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How Acts 29 Survived—and Thrived—After the Collapse of Mars Hill

Editors’ note: 

Starting this fall, Acts 29 is partnering with TGC to produce resources such as articles on church-planting topics and the Churches Planting Churches podcast hosted by Tony Merida. For more content on church planting, see Acts 29’s page.

It didn’t take long for Ryan Kwon to realize why the Acts 29 event seemed weird.

“Everybody looked the same,” he remembers of a 2009 regional conference. “I don’t know if it was a lumberjack look or the Seattle grunge scene, but everybody had facial hair and wore plaids.”

Kwon was there to be assessed in order to join the network as a church planter in California. “I was drawn into Acts 29 through [former president] Mark Driscoll and his teaching and his personality,” he said. “I’d never met him, but I knew who he was and what he was about.”

But Kwon was 40, and didn’t have any facial hair.

“I knew that wasn’t going to be a great fit,” he says with a laugh. “Also, I don’t love wearing plaids.”

But it wasn’t the fashion that bothered him so much as the language. “So many were talking the same—a sophomoric, brash harshness.”

He made it through the assessment but was so turned off by the “spirit of immaturity” and so worried about the “cult of personality” around Driscoll that he turned down the opportunity.

Three years later, he had planted a thriving, multicultural, multigenerational church in the hard spiritual soil of the San Francisco Bay area. He got another call from Acts 29—this time asking him humbly to be a part of the network.

It was 2013, and Acts 29 had just moved underneath the leadership of pastor Matt Chandler.

“I started to see immediate change in the sense of how we were dealing with and talking to each other,” Kwon said. And “I felt there was a sweetness and a level of grace in how we talked about churches outside of the network.”

But that was only part of the change. Over the next four years, Acts 29 would shift from an American-based network to a “diverse global family of church-planting churches,” distribute power from a single board to 11 networks, add financial accountability, streamline systems, and make more room for ethnic minorities and women.

Acts 29 Global Gathering 2017

 

“It was time for us to leave puberty and grow up to the things the Lord has called us to,” Chandler said.

It feels like they’ve done that. This summer, nearly 1,000 people from 33 countries gathered at the inaugural Acts 29 global gathering, a biennial event meant to anchor the Acts 29 calendar. Attendees—white, black, and brown, men and women—celebrated Acts 29’s 645 churches in 11 networks and announced the launch of a new Middle East region. The network—with a clear, solid structure and with a spirit of grace and humility—felt healthy.

“Honestly, this is a new Acts 29 in a lot of ways,” Kwon said. “It’s a story worth knowing. Because it’s not Acts 29’s story; it’s God’s story.”

Acts 29 1.0

It was no accident that in the early days, Acts 29 (named after the desire to be part of the continuing story of the early church) planters channeled Driscoll’s boldness and blue jeans.

The megachurch pastor was the front man for the church-planting network founded by his mentor David Nicholas, taking over as president around 2005 and moving the headquarters from Nicholas’s church in Boca Raton, Florida, to Mars Hill Church in Seattle. There it was housed in Mars Hill’s offices and primarily funded by its income.

Driscoll’s direct style of communication, charismatic personality, and stunning success with his own church drew young planters who “were serious about the Bible but didn’t feel at home in the rigid Reformed world,” Chandler said.

Chandler was one of them. Well on his way to growing his own megachurch in a Dallas suburb, he was interested enough in Acts 29’s 98 percent church-viability rate to send his youth pastor to check it out. Soon after, Driscoll asked Chandler to come on board.

Matt Chandler

 

“It was an invitation to help build a world for those serious about theology but not crusty about it,” Chandler said. “That might sound harsh today, but 12 years ago I certainly couldn’t find that world. I was Reformed in soteriology, and I was complementarian, but I also believed in the gifts of the Spirit.”

Unable to fit cleanly into any camp, he found in Acts 29 a theological home, a passion for advancing the gospel through planting churches, and a brotherhood of “guys who were serious about big-God theology.”

That brotherhood was also really young—at 28 years old, Chandler was older than most. And it showed.

“It was like the wild, wild west,” he said. “When you’re young and your churches are primarily small, it is easy to misunderstand, to not be gracious, and to create straw men to attack and tear down.”

Some of that character was patterned after Driscoll’s confrontational style, which was also part of his magnetism. By 2012, Acts 29 had grown to more than 400 churches, with another 400 applying to join.

Transition

The trouble with the wild west is, it’s wild.

“There was a kind of looseness that led to some real frustrations that needed to be fixed,” Chandler said. The focus had begun to slip; the “young bucks were more apt to gather around and argue about definitive atonement than they were to plant churches.”

Finances were also loose. Mars Hill didn’t ask for money, instead saying that planters could give when they could. But church planters aren’t raking in cash; given the option, they’ll spend their funding elsewhere. That left Mars Hill footing the bill and feeling frustrated.

And authority ran a little like a rubber band, loosening and tightening in seemingly random ways. “There was a lot of mistrust, even when I became president,” Chandler said. “There was a massive amount of skepticism about what was going to be true.”

Driscoll saw the weaknesses, and knew he wasn’t the person to fix them, Chandler said. Driscoll was also starting to attract more controversy, drawing regular fire over his impulsive language and attitude toward women, and apologizing again and again.

So in the spring of 2012, Driscoll met with Chandler and Acts 29 vice president Darrin Patrick. Patrick had his hands full with health concerns and his growing church, but Chandler was splitting lead pastor responsibilities with a team of two other men, and could add the responsibility. So Driscoll handed the network over to Chandler.

“I was anxious about taking it because I thought it would lead to conflict between Mark and I,” Chandler said. “But Mark was adamant that he was for me, that he was supportive of me, and that he would come behind me. And to his credit, he did that every step of the way.”

Acts 29 2.0

Chandler applied immediate triage, laying out four clear hopes for the future—a renewed focus on churches planting churches, a reputation for holiness and humility, ethnic diversity, and bold evangelism.

Then he sat down with everyone who had been hurt: black, Asian, and Latino planters who felt pushed to the side; global partners who felt overlooked; and those—like Kwon—who had been too turned off to join in the first place.

“I was trying to wrap my mind around the people factor first,” Chandler said. “We could deal with the systems and finances once I got a good picture of what was going on in the hearts and minds of the people.”

Chandler “came in with humility and a sense of genuineness,” said Dwayne Bond, who joined Acts 29 in 2007. “He was willing to listen. He didn’t come to the table with all the answers. He came in broken-hearted yet hopeful, trying to figure out how God could continue to get glory from the purpose and vision of the network.”

Dwayne Bond

 

Right away, Acts 29 began to reflect that humility.

The retreats became more humble and gracious, Kwon said. “You sense that immediately in the environment. It’s not just about having answers, but about asking questions.”

Assessing potential planters, which “used to be done in a hard-core tone, to beat them up,” also changed, said Acts 29 planter Jeff Medders, who now helps lead assessment conferences.

Those interviews were a top priority “because [the process] had scarred some brothers,” Chandler said. “Unqualified men who lacked discernment and tact were being asked to assess. They would take their pet theology or ideology and really beat up a guy over a matter of secondary importance.”

Under the direction of Matthew Spriggs, assessments became “more robust”—a two-hour interaction now takes two full days, the process includes not just the planter but also his family, and assessors are trained. But they’re also gentler, Medders said. (“That was one of the best experiences I have ever had,” one planter, who did not pass, told Acts 29. “It was a great moment of reflection.”)

In addition, there began to be more room for those who weren’t white males.

“I wanted to create a home for young men of whatever ethnicity to be theologically educated and informed, trained in an environment that’s sensitive to their culture and understanding of background and context,” Chandler said. “I wanted to support them, empower them, and release them to plant gospel-centered, Jesus-loving, Bible-preaching churches.”

Eric Mason (right) sorts out Acts 29 board member Doug Logan’s bowtie at the global gathering.

 

The Acts 29 board of nine now includes two non-Americans; and of the Americans, three are minorities. Three years ago, the biannual network leaders’ meeting was almost entirely American. Last month’s meeting also included Canada, South Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Australia.

Gloria Furman speaks at the Acts 29 global gathering

The attitude toward women—which could dip into a harsh patriarchy—also eased. Acts 29 is still complementarian, but at the 2013 Acts 29 pastors retreat, for the first time a woman joined her husband on stage to lead the worship. Acts 29 began hiring women for key staff positionsYvette Mason, Chandra Howard, Kimberley Merida, and Gloria Furman had main speaking slots at the global gathering this summer.

The network didn’t lose a single church over those changes, Chandler said. But they did lose some when he reminded them that their purpose was not just to be a church plant, but to plant churches that plant churches.

They lost a few more by requiring member churches to give 1 percent of their income to Acts 29, both to support operations and to also help fund new plants around the world.

But even though Chandler said they kept “bracing for the floor to drop out” from under them, Acts 29 never did see a big exodus.

Even when Driscoll resigned from ministry, and their primary source of funding—Mars Hill Church—disappeared.

Losing Mars Hill

“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is nothing less than a miracle that Acts 29 did not go down with Mars Hill,” said Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis.

Driscoll was not only instrumental in “but also the personality of Acts 29,” Kwon said. So when Driscoll’s controversies started piling up, the board “publicly and internally tried to support and give [Driscoll] the benefit of the doubt,” they stated in 2014.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is nothing less than a miracle that Acts 29 did not go down with Mars Hill.

But “based on the totality of the circumstances, we are now asking you to please step down from ministry for an extended time and seek help,” they wrote. “Consequently, we also feel that we have no alternative but to remove you and Mars Hill from membership in Acts 29.”

The Acts 29 brotherhood was hurt and confused, some by Driscoll’s actions, some by the board’s rejection of him. So leaders opened up town hall meetings, telling the people to ask anything they wanted.

“Everyone asked really honest questions, and what was more important, they heard really honest answers,” Kwon said, “answers of brokenness, of grief. Answers that were really saturated in grace and longing for our brother Mark. He was not our enemy; he was a fallen brother.”

That kindness and openness did a lot to earn leaders the trust of pastors, and to soften and humble the entire network, Kwon said.

Remarkably, not a single church left. In fact, in the tumultuous and traumatic 2014, Acts 29 welcomed 78 new members, 71 new candidates, and 145 new applications.

The fact that Acts 29 survived the implosion was “a miraculous thing,” Kwon said. “I can’t articulate it beyond the fact that I recognize it is by the grace of God—and the grace of God alone.”

Money

After Driscoll stepped down from ministry, his 12,000-member church—and the majority of Acts 29’s funding—came to a crashing halt.

Two months after asking Driscoll and Mars Hill to leave, and two months before the megachurch officially dissolved, Acts 29 announced the mandatory 1 percent contribution to what became known as the Catalyst Fund, which would fund operations and new plants. Two months later, they held their first big fundraiser.

“The income necessary to fund these ambitions ($3 million in fiscal year 2015) is not guaranteed,” Acts 29’s 2014 annual report stated. “We need prayer and action to secure it.”

They got it. The fundraiser brought in more than $1 million, and the Catalyst Fund brought in the rest. By 2017, the Catalyst Fund was expected to supply all of Acts 29’s expected $2.2 million operational and ministry expenditures. (Projected costs overran that total by $575,000, but will be covered by reserves or donors, chief financial officer Steve Johnson wrote.)

The annual report and budget were part of the structures added in order to corral the network, including audited accounts, a human resources department, and finance staff.

But the biggest structural changes for Acts 29 came after a meeting in Newport Beach, California.

Diverse Global Family

A week before the June 2013 meeting, Chandler sent Timmis a new organizational chart for Acts 29.

Timmis didn’t like it.

“I was troubled because it seemed U.S.-centric,” said Timmis, who was at that time leading the Western European network. “I got up at 4 a.m. the next day and wrote a response. I said, ‘Matt, if you go down this route, then there’s no real place for us as a non-U.S. network.’”

Chandler didn’t respond, and Timmis resigned himself to how things were going to be. When Chandler presented the chart to a room of 50 Acts 29 leaders and asked for agreement, Timmis’s hand was the only one that didn’t go up. (“I was the only non-American there,” he said.)

“Come on, Steve, tell us why you aren’t happy with it,” Chandler said, with a little smile.

Steve Timmis and Matt Chandler

 

So the Englishman explained that an organizational chart that focused on the United States could never be anything besides an American network with, at best, global interests or partners. He said that it didn’t resonate with what he knew was the desire of the leadership. He pointed to a key verse, Habakkuk 2:14, which says that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” “Any gospel ambition has to be global,” he said.

In five minutes, the direction of Acts 29 effectively changed.

“It changed to such an extent that it can only be attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit,” Timmis said. “In 37 years of ministry, I had never experienced anything like it.”

The question Chandler asked kick-started an hour-long discussion, which prompted a request for an alternative organizational chart. Three days later, a small team—including Timmis and board member Leonce Crump—offered a model that placed American leaders next to, not over, leaders that would emerge from around the world. The board approved it unanimously, committed to making it happen, and invited Timmis to join them.

The contextualization of local leaders also helped Acts 29 lose the American focus. Today, a quarter of Acts 29 churches are outside the United States.

The next year, Timmis was hired as Acts 29’s executive director, and the headquarters were moved from Dallas, Texas, to Sheffield, England.

One of the most important changes he proposed—and the board approved—was to slice up their power and responsibility, spreading it out among multiple geographic networks across the globe, including five in the United States.

So now, if a potential planter needs to be assessed, or if a hurt or angry pastor has a grievance or needs support, he can turn first to those in his area or network.

“That was one of the biggest shifts,” Kwon said. “Not only did that make Acts 29 leadership much more accessible, but they knew the churches and had better relationships with them.”

Another huge advantage: it “naturally creates opportunity for leadership and maturation,” Bond said. “If you have 11 network directors, then you have 11 people who could possibly lead this whole thing.”

The contextualization of local leaders also helped Acts 29 lose the American focus. Today, a quarter of Acts 29 churches are outside the United States “and growing at a healthy pace,” Timmis said.

Looking Ahead

“I don’t ever want to do that again,” Chandler says of leading Acts 29 through five fast years of major changes. “I can’t overstate the hard work and faithfulness of Steve Timmis. None of this happens without his savvy, his ability to absorb accusations that weren’t tied to him. We took a beating for more than two years for things we didn’t have any part of.”

The change is so stark that leadership talks in terms of “Acts 29 1.0” and “Acts 29 2.0,” Timmis said. “We are different from the early version, but we want to honor all that the Lord did through it, which was significant.”

Acts 29 has always been entrepreneurial, has always attracted men with a passion to see Jesus’s name made known, he said in a recent video. “We’ve really tried . . . to take that history, that heritage, and make it even more so.”

The efforts paid off in the global gathering this summer. “It was really the first tangible experience for people of what we mean by a diverse, global family,” he said. “The change from an annual pastors’ retreat to the global gathering was profoundly indicative of the change that has taken place. It’s difficult to overstate the significance.”

Global Gathering 2017

 

At the gathering, the network announced a new region—the Middle East—and a new focus on collaborating with other organizations to plant among the urban poor, in rural communities, and in Islamic contexts.

On the whole, the transition hasn’t been easy, and “those in the U.S. networks need to be applauded for their humility and patience as the feel of the family has really changed for them,” said Ross Lester, former Acts 29 network director for southern Africa. “The fruit is obvious, though. Acts 29 is now truly becoming a diverse and global family and it feels that way.”

The “chest thumping” and “fist bumping” are gone, replaced with “cross-cultural fondness, affection, and warm embrace,” he said. “I truly believe that the organization is healthier than it has ever been, and is well-positioned for ongoing advance across the globe.”

 

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