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.

How do I get from text to sermon? This is the question in sermon preparation. After preaching for 15 years, I’ve developed a basic pattern that might serve as a helpful resource to others. Call it “Thune’s Template for Sermon Prep.”

In building this template I’ve unapologetically applied the insights of some of my best teachers: Chapell, Keller, Robinson, Eswine, and others. These men have taught me wonderful things about preaching, but none of them have summarized their insights in 2 pages or less. That’s my unique contribution. (See the end of this post for a downloadable PDF). I’ve also included the insights of some of my peers and “preaching friends” who have made valuable contributions to my own ministry.

All the great teachers of preaching focus on two basic disciplines: exegesis and homiletics. EXEGESIS seeks an accurate understanding and interpretation of the biblical text as received by the original audience; HOMILETICS seeks to craft an orderly, coherent, and compelling sermon for delivery.

In order to ensure Christ-centered preaching, I suggest adding gospel-centrality as a third and distinct discipline. GOSPEL-CENTRALITY seeks to anchor the text within the broader canon of Scripture, connect the sermon to God’s redeeming grace, and ensure faith in the good news as the means of transformation.

STEP 1: EXEGESIS

Commune with God. Enjoy personal communion with God through Bible reading and prayer. Otherwise, preaching prep becomes toilsome instead of worshipful.

Identify the Genre. Prophecy is not the same as poetry. “Every novel is a book – but not every book is a novel.” Know the genre, and know the rules for reading each biblical genre well.

Break Down the Text. Study it. Analyze its structure. Get down into its words and phrases. Identify its key sections and themes. Outline the text to ensure that your sermon is faithful to the intent of the original author.

Summarize the Big Idea. Ask: what is this passage about? Then ask: what is it saying about that topic? Bring these 2 answers together to summarize the exegetical main point or big idea of the text in one sentence.

Identify the Redemptive Need (FCF). Ask: what condition do modern hearers share with the original audience that requires the grace of this passage? How, in this text, is God addressing our:

  • Fallen Condition (our inner tendency toward temptation & evil)
  • Finite Condition (the limits of our knowledge, emotional capacity, & physical ability)
  • Fragile Condition (the effects of living in a fallen world)
  • Faltering Condition (the inconsistency between what I profess & what I embody)

Identify the Worship Themes. The goal of preaching is worship. So, how is God after our glad-hearted worship in this text? What does he reveal about himself, about us, or about redemption that should move us to worship and adoration?

STEP 2: GOSPEL-CENTRALITY

What does it mean to preach a “gospel-centered” sermon? It means to relate every text to 1) our human need for redemption and 2) God’s provision of redemption through Jesus.

Here are some ways of doing this:

  • God as a Redeeming God: In texts that don’t explicitly mention Jesus, how is God revealing his plan, his purposes, and/or his reasons for redemption? How is God the hero of the story?
  • Ministry of Jesus: How does this text predict, prepare for, reflect, or result from the ministry of Jesus? Is there an obvious connection to Jesus’ person and work in the text?
  • Indicative/Imperative: What commands (imperatives) are given in the text? What keeps us from obeying those commands (be specific and nuanced here, not general)? How has Jesus obeyed in our place AND set us free from our sin & disobedience? How does resting in his work (indicative) & walking in the Holy Spirit enable us now to obey these commands with joy?
  • Resurrection Joy & Power: The gospel includes not only the crucifixion, but the resurrection & ascension. How does Jesus’ victory over Satan, sin, and death – and his sending of the Holy Spirit – bring the joy and power we need to live as his faithful people?
  • Jesus as Satisfaction: What core human need does the text raise? How can I get the audience to FEEL that need, and then show how Jesus satisfies it?
  • Greatness of Christ: How does this text reveal the wonder & excellence of Jesus? How can I help my hearers experience the greatness of Christ so that they are changed on the spot and moved to worship?
  • A gospel-centered sermon should expound Christ (tell about him), adore Christ (show why he is worthy of love, allegiance, worship), and apply Christ (show people how their problems result from idolatry and unbelief, and how worship is the answer).

The biggest mistake novice preachers make is to reduce the gospel to “justification by grace through faith.” The gospel is not less than that; but it is much more than that. Bryan Chapell is helpful: “So long as the preacher explains ways in which God uses a text to reveal his own plan, purposes, and/or reasons for redemption, the sermon leads listeners away from human-centered religiosity… God [must be] the hero of every text.”

STEP 3: HOMILETICS

Answer the “So What?” Question. Imagine a skeptic sitting in the audience and asking, “So what? What difference does this make?” A clear answer to that question is the key to a powerful sermon.

Establish a Thesis for the Sermon. There are two ways to go about this.

  1. State the thesis as a proposition, containing a subject and a predicate. The best propositions “implicate the hearer” (that is, they demand a response): “Here’s what is true; therefore, here’s what we must do.” For example: “Because Jesus is Lord, we must obey him.”
  2. State the thesis as a memorable catch-phrase that has “sticking power.” For example: “Dead people don’t choose.”

Identify Defeater Beliefs. What might keep people from embracing this biblical truth? Are there cultural assumptions I need to confront? Are there existential questions I need to address? Are there confusing statements in the passage that I need to unpack?

Create a Preaching Outline. Start with a broad skeleton: an introduction that states the thesis, 2 or 3 main points that support the thesis, and a conclusion. Then add content under each point to fill out the outline. Always keep your audience in mind here. What will help them most? What do they need in order to be convinced of your thesis? What needs to be left out?

Add Color. What illustrations, stories, or personal self-disclosure would make each point more memorable? How could I use humor to further the goal of this sermon?

Rethink Your Application. Go back to the “so what” question. Why are you preaching this? What does the Holy Spirit want us to think/feel/do as a result? Application is not a part of your sermon; it is your sermon. So: Does your sermon challenge the mind (lie vs. truth)? Does it provoke the heart (unbelief vs. belief)? Does it move hands to action (disobedience vs. faithful obedience)? (Some sermons tap all 3 of these categories; others focus primarily on one).

Cut Some Stuff. Less is more. Dr. Richard Pratt says: “You can’t say everything every time you say something, or you’ll say nothing anytime you say anything.”

Signpost. As you transition from one point to the next, make clear statements of transition. These can be as obvious as: “That’s point one; moving on now to point 2…” The listening ear needs to know when to mentally shift from one part of the sermon to the next.

Remember the Three Keys to a Good Sermon. Will Walker suggests that every memorable sermon leverages three key elements:

  • Tension (you pulled me in and kept my interest); this generally belongs in the introduction, because tension seeks resolution and therefore creates anticipation.
  • Insight (you helped me see something I hadn’t seen before); this generally belongs in the body of the sermon, showing how the text helps explain or resolve the tension.
  • Emotion (you made me feel something); this generally belongs in the illustrations & application within each main point, causing the audience to think/feel/do something in the moment.

Here’s a 2-page downloadable PDF of this template which you’ll find more visually appealing and compact than a blog post.

failure_of_nerveOne of the most insightful leadership books I’ve read in the past few years is Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve. Recently I created a short summary of the book’s insights to share with some emerging leaders in Coram Deo.

A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman (New York: Church Publishing, 2007)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edwin Friedman (d. 1996) served for 20 years as a pulpit rabbi and for 25 years as an organizational consultant & family therapist in the Washington DC area. He also served in the Lyndon Johnson administration. His unique experience allowed him to observe leadership – and its problems – in the family, the church, and the political sphere.

CORE THESIS

The real problem of leadership is a failure of nerve. Leaders fail not because they lack information, skill, or technique, but because they lack the nerve and presence to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactivity.

KEY CONCEPT: EMOTIONAL PROCESS

Friedman’s understanding of leadership hinges on the idea of emotional process. Every family and every institution has an implicit emotional/relational environment, and a way of operating within that environment. Good leadership has less to do with skill, data, technique, or knowledge, and more to do with a leader’s ability to discern and navigate the emotional and relational climate of a family or organization.

FOCUS: THE LEADER’S PRESENCE

The key variable in leadership is a leader’s presence. Rather than focusing on technique or know-how, we need to focus on the leader’s own presence and being. Throughout his work Friedman speaks of the importance of a “well-differentiated leader.” Here’s what he means:

  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by reactivity. A well-differentiated leader doesn’t react to other people’s reactions; he or she is a calm, steady presence.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a herding instinct. A well-differentiated leader has a strong sense of self and can effectively separate while remaining connected.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by blame displacement. A well-differentiated leader takes responsibility for himself and leads others to do the same.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a quick-fix mentality; relief from pain is more important than lasting change. A well-differentiated leader realizes that true long-term change requires discomfort, and he or she is willing to lead others through discomfort toward change.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by poorly defined leadership. A well-differentiated leader takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.

These characteristics of unhealthy emotional systems are easily seen in families; but Friedman suggests that this sort of chronic anxiety is a defining characteristic of our whole culture. “The climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership… This kind of emotional climate can only be dissipated by clear, decisive, well-defined leadership.”

Friedman asserts that a leader’s job is to be “the strength in the system.” Families, groups, and institutions have “emotional fields” (like magnetic fields or gravitational fields). The leader’s self-differentiation, or lack thereof, has an effect on the emotional field. Leaders will either take on the chronic anxiety of the system, or they will transform that anxiety by their calm, steady, well-defined presence.

Here are some reflection questions to help apply Friedman’s insights:

  1. Describe the emotional climate of a) your family of origin; b) your workplace; c) your gospel community.
  2. In what ways are you a well-differentiated leader? In what ways are you NOT a well-differentiated leader?
  3. If you saw leadership as primarily about your presence, not about skill or technique or know-how – what would change?
  4. If leadership is primarily about presence, how does that change the sort of growth or transformation you seek as a leader?
  5. How would a gospel perspective (idolatry, identity, worship, repentance-and-faith) add even deeper nuance to Friedman’s insights?

This week I’m teaching on rest and renewal at the Acts 29 national conference in Dallas. For years I have been urging the spiritual leaders around me to observe regular times of solitude, silence, and reflection. Ideally I try to take a day of solitude every 6-8 weeks.

Those familiar with the weight and burden of leadership usually agree with the principle of solitude, but often ask the practical question: what do you actually do on a day of solitude? Here’s my answer.

  1. Look Inward. I spend a good portion of the day taking stock of my own heart. How am I feeling? What’s the state of my soul? What am I thinking about, wondering about, burdened about? Is there sin in my heart that needs to be confessed? Are there unseen ‘stressors’ that come to the surface when I slow down long enough to listen? I talk about these things with God in prayer. Then I usually write about them. I don’t journal regularly – but I do journal every time I take a day of solitude.
  2. Look Upward. I spend time worshipping God. This takes many forms: singing, praying, reading Scripture, listening to the Spirit’s prompting, enjoying Him. When the weather is nice, I often worship just by sitting outside and enjoying the created world. It’s amazing how loudly creation worships God – birds, wind, water – when you take time to listen.
  3. Look Backward. I look back over past journals and notes. How has God been at work in my life? What was I concerned about a year ago, two years ago, five years ago? What evidences of His grace do I see? What progress have I made? What progress haven’t I made? Have I acted appropriately on areas of past discernment?
  4. Look Forward. I spend some time thinking about my current and future priorities. What do I need to be doing? How do I sense God leading? How could I be better investing my God-given energies? Where do I need to push forward? Where do I need to wait on God?

In addition to what to do on a day of solitude here are helpful hints about how to take a day of solitude:

  • Plan Ahead. Don’t tell me you don’t have time. You DO. You just have to plan for it. Either you control your calendar, or it controls you. Stop living in the tyranny of the urgent and use your calendar to set boundaries: “I’m sorry, I can’t meet with you on that day, I’m already booked.” The fact that you’re “booked” with an appointment with the Holy Spirit shouldn’t give you pause at all… after all, he is a person.
  • Leave Early. Get up early and get out of the house and out of the city before everyone else does. An early start helps you make the most of the day.
  • No Distractions. Rigorously ensure silence and contemplation. Cell phone off. Email closed. Wi-fi disabled. Setting free of distractions. Someplace away from the patterns of your everyday life, where silence is possible and solitude is valued. Those places are becoming fewer and fewer – but they exist. Seek and you shall find. My favorite spots: a friend’s lakehouse, a Benedictine monastery, and a Christian camp.
  • Be Patient. Solitude is a spiritual discipline – which means that it’s a habit formed over time. The first few times you set aside a day for this purpose, you may experience nothing but static and distraction. Don’t give up.

**One Final Note:  Young pastors – especially those in missional churches – are usually good at disciplines of engagement: study, preaching, evangelism, mercy, hospitality. But they’re notoriously bad at disciplines of abstinence: solitude, silence, fasting, prayer.

If you want to be a healthy leader, you need to rigorously protect your schedule to allow for regular times of solitude.

In this video, I continue to explain the Cross Chart diagram by showing two ways that we short-circuit gospel renewal — pretending and performing. Only when we live with an ongoing, growing awareness of the grace of God toward us in Christ can we be free from these patterns of sin and experience growth in Christ.