Church buildings are a polarizing possibility. Some people love buildings. Other people hate them. Having been mobile now for 13 years, most of Coram Deo’s congregation is bullish about the potential of permanent space. But in earlier years, our church had a strong “anti-building” sentiment. And both points of view are always present within any congregation. So when it comes time for a church to pursue property, leaders must lead wisely and strategically, grounded in theological conviction. Here are five cautions I’ve had to learn along the way.

Be careful of half-truths. “The church is a people, not a place.” This phrase has been a mantra of ours for years at Coram Deo. And theologically, it’s downright true (see 1 Peter 2:9, Colossians 1:24). Here’s the problem: by using this mantra over and over, we subtly communicated that place doesn’t matter. And as J.I. Packer puts it: “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes an untruth.” So we had to clarify: the church is a people, but that doesn’t mean place is unimportant.

Be careful of simplistic trade-offs. It’s tempting to justify a fundraising campaign with simplistic appeals: “The less we spend on mortgage interest, the more we can spend on church planting and missions.” Motivationally, that’s powerful. But missionally, it’s nonsensical. It reinforces an unbiblical dichotomy: “missions good; real estate bad.” The fact is: we need real estate to do mission. Every church planter I know spends a good portion of their budget on rent – that is, unless they’ve found an established church who owns a building and is willing to generously share it. Pastors need to train God’s people to see property ownership as part of a long-term mission strategy.

Be careful of short-range thinking. “Why spend $10 million on a really beautiful space when we can spend $2 million on a basic and functional one?” (The $10 million and the $2 million are just placeholders here: insert whatever numbers you want). Wise stewardship is good, and sometimes the less expensive option is the better one. But not always. And especially not when we’re thinking about the flourishing of the church and the city two or three generations from now. We Bible-believing Protestants tend to have a poor theology of beauty and a bad habit of trying to do things fast and cheap. There’s obviously an opposite extreme to avoid – ornate, lavish, decadent (St. Peter’s in Rome comes to mind). But it wouldn’t be crazy to aim for something in the middle.

Be careful of “early-church nostalgia.” Critics of building programs tend to idealize the early church, when the church met “from house to house” (Acts 5:42). But again, this is only half the story. The (mega)church in Jerusalem also gathered in the Temple (see Acts 2:41 and 46). And church history shows us that throughout the world, when new churches outgrow homes, they build buildings. The Christian home is crucial to the flourishing of the church – would that every Christian saw their home as a frontline of hospitality, ministry, and mission! And it’s true that the Gentile churches in Acts started out in homes (descriptive). But this does not mean that the church must always meet in homes (prescriptive), nor does it imply that churches may not own property or build buildings.

Be careful of excarnation. “Excarnation” is Thomas Howard’s word for an overly spiritualized view of the world that neglects the implications of the incarnation. Jesus took on flesh and blood. He became material, corporeal, physical. When Christians see building ownership and maintenance as a “less spiritual” use of money than missions or mercy ministry, we are guilty of excarnation. It’s exactly the physicality of a church building – that wall that needs to be painted, that toilet that needs to be repaired, that HVAC unit in the children’s ministry wing that needs maintenance – that most vividly reflects our Christology. Because God became man, Christians care about parking lots and elevators and HVAC units. A good pastor will not let his congregation pit “spiritual” concerns against “less spiritual” ones, but will help them see the entire world as the arena of Christ’s redemptive activity. If you wonder why the Catholics own most of the beautiful church buildings in your city, it’s because they’re less Gnostic than Protestants on this point.

BUILDING A THEOLOGY OF PLACE

During our initial fundraising effort, I wanted the people of Coram Deo to know this pursuit wasn’t driven by sheer pragmatism (“we need some money”), but by a theological vision for ministry in the city. So I spent five weeks during our Sunday morning liturgy framing out a theology of place. These short mini-sermons were 3 minutes in length, but they helped to give our fundraising campaign a broader biblical framework. Here are a few excerpts.

December 4, 2016

During Advent, we remember the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the incarnation reminds us of the importance of PHYSICALITY. Christianity is not an abstract, disembodied religion; rather, it is concerned with the real, the material, the concrete. Because of the incarnation, matter… matters.

One of the early heresies in the ancient church was the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that matter was evil. The spiritual was pure and good and real; the physical was corrupt and tainted.

We’re in the midst of a campaign to raise funds with the goal of purchasing a permanent building. And perhaps even in your response to this campaign, there is some latent Gnosticism. A tendency to de-emphasize physical, tangible things like buildings. Buildings aren’t spiritual. Prayer and preaching and worship… these things are spiritual. But not real estate. Why does a church need a building?

Well, a church doesn’t need a building… as we’ve proven for the last 11 years! But if matter matters… then the physical affects the spiritual, and vice versa.

Imagine in your mind for a moment what you feel when you walk into a historic church building. As you enter, you sense: transcendence. Stillness. Beauty. That physical space creates a spiritual response. It is a concrete refutation of Gnosticism.

Now think about walking into this room on a Sunday morning. Not the same effect, right? Not bad; but not necessarily transcendent either.

As Christians who understand the connection between physical and spiritual, we are seeking a building of our own…

December 11, 2016

If you turn on the radio during this Christmas season, you’ll hear songs like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” This season stirs in us the LONGING FOR HOME. And that longing isn’t just holiday sentimentalism… it’s one of our deepest human aches. It’s the hunger for Eden, the desire to get back to a place where everything is RIGHT.

Now we know that as God’s people, our ultimate HOME is heaven. But knowing that doesn’t erase our longing for an earthly home. Abraham was looking forward a heavenly country… but he still journeyed to the promised land. David said his soul would be satisfied in God alone; but he still longed to build a house for the Lord. Nehemiah trusted in the Lord… but he still rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. It’s because of our heavenly home that our earthly homes have meaning. They are signs to us that remind us of our True and Eternal home.

And so it is good and fitting for us to long for an earthly home for Coram Deo Church. It’s good for us to pray with earnest hope and expectation that God will provide the building we desire. If we place our hope in that building alone, we may be guilty of idolatry. But if we hope for it as an earthly foretaste of our heavenly home, we are in good biblical company. And we can know the Lord welcomes our longing.

So let’s go before the Lord and talk to him about our LONGING FOR HOME. Will you pray with me?

December 18, 2016

At Christmas, we celebrate this fact: God loves broadly by loving specifically. God manifests his love for the world by focusing his love on one couple, Joseph and Mary, in one little town, Bethlehem, on one Holy Night that we’ve sung about for 2000 years since. God loves broadly by loving specifically.

Now: we are to love as God loves. Which is why we love the whole city of Omaha. We want to see the gospel change every zip code and every school and every neighborhood. Not only that, we want to continue planting churches across our region.

But in order to love that broadly, we must first love specifically. We have to narrow our focus in order to broaden it. And one thing that means for us right now is narrowing our focus to pursue a particular piece of real estate. A PLACE from which we can minister to the city at large.

And so, we’re in the midst of this campaign to raise funds so that we can purchase a church building…

(this is a re-post of an essay originally written in 2012)

This weekend, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Sadly, this day has become a convenient excuse for drunkenness and debauchery instead of an opportunity to pay homage to a heroic missionary leader. So this St. Patty’s Day, drink a Guinness… but do it while prayerfully honoring one of the greatest Christian missionaries in history.

St. Patrick was born in Britain sometime in the closing years of the 4th century. We don’t know the exact date, but 390 is a decent estimate. At that time, the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world, including Britain. Patrick was born into a family which was ethnically British but culturally Roman (much like the Apostle Paul, who was ethnically Jewish but a citizen of Rome). Patrick’s father was an official in the local Roman government and a deacon in the local church.

At this early stage in church history, there was no Protestant church or Roman Catholic church; there was simply the Christian church. In fact, Christianity had only been a legal religion for 80 years, since the Edict of Milan issued by the Emperor Constantine in 313. During those 80 years, the church had been plagued by heretics and false teachers and had been split politically into Western and Eastern factions. St. Patrick’s life overlapped the lives of both Augustine (354-430), he most influential preacher in the Western church, and John Chrysostom (345-407), the most influential preacher in the East. The weight of these two theological giants is still felt today. But where Augustine and Chrysostom are known for their theological legacy, St. Patrick is known for his missional legacy. Here’s how it began.

One night when Patrick was 15 years old, a band of Irish slave raiders attacked his family’s villa and kidnapped Patrick and some other able-bodied young men. They put the captives in chains, marched them to a boat waiting on the coast, and sailed them back across the Irish Sea to be sold into slavery in Ireland.

Ireland was a wild and mysterious place, known to most Romans only through stories. The Roman author Solinus wrote around the year 200 that the Irish enjoyed “draining the blood of their slain enemies and smearing it on their own faces.” St. Jerome, in the late 360s, wrote of meeting Irish savages in Gaul who would cut the nipples off of captured enemy soldiers. These accounts are probably exaggerated; but they were all Patrick would have known, and they were undoubtedly running through his mind during that voyage across the sea. He had been stolen away from everything that was familiar, at the hands of a people he would later call “the hordes of barbarians who live at the edge of the world.”

Patrick was sold to a farmer and spent the next six years of his life – from age 15 until age 21 – as a slave, shepherding sheep (a strangely providential task for a future pastor). God used those years of hard labor to bring Patrick to saving faithin Christ. In Patrick’s own words:

It was here in Ireland that God first opened my heart, so that – even though it was a late start – I became aware of my failings and began to turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God. For he looked down on my miserable condition and had compassion for me, young and foolish as I was… Day by day I began to pray more frequently, and more and more my love of God and my faith in him and reverence for him began to increase.

One night, as Patrick lay sleeping, he had a dream. A voice told him to flee his master and return home to Britain. So a few nights later, he escaped under cover of darkness and began a 200-mile journey to the sea. He secured a spot on board a merchant ship bound for Britain and was soon reunited with his family.

Patrick had been a teenager when he was kidnapped; now he was a young man, matured by hard work and strengthened by the afflictions of slavery. He was in every way a different person than he had been.

And the world was different, too. While Patrick had been in Ireland, a world-changing event had taken place: Rome had fallen. The golden age of Rome was about to give way to the medieval age of the Anglo-Saxons. Patrick was living at a turning point in history. Little did he know that he would help to write the next chapter.

Shortly after his return to his family, Patrick had another vision while sleeping. An Irish man named Victorinus was asking him to come back to Ireland and preach. He took this vision, along with 2 others which followed, as a clear calling from God to return to Ireland as a missionary. And so he began to prepare for that vocation.

The years between Patrick’s escape from slavery and his return to Ireland are a mystery. All we know is that he eventually became a bishop, which was a rank of high honor. Historians surmise that the course of Patrick’s training followed a clearly defined pattern. He would have begun as a layman, serving within a local church. The next step would have been to become a deacon, assisting the priest with pastoral duties like visiting the sick, serving the poor, and baptizing converts. Next, he would have gained formal theological and biblical training under a bishop (there were no seminaries to attend). At whatever time the bishop considered him to be qualified, Patrick would have been ordained as a priest. This whole process of moving from layman to priest probably took the better part of a decade.

In the year 431, history tells us that Pope Celestine commissioned a man named Palladius as the first bishop to Ireland. Palladius arrived in Ireland in 431 and left shortly thereafter, because, according to one medieval writer, “the wild men of Ireland would not listen to his preaching.” Perhaps Patrick was one of the priests who accompanied Palladius on his journey; or perhaps Patrick was sent to Ireland as a replacement after Palladius left. Again, we don’t know exactly how Patrick got to Ireland. We simply know that he was finally sent there, and spent the rest of his life preaching the gospel among the Irish.

The culture of pagan Ireland was vastly different from that of Roman Britain. Britain was a Roman colony with a centralized, democratic Roman government; Ireland was a tribal society where rival kings ruled over their sovereign territories. Britain was largely Christianized; Ireland was steeped in Celtic paganism. In Britain, it would have been common for people to gather together to worship God in a local church. In Ireland, it would have been common for a tribe to offer a human sacrifice under the direction of a Druid priest in order to cast an evil curse on an enemy tribe.

Patrick engaged this unorthodox place using unorthodox methods. He regularly paid bribes to Druid tribal leaders in order to secure passage through their territory. When questioned about this practice, he defended it as a necessary measure in order to ensure the advance of the gospel. But perhaps the most unorthodox thing Patrick did was simply to STAY. He saw himself as a bond-servant, a slave to the calling God had given him. As he wrote in his Confession:

I came to Ireland to preach the good news… I have had many hard times, even to the point of being enslaved again, but I traded in my free birth for the good of others. If I am worthy, I am ready even to lay down my life willingly and without hesitation for his name. Here, in Ireland, is where I wish to live out my final days, if God will permit me.

 

I would love to go home to Britain and see my family… But even if I wanted to leave… I am bound by the spirit of God, who would object and condemn me. I can’t leave unfinished the work I’ve begun. Christ my master has commanded me to stay here in Ireland for the rest of my life.

It’s no accident that St. Patrick’s Day is identified with all things Irish. Within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival, Ireland was a Christian nation. One man gave his life to see a nation reached with the gospel – and today that nation still celebrates his influence.

As a fitting way of celebrating St. Patrick’s true legacy, I leave you with Patrick’s Creed: the profession of faith he taught to his Irish converts to summarize the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity.

We profess that there is no other God – there never was and there never will be. God our Father was not born, nor did he have any beginning. God himself is the beginning of all things…

 

And we proclaim that Jesus Christ is his son, who has been with God always, from the beginning of time and before the creation of the world – though in a way we cannot put into words. Through him everything in the universe was created, both what we can see and what is invisible. He was born as a human being and he conquered death, rising into the heavens to be with God. And God gave him power greater than any creature of the heavens or earth or under the earth, so that someday everyone will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and God. We believe in him and we wait for him to return very soon. He will be the judge of the living and the dead, rewarding every person according to their actions.

 

And God has generously poured out on us his Holy Spirit as a gift and a token of immortality. This Spirit makes all faithful believers into children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

 

This we proclaim. We worship one God in three parts, by the sacred name of the Trinity.

My purpose in this post is to assert that Christians should be conservatives. Or, to say it another way: that Christians who are not (political, social, cultural) conservatives are not living out the full implications of their religious principles. This essay, therefore, is sure to draw the ire of those Christians who would consider themselves “progressives.”

So, if I may call for a truce at the outset: I don’t intend this essay as a screed or a manifesto or a rant. Rather, I wish to make a sober, reasoned, and principled case for the thesis that convictional Christianity and conservatism go together – a case that welcomes critique, feedback, and disagreement of the civil and congenial sort. In the age of social media tirades, I realize this will be a tall order. But let’s try to rise above the fray together, shall we?

The question of whether we should be conservatives ultimately comes down to what we are seeking to conserve. Many young Christians fancy themselves “progressives” because they are seeking to move on from things which should, in fact, be left behind. For instance, I know a young woman who grew up in a fundamentalist church with a creepy hierarchical authority structure, a latent sexism, and a dark undercurrent of sexual sin – all of which was branded as “conservative Christianity.” When that whole mess has been labeled “conservative,” who wouldn’t want to be a progressive?

Hence, these matters are complex. The terms “conservative” and “progressive” are fraught with misunderstanding. So let’s think more deeply about these words and what they signify.

The word conservative looks backward. It envisions something which now exists, or has existed in the past, which we are seeking to conserve and protect. The word progressive necessarily looks forward. It envisions some end toward which we are progressing.

And therein lies the problem. Toward what are we progressing? Broadly speaking, modern progressives have no answer to that question. Or perhaps to be more precise: they have a thousand different and contradictory answers to that question, united only by the vague ideal of “progress.” As G.K. Chesterton wryly observed almost 100 years ago: “The word ‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative… For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.”

Chesterton puts his finger on our modern confusion: “[In past ages], men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree.” (from Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World)

To parse Chesterton’s observations another way: modern progressives agree on the verb (progress) but not on the noun (progress toward what?). And therein lies the major problem for Christians who wish to identify as “progressive.” Because the vague notion of “progress” is the only point of agreement, Christian progressives get co-opted into a whole universe of causes with which they cannot in good conscience agree. You wanted to champion and affirm women; but the Women’s March you attended also endorsed abortion on demand. You wanted to support government programs that help the poor; but your Bernie Sanders bumper sticker now has you aligned with a progressive whose vision of “progress” includes barring Christians from public office.

“But wait,” you object. “Just because I identify myself as a progressive doesn’t mean I share the viewpoints and opinions of the most radical progressives.” Well, of course you don’t, personally. But socially, you do. And to understand why, you must understand the impact of the French Revolution. (Sorry to go all history-geek on you, but this matters.)

In a recent issue of First Things (June/July 2017), former Creighton University professor R.R. Reno explains: “The French Revolution, which eventually implicated the entire West, exaggerated the importance of the political realm, deifying the modern nation-state… [and creating] an ideological atmosphere that subordinates everything to political and economic ideology.” In other words: modern progressivism exalts the nation-state. Since the French Revolution, ardent progressives have seen the state as the key agent of social change – and they’ve often seen the family and church as obstacles to a new social order.

Reno explains his own movement away from progressivism: “Although I started on the left, over time I came to see that progressivism, even the moderate progressivism of American liberalism, invariably seeks to increase the power of the state. The cultural wars of my lifetime – the war on racism, the war on sexual inequality, and the war on poverty – fell into the same pattern. The state needs to be empowered to make the world anew.”

Why is this a problem? Because the state is only one of three “necessary societies” instituted by God. The other two are the family and the church. “Now there are three necessary societies, distinct from one another and yet harmoniously combined by God, into which man is born: two, namely the family and civil society, belong to the natural order; the third, the Church, to the supernatural order” (Pope Pius XI, as quoted by Russell Hittinger in First Things, June/July 2017, p. 20).

Which brings us back to the crux of our question: why must Christians be conservative? Because Christians are duty-bound to preserve and protect the authority of the family and the church. We are called by God to “conserve” these two societies against the ever-encroaching power of the state. It’s no accident that in the book of Revelation, “the beast” symbolizes political and economic power. The nation-state is good; but the nation-state is corrupt. And left unchecked, it will always encroach upon the authority of church and family.

Some have seen the modern movements to redefine marriage, sexuality, and gender as movements toward a more just and fair society. But in reality, they are movements to enhance the power of the nation-state over the church and the family. We are “progressing” toward a society in which the nation-state is all-powerful. We are failing to conserve appropriately the power of the family and the church. And when Christians fail to conserve those God-given institutions, we fail to obey the Lord.

Therefore, Christians must be conservatives… in the broad sense. We don’t all need to agree on the marginal tax rate, or on the precise approach to health care, or on the best candidates for political office. But we must agree on the God-given authority of the family and the church – and the responsibility we have before God to respect and conserve that authority.

To put it another way: it’s an issue of the Lordship of Christ vs. the Lordship of Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, we submit to the authorities he has instituted (family, church, and state, in their right and proper proportions). If Caesar is Lord, then we bow the knee to the power of Rome.

It’s not that Christians could never be progressives. If we lived in a cultural moment marked by broad agreement on the goal and purpose of human life (progress the noun), we could champion progress the verb. In fact, Christianity itself is a kind of progressivism: because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we know the entire cosmos is progressing toward the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

But in the here and now, we dwell in a cultural moment fraught with confusion on the most basic questions: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be male and female? What is freedom? What is virtue? And in such a moment, Christians must be (the right kind of) conservatives.

Since we planted Coram Deo Church twelve years ago, I’ve worked relentlessly to eliminate “insider language” from our vocabulary. I desire for every gospel community within our church – as well as our public worship on Sundays – to be free from Christian jargon that unnecessarily alienates and confuses non-Christians.

What are some examples of insider language? Consider this representative list of “Christian jargon” from Tim Keller’s book Preaching (New York: Viking, 2016, 105-106):

  • “Lukewarm”
  • “Backsliding”
  • “Seeing fruit”
  • “Spiritual warfare”
  • “…in my walk with the Lord”
  • “I’m praying for an open door”
  • “I’ve been released from that”
  • “That was such a blessing”
  • “That preacher really brought the word”
  • “It was a total God thing”

You’ve used some of these phrases, haven’t you? Me too. It’s so easy for Christians to slip into this alternate language without even thinking about it.

When we do, it’s a failure of hospitality. And the problem runs deeper than just using the wrong words. Keller goes on to explain:

The issue is far more important than generational or regional preferences or some sort of marketing-based concern that such vocabulary doesn’t test well with non-Christians. Language like this is used as a boundary marker, a way to tell others that you are in the tribe and they are not. Newcomers certainly get that message, whether you consciously mean to send it. Insider language is frequently also an enabler of hypocrisy, as it offers a shortcut to sounding spiritual without actually having a heart filled with love and delight.  

 We’ve all been on the other side of boundary-marker language: in high school, in our vocational endeavors, or in our social circles. Inevitably, we feel like outsiders: “These people all have something in common, and I don’t fit in.” That’s exactly what many non-Christians sense when they’re around church gatherings. And that’s the reason many churches and small groups aren’t meaningfully attracting non-Christians.

Occasionally I’ve stopped a gospel community gathering, or pulled someone aside in private, to challenge them about insider language. And the response is usually the same: “But we all know each other. There are no new people here this week. So why does it matter?”

Answer: because the way to get skeptics to show up is to talk like they are already there.

Imagine a woman in your gospel community – we’ll call her Sarah – has a skeptical friend from work who’s been asking questions about God. And Sarah is wondering whether your gospel community might be a good place to invite her friend to process those questions. If Sarah experiences your gospel community as a place where you have to “know the language” in order to fit in, she probably won’t invite her friend from work.

But if Sarah experiences your gospel community as an intentionally hospitable people… if she knows that every single week, the group expects non-Christians to be present (and talks like it)… if she knows that you care enough about outsiders to show it in your language… then she’s much more likely to bring her friend. And that’s how non-Christians find their way into meaningful Christian community – and eventually into the church.

So, if you’re serious about creating community that engages skeptics and outsiders… can I suggest you take a “language audit?” Which of the above phrases have you heard in your GC? Which have you heard yourself saying? What if you committed together to call “time out” every time you heard one of these phrases, for the sake of growing more aware of your speech habits? It’s a simple way to become more intentional about gospel hospitality.

I recently spent a couple days with four pastor friends. All of us are in our 40s. All of us planted churches in our 20s and 30s. And all of us have been leaders in the Acts 29 Network for over a decade.

We love what Acts 29 stands for, and we love the history and the sense of brotherhood we share because of it. But as we reflected on the past decade, we observed that the early years of Acts 29 were marked by an energy and momentum that the later years have lacked – especially in North America. The question is: why?

Statistically, the “boom years” of Acts 29 were 2007 to 2012. During that five-year period the movement grew from 140 churches to 424 – a stunning 200% growth rate. Over the most recent five-year period (2012-2017), the movement’s growth rate has held at a much more modest 45%. Now, by any standard, a 45% growth rate is still a stunning success! But compared with the boom years, it represents a three-quarters reduction in the rate of growth, as well as a reduction in the actual number of churches planted (284 vs. 195). The data affirms our intuitive discernment: momentum has slowed.

Certainly Acts 29 has seen its share of organizational challenges during these years – most notably Mark Driscoll’s descent from leadership and all its attendant chaos. But in spite of this, Acts 29 today is more structurally sound than it’s ever been. And Acts 29 churches are more tangibly committed to church planting than ever. All Acts 29 churches give 10% of their internal giving to support church planting efforts, and many of them either host or support regional church-planting residencies. Organizationally and logistically, the movement is on firm footing.

So what accounts for the slowdown? Here’s my hypothesis: Acts 29’s boom years were fed by a leadership pipeline that no longer exists.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, church planting was not the vocation of choice for young leaders. Most men who felt a calling to ministry looked for opportunities as interns, youth pastors, associate pastors, or campus ministry staff members. That all began to change through the influence of two men: Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. Though many other voices were sounding the call to church planting, Keller and Driscoll were the ones gaining the attention of younger leaders. Keller’s call to urban renewal resonated with many who were troubled by the megachurch’s suburban captivity. And Driscoll’s sanctified irreverence challenged the saccharine sentimentality of the evangelical subculture. Both men blended Reformed theology with missional innovation in a way that resonated with young pastors everywhere.

The church planting candidates that flooded Acts 29’s boot camps and assessments in the mid-2000s were youth pastors, college pastors, and church staff members – in other words, men with real church ministry experience. They’d preached sermons, done evangelism, discipled new Christians, and learned to submit and serve under someone else’s authority. In a sense, these leaders were ready-made church planters: they were already committed to God’s mission, they were experienced and fruitful in ministry, and they felt called by the Holy Spirit to step out on their own and lead missionary church-planting efforts. They didn’t need to be trained, equipped, and prepared; they just needed to be sent.

No longer is that the case. Are there still youth pastors and associate pastors mulling a call to church planting? Sure. Some of them are reading this post. But they are not nearly as plentiful as they once were. Ready-made leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced are harder and harder to find. No longer is there a glut of church staff members and campus ministry leaders who have put in 5 or 6 years in ministry and are starting to dream about church planting. Now, church planting has become a first option for many seminary graduates. Denominations and agencies and networks are pushing church-planting much more aggressively. The guys who used to aspire to youth ministry or campus ministry now aspire to be church planters. And many of them lack the patience to serve on a church staff for five or ten years before launching into church planting.

The surge of interest in church planting is a great thing. But it comes at a cost: a longer gestation period for potential church planters. In the boom years, Acts 29 spoke of planting 1000 churches in 10 years – and that seemed realistic based on the surge of ready-made leaders pouring into our ranks. But as my investment advisor always says, “past performance is not indicative of future results.” Turning a seasoned youth pastor or college pastor into an effective church planter is a two-year project; doing the same with a young seminary graduate is more like a ten-year project. The pace of church-planting must slow accordingly.

In one sense, Acts 29 is already adapting. During our re-organization in 2012, we realized that we had basically been an “attractional” movement, using events and podcasts and platforms to attract young leaders toward church planting. What we hadn’t done well was to grow our own leaders from within. Our marketing materials spoke of “churches planting churches,” but in reality we were more like a fraternity of church planters. So we began to build residencies and training programs and new initiatives that would develop leaders from within, enabling our existing churches to plant new churches by raising up leaders internally.

In my opinion, our rhetoric still needs to catch up with reality. Sometimes the rhetoric of church-planting movements (not just Acts 29, but others also) can create the expectation of continuous exponential increase. Acts 29 speaks of “planting churches that plant churches that plant churches” – and indeed, that is what we want to be about! But underneath this rhetoric, we need to acknowledge that this may be a ten- to fifteen-year process. Statistically, only 26% of existing Acts 29 churches were planted out of another Acts 29 church, and only 7% are third-generation plants. My own church, Coram Deo, has finally reached “grandfather” stage – having planted a church (Providence Austin) that has planted another church (Trinity Church Austin) – but even that was by attracting leaders from outside and then developing them. If we’re talking about real missional church-planting… if we’re talking about moving a man “from pagan to planter…” then we’re talking about a decade or more of discipleship, spiritual formation, and leadership development. The conditions that spurred the growth of Acts 29 in the boom years simply do not obtain anymore. We must adjust our expectations and our methods accordingly.

In my opinion, the ongoing flourishing of missional church-planting in North America will require three important shifts:

  • A shift in strategy: church planting networks need to slow down the pace and expectation for church planting. They need to focus on slow growth rather than exponential growth, and on long-term leadership health rather than short-term results. To say it another way: planting 100 churches this year does not guarantee 100 healthy churches 5 years from now.
  • A shift in rhetoric: church planting networks need to speak honestly in order to create appropriate expectations. Americans are addicted to “vision,” and in the evangelical world, vision often means hype. Church planting networks should resist this temptation and instead cast a realistic vision focused on long-term influence. Keller’s wisdom is instructive here: for years, he has spoken of moving New York City from 1% evangelical (1990) to 15% evangelical (still a distant hope – right now it’s at 5% evangelical after almost 3 decades of work). This kind of long-term vision builds an expectation of slow, steady progress rather than immediate results – and it encourages seeing church-planting as a lifelong calling.
  • A shift in aspirations: young leaders who think they want to be involved in church-planting need to aspire to work on a church staff for 5-10 years as a first step. Most aspiring church planters I meet are impatient. They don’t know who they are; they don’t have an accurate assessment of their gifts; and they don’t have the wisdom and seasoning that comes with maturity. Moving men like this into church planting too quickly is a recipe for instability. I tell young leaders they should expect to serve in ministry for a decade before they’re ready to plant a church. Data from Fellowship Associates reveals that the best church planters are in their early 30s, with 7-10 years of ministry experience and some type of theological training (seminary or equivalent). There’s a reason for that.

Local churches need to adapt as well. Most of our church-planting residency programs within Acts 29 have been designed as one- or two-year “finishing schools.” Which is to say: they’re still designed for the kind of leaders we were attracting in the mid-2000s. They are built for leaders who are theologically mature, missionally fruitful, self-aware, and ministry-experienced, and who require only some final preparation in order to plant a church. In addition to these sorts of residencies, we need diverse theological and leadership training initiatives within the local church to equip leaders at all stages of maturity. We can’t expect ready-made church-planters; we need to pray, work, and labor to move people from pagan to planter.