downplay or modify convictions the world despises. In the case of Acts 29, they have failed to muster a rigorous defense of their constituting core values for common fellowship, opting instead for muddled statements on race and Jan. 6, and removing a former church which by all available accounts was in good standing.
Given the continuous and rigorous defense of such core values, networks must be clear about the standards for membership and disfellowshipping. For example, in the Acts 29 Network, the entity which holds the final say on any church’s continued fellowship is a self-appointed board of five unelected men. The board is made up of men who are only selected by current board members. There is no application process available to pastors of member churches interested in joining the board. While the network holds assessment conferences and employs staff to vet potential church planters, churches in the network remain in fellowship at the discretion of the board. The approval of churches to the Acts 29 Network rests at the highest level of power and control and employees are given authority only so long as they do not frustrate the wishes of the board. Acts 29, as a practical effect of their by-laws, is a brand not governed by faith commitments but by personal preferences and self-determined membership of the board. The board has the right to accept or disfellowship anyone and everyone they deem fit.
This all might be a defensible model so long as those at the board level are aligned and have clearly articulated convictions.
One question we have learned to ask during these trying times is, what are the standards for maintaining fellowship and good standing? In the case of Acts 29, our church was given no warning of our pending removal and there was no process of appeal afforded to us. To this day, we still have not been given a tangible example of how we criticized Acts 29 or acted inappropriately before we were removed. Without a clear articulation of such standards, Christians can only remain in fellowship at the whim of their leaders. Cross the leader, and you will find yourself sidelined at best. Although Acts 29 postures as a decentralized network with multiple levels of leadership, it is in fact governed arbitrarily without clearly defined convictions and regulations. The emphasis in training pastors focuses on getting things done, trading the rigor of theological education and moral philosophy for a whatever-works-is-fine approach to ministry. This is not surprising in an industry with an outsized fail rate with most church plants never reaching their fifth year. The pressure on church planters to make something work just to make a living is enormous. Given a divided populace, inflation, exorbitant housing costs, and debt from seminary education, one can see why a major concern of church planters becomes what works. However, when the leaders of God’s church trade virtue, courage, and moral vision which compel excellence in others for simple pragmatism, corruption and disillusionment are sure to follow.
In any network, it is crucial to have checks and balances and clear lines of communication. When issues arise leaders must be available to answer questions and members should be confident that their concerns will be addressed. Some churches have raised questions regarding the budget or theological errors but those questions remain unanswered by the Acts 29 Network, stating in a recent update to member churches that they are “undeterred.” Financial transparency is essential for affinity-based networks to ensure that the organization is spending members’ funds in line with the mission of the organization.
Later this year, Acts 29 will be hosting and subsidizing a pastor retreat to Cancun using member funds while simultaneously experiencing an over 20% shortfall on a $9.12 million budget. In the corporate world, this would be considered a classic boondoggle. Meanwhile, a meager 3% of the network’s budget is given directly to church plants. In the affinity-based church network world, many of these suspicious spending practices are often lauded as “care and equipping” but they don’t pass the sniff test for integrity. Some of these church networks seem to have behaviors that mirror a multi-level marketing scheme more than a fellowship of Christian churches. For Acts 29, there has been no indication that anything is wrong. If the only communication from the leaders of an organization is how great everything is while budget shortfalls and members are leaving, that is a sign of a problem.
When members of a network-based fellowship are unable to raise questions without fear of retribution or removal from fellowship, distrust increases exponentially. Instead, affinity-based networks must ensure their constituents have clear guidelines for reporting and policing the membership of their fellowship. Acts 29 itself has declared that they do not and will not guard matters of orthopraxy within their member churches. Meaning that Acts 29 absolves itself of any responsibility when it comes to the practical outworkings of their theological convictions, a specious claim when our church was removed for what appear to be matters of orthopraxy. A lack of willingness for a church network or Christian organization to enforce any boundaries when it comes to the theology on the ground can only create distrust and disunity. When an organization loses the trust of its members, the whole thing begins to crumble, which we see in Acts 29.
In the midst of this Big Sort and affinity-based fellowships, there has never been a greater opportunity to lead with clarity and courage. Christians are hungry to leave behind the seeker-sensitive musings cast under missional language. It’s crucial that Christians discern various Christian denominations, networks, and institutions for signs of courage and clarity. One sign of life might be the organization’s ability to vigorously defend their strict core values. Another would be leadership that is committed to courage rather than cultural capitulation. There are many such organizations that do this well. FIRE, a network of Reformed Evangelicals, have released statements for their churches regarding Critical Race Theory and provide very clear guidelines for fellowship. As another example, the recent rise in church affiliations with the CREC indicates a hunger for robust and meaningful cooperation between like-minded churches. .
When our church joined Acts 29 in 2011, we were young leaders eager to learn from some of the biggest names of the YRR. As is natural to men, the appeal of Acts 29 was in the cultural respect it had at the time. Getting the Acts 29 affiliation and being able to put the Acts 29 logo on your website was akin to an endorsement or a Better Business Bureau sticker on your storefront. It was a sign of credibility. Looking back, Acts 29 was all about the brand to the exclusion of substance, a standard they still hold to this day.
But the shine of the sticker is wearing off and without some serious leadership changes, the association with such a brand will become one of ill-repute. Today if you visit an Acts 29 church, you can’t be sure what you will experience. You might experience the promotion of trans ideology, a woman preaching in the pulpit during worship services, the teaching of critical race theory, that racism is a mental disorder infecting the majority white population, that America was founded on lies and racism which has set up a system of white dominance. Or, you may experience a faithful pastor trying to do the best he can with little support or oversight from his primary church affiliation. Without a change of leadership, the legacy of Acts 29 will surely be squandered, doomed to become another example of coalitions like T4G, a blip on the YRR radar.
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