The Missional Approach of the Acts 29 Church Planting Movement
The M issional Approach of the Acts 29 Church Planting Movement
Marylyn Sohlberg 0
0 Pepperdine University
The Missional Approach of the Acts 29 Church Planting Movement
Gallup poll that observed eighty percent of American churches in decline.2 In 2011,
Gallup also estimated an average of forty-five percent of Americans who say religion is
fairly or not very important in their lives.3 The vision to spread the Gospel to this large
demographic of unbelievers, transform lives, and advance the kingdom for the glory of
God has proven unshaken and more contagious than ever, as ordinary people
everywhere are volunteering to plant new churches both domestically and
internationally. The Acts 29 network is one of many up and coming entrepreneurial
church planting movements that partners with and mobilizes new church leaders under
Founded in 1998 by Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, the
movement began as a small group of church planters that met together in order to
encourage and keep one another accountable. The group gradually developed into a
larger network of church planters who decided to provide spiritual mentorship, “boot
camp” training sessions, resources, networking, and a community for future missional
leaders. Acts 29 has been highly successful in the sheer breadth of their mission; in
only fourteen years the movement has produced more than 400 church plants in the
United States and twenty-eight internationally.4 The organization attributes this rapid
growth to the power of the Holy Spirit and the organization’s high commitment to plant
church-planting, or reproductive churches.
Acts 29 maintains a fairly decentralized structure that resembles a community
rather than an oversight committee or denomination. Five board members along with
thirteen regional leaders and an assessment director, all from various parts of the
country, make up the leadership of Acts 29. Acts 29 is trans-denominational,
empowering planters from Evangelical, Missional, and Reformed backgrounds, each
with differing worship styles, target communities, budgets, and traditions. A key aspect
of the mission is to unite Gospel-centered churches that have traditionally been divided
against each other, all under a common Christian identity and with the goal of spreading
the good news “to the ends of the earth.” Doctrine, however, is an issue that the board
refuses to compromise on during the assessment process. This is the most
controversial aspect of the Acts 29 movement; critiques are primarily voiced from the
2012). 4 “About,” Acts 29 Network, http://www.acts29network.org/about/ (accessed November 10,
Southern Baptist camp regarding doctrinal issues such as female leadership and elder
A major strength that is often attributed to the Acts 29 Network amongst Christian
scholars is the high degree of cooperation and brotherhood that has been achieved
between its churches. Acts 29 has been one of the most successful organizations to
bridge the divide between Protestant denominations and between differing
methodologies, or how leaders choose to “do” church. Acts 29 has reversed centuries of
tension based on the notion that agreement on the primary matters (i.e. the centrality of
the cross, a high view of scripture, and a commitment to communicating contextually
without compromising core beliefs) is enough theological consensus to band God’s
armies together for the mission of furthering his kingdom and his glory. Acts 29 is not
directly affiliated, nor is it necessarily a reaction against any given denomination or
certain way of doing things, but is determined to plant churches that come in different
forms, anywhere from multi-site video preaching to missional community models to
classical launches. In the words of Driscoll, “a church needs to be as formally organized
as it is necessary to get on and stay on mission, and no more.”5
Not only has the network fostered healthy partnership and cooperation amongst
a diversity of churches, it has laid healthy soil for discipling a diverse pool of church
planters. The absence of a structural hierarchy or a denominational hegemony amongst
the pool of mentors has allowed for open discussions on what is and isn’t working in the
American church, essentially creating a safe space where iron can sharpen iron.
President Matt Chandler was quoted in the Christian Post saying that "this kind of
mutual edification… occurs when guys are doing things differently than you are, but with
the same heart and beliefs that you have, ultimately creat[ing] an environment where
maybe a lot of the vitriol you see online can die down as we see that we are on the
A second admirable strength of the movement is its adamant, gospel-based
commitment to planting church-planting churches (e.g. those intending to replicate
before the church is even launched). David Garrison in his study on church planting
movements reports that rapid reproduction is evidenced in every thriving movement he
has observed. “Rapid reproduction,” he argues, “communicates the urgency and
importance of coming to faith in Christ. When rapid reproduction is taking place, you can
be assured that the churches are unencumbered by nonessential elements and the laity
are fully empowered to participate in this work of God.”7
Church reproduction that results from organic growth is not necessarily ensured
or obligatory for Acts 29 church plants, but rather an indication of a healthy,
Gospelcentered church and a planter who has been trained well. This commitment makes up
the DNA of Acts 29 training and mentoring efforts; the concept is stressed again and
again on the Acts 29 webpage and reiterated throughout articles, blogs, and other
recommended publications. Pastor Chuck Ryor, a two-time planter discipled through
Acts 29 reports that his church in Pasadena tithes ten percent to Acts 29 and will
incrementally increase its “missional” budget, that is money going to church planting,
with the intent of giving away fifty percent when the annual budget reaches $1 million.
Even though his church is still in its beginning stages, Ryor has high hopes for one of
his young members to plant a daughter church in the near future.8 In its obedience to
the Great Commission, Acts 29 believes that the most strategic response to God’s call
to urgently proclaim the gospel and advance his kingdom in the modern day context is
to plant new churches. The model of building “pregnant” new churches is both a
strategic and biblical way to maintain the mission that Acts 29 has taken ownership of.
A third strength of Acts 29 is that they try to plant indigenous churches, as
opposed to importing theologically trained professionals into new and unfamiliar
territory. The local church planters have the ability to assume the role of missionaries
within their own culture, which, according Garrison, has proven a highly successful
tactic, common among every thriving church planting movement going on in the world.9
On a practical level, a local planter is already familiar with the needs and
communication styles of that community, which may be more valuable than a seminary
education. The model of indigenization is not only practical, it is also biblical because it
reflects early methods that the apostles used to contextualize the Gospel and raise up
local church leaders such as Timothy.10 Finally, indigenization is missional. Church
planter Ed Stetzer points to some of the factors that led to the early Protestant church to
be mission-minded but not missional, contributing to a large group of evangelicals who
still “struggle with presenting the unchanging gospel in an ever-changing cultural
8 Chuck Ryor and Carolyn Ryor, "Prism Church and It's Acts 29 Affiliation." Personal interview.
2 Dec. 2012.
9 Garrison 34.
10 A prime example of Paul’s use of contextualization is in Lystra in Acts 13.
setting.” He sums up the arguments of Anglican missionary and priest Roland Allen
(1868-1947), saying that the church must form “mutual trust between missionaries and
new converts as well as confidence in the Holy Spirit to guide both” as a reason to
support indigenous church leadership, a principle Acts 29 fully advocates both
internationally and domestically.11
Another contributing factor in the formation of sustainable churches is funding.
Acts 29 does not guarantee a planter any start-up funds but instead makes a pot of
money available for churches who are desperate or need support to plant new
churches, the purpose being to create independent churches who partner with, but
aren’t dependent on the organization financially. Acts 29 also fosters economic
partnerships between experienced pastors and new church planters so that churches
can support each other.
Fourthly, Acts 29 has a notably refined assessment process that not only caters
to the couples participating in the network, but also has proven effective in the long run,
only sending out Spirit-filled planters who are truly prepared for an uphill battle in
American culture. “The assessment process was thorough and heartfelt, giving me good
council after a difficult season of ministry,” stated Pastor Chuck, who sought affiliation
with a non-denominational church after just having finished up fifteen years as a
Presbyterian youth pastor in Florida. “There was an emphasis on tests that measured
how risk adverse you are, basically seeing if you actually have the stomach for doing
this, or if it’s just a flash in the pan.” As Acts 29 Vice President Darrin Patrick puts it in
his book “Church Planter,” “When an unqualified doctor performs surgery… people get
11 Stetzer 30.
hurt and things fall apart. It is no different in the church: people usually end up getting
hurt when they are under unqualified leaders, and everything from marriages to the
church itself is likely to fall apart.”12 Practical assessment of a planter’s calling,
competence, and capability along with Paul’s lists of qualifications for elders are
grounded in the organization’s rigorous personality and skills tests.
With a depth similar to their comprehensive assessment process, the vision cast
in Acts 29 boot camps and training sessions imagines church plants committed to
holistic mission. Through his extensive Old Testament exegesis and analysis of the
contemporary church, theologian Christopher Wright argues that Jesus’ sacrifice must
be seen in the light of the exodus narrative as a fulfillment of God’s promise to liberate
slaves, forgive debts, and make disciples of all nations.13 Missional churches, in other
words, need to reach beyond evangelism to participate in the economic, political, and
social redemptive work “on earth as it is in heaven” because God has chosen to use his
church, the adopted heirs of the Abrahamic covenant through the blood of Jesus, to
carry out his will. Acts 29 exemplifies this sort of missional posture by captivating their
planters with a big, Holy Spirit-dependent vision “with the goal of seeing millions of lives
changed (not just saved) by the power of the Gospel.”14 Although from a distance Acts
29 seems merely attractional because of its stated objective to reach people through the
planting of churches and regeneration of dead churches15, it is not difficult to notice a
strong emphasis on contextualization and social action throughout Acts 29 literature,16 a
holistic approach to mission that was built into these plants from their conception. Prism
church in Pasadena seeks to revive believers, but also to reach friends and renew
culture.17 “If you aren’t missional, you have no business with A29,” said Pastor Chuck,
explaining that a “communal” model- fostering missional communities in addition to the
attractional Sunday worship service- is becoming the norm among the 422 or so
churches. The Prism community groups have the task of engaging the neighborhoods
and workplaces around them, and are committed to an annual plan of three days of
community service, three days of prayer and fasting for unbelievers, and an overarching
vision to pop the Christian bubble by inviting in their unbelieving friends to fellowship
each week. Pastor Chuck’s wife Carolyn Ryor assured me that Prism, along with many
other Acts 29 churches, wants to “turn (their) Christians into missionaries in LA…
bringing Christ to life and making the gospel at the center of life rather than the church
But does the redemption of every facet of human society cover everything that
God intended for his sons and daughters to be a part of? In his book “The Mission of
God’s People,” Wright exposes a truly compelling biblical command and a reflection of
God’s heart based off his conclusion that God’s mission for the church “spans the gap
between the curse on the earth of Genesis 3 and the end of the curse in the new
15 On its website, Acts 29 states that its mission is to “bring people into church so that they can be
trained to go out into their culture as effective missionaries.”
16 Acts 29 justifies their methods of contextualization with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:
19-23 referring to his methods of addressing the Jews, Gentiles, and the “weak.”
17 This is Prism’s mission statement.
creation of Revelation 22.”18 Grounded in this theology is the undeniable fact that God
cares about his creation, and that we are to be agents of redemption for the trees,
animals, and oceans as well as for our fellow humans. In the beginning, Adam was put
in the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it,”19 which, after some hermeneutical
unpacking, we find means serving creation and keeping it safe. This is a fairly radical
idea in the context of the twenty-first century and is completely neglected in Acts 29
theology and doctrine from an observer’s standpoint. This could result from the fact that
the network derives its missional theology starting with the Great Commission.20 It could
also be a residual effect of a frequently verbalized critique that Acts 29
overcontextualizes the scriptures (in this case subverting the command to a consumerist
and environmentally abusive culture) in order to grow the church.
Another weakness that can be argued of the church planting movement is its
somewhat contradictory views on scriptural authority. If the missio Dei of Acts 29 is truly
about engaging culture and contextualizing scripture for emerging generations, many
see certain doctrinal statements like the prohibition of female pastors as
counterproductive to its mission. Acts 29 training literature is saturated with
malespecific language, always operating under an incontestable assumption that women
should not hold leadership positions in the church. Acts 29 claims an interest in
overcoming doctrinal differences between pastors, yet each planter must agree to the
18 Wright 46.
19 Genesis 2:15 (NIV).
20 The Great Commission as most Christians understand it is a reference to Jesus’ command in
Matthew 28: 16-20 to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and
of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
entire 1,356 word doctrinal statement before being approved by the board.21 For those
who consider Paul’s writings on women to fall in the same category as slavery or
circumcision, the outright rejection against any female planter or elder is seen as
culturally backwards. Strict doctrinal requirements not only exclude Spirit-led planters
who disagree but are also inhibitive to the goal of reaching the unreached populations of
the nation, the majority of whom completely disagree and are uncomfortable with this
A third critique that perpetuating this accusation of unbiblical exclusivity is
illustrated by a lack of diversity on the Acts 29 board. Of the twenty-five-person
leadership roster, twenty-two are white males, one is African American, one is Asian,
and there is only one woman. Though almost certainly unintentional, this turns off many
potential planters and implies a strong evangelical undertow to the organization,
antithetical to its trans-denominational claims.
To combat these weaknesses, I would first suggest greater ethnic diversity on
the board. Acts 29 needs to promote multi-ethnic churches and prove that the gospel is
a tool for overcoming racial as well as denominational divides within the church. In
2006, one out of every ten Americans was born in a different country22 and in 2011,
minority babies outnumbered white newborns for the first time in history.23 These
statistics highlight the importance of diverse representatives to lead an emerging,
21 This was confirmed by Pastor Chuck of Prism church. He has known some Presbyterian
applicants to be turned away do to their adherence to PCUSA doctrine on female ordainment.
22 Stetzer 19.
melting pot generation if Acts 29 wants to unite and reach all people under Jesus. A
second suggestion I would make would be to introduce the theology of creation care
into the literature and doctrine of the movement because it is an integral part of God’s
holistic mission. Planter training sessions should include discussion around the
redemption of the earth and provide opportunities for congregations to partner with
organizations that serve creation.
Although I haven’t reached a personal conclusion regarding female roles in
church leadership, my research on the arguments backing up this strict interpretation of
scripture has made me aware of a variety of important factors beyond just the biblical
context for Paul’s seemingly sexist remarks. My observations, interview and research
opened my eyes to the challenges behind successful church planting movements. Acts
29 wants to cater to the preferences and needs of the emerging, increasingly
consumerist generation on one hand, but become a church without walls on mission in
the community on the other. The network seeks trans-denominational unity under a
common desire to carry out the mission of God while simultaneously declaring
controversial and denomination-specific beliefs non-negotiable. The multitude of
dichotomies and need for balance in church planting movements seems to be a
recurring theme throughout history. To me, this demonstrates the fallen state of our
humanity and inability to do anything good apart from God. The churches planted
through the Acts 29 network seemed primarily focused on Jesus Christ, the cross, the
Gospel, and did not seem to shy away from the costly, missional purpose for which we
were saved, reflecting an outlook on planting that is driven by prayer and the Holy Spirit
rather than methodology. If I ever decide to get involved with a church plant, I will
remember Pastor Chuck’s insight when reflecting on his successes and failures as a
church planter. He said, “I can’t measure my success on how many people will show up
because the numbers change from nothing you’ve done. ‘The horse is made ready for
the day of battle, but victory rest with the Lord.’ In other words, you don’t get to pick
what God does with your faithfulness.”24
24 Proverbs 21:31 (NIV).
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Time.” Bloomberg (May 17, 2012)
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