Every Sunday morning, they unload their church from a trailer. Cushioned mats cover concrete flooring for infants and small children; colorful dividers keep the age groups separated. Sound and projection equipment is unpacked, connected and tested. A separate group arrives with the set-up crew for extended prayer. Greeters stand ready, information tables help define the entrance area, and worship begins.
“He who washed us with his blood has secured our way to God,” part of the chorus from Let us Love and Sing and Wonder, sprang from the worship team at the first of two identical Sunday morning services at Christ Community Church, also known as C3 Church, in Denton. The rented and transformed space at the Visual Arts Center becomes populated with a white, urban, mixed age gathering, just over 50 in attendance at this particular service on January 4, 2015.
The worship leader introduced himself, seated us, made a few announcements and reminded the congregation to give generously and learn to trust God with their checkbooks. No offering is taken, but there are “tithe boxes” available in the back.
Miller invited us to prayer, and after the spoken prayer, he let the silence of individual prayer sweetly hold the space. A careful reading of Luke 2:22-38 broke the silence. We heard the stories of Simeon and Anna, two aged saints who get to see Jesus when he is brought to the temple at eight days of life.
After the reading, the worship team–three guitarists, a simple box drum, and piano–led forth in This I Believe, essentially a sung Apostle’s Creed. As seems to be common in churches today, few of the congregation sang, although the words were projected on the white wall above the platform.
Ross Appleton, lead pastor and only full-time employee of this five-year old church, then began his message. He stood at floor level, a music stand as a lectern. He offered a “happy new year” and a funny note about taking the past Sunday off, staying home, drinking coffee. He said he learned “why people don’t go to church” and after appreciative laughter, invited us to open our Bibles to Luke 2. He also noted that there were Bibles on a back table to use and take home.
As he launched into his message about these two humble saints who had lived and served in quiet faithfulness all their lives, he spoke on a personal level and with inviting humility about the his tendency to blow past God to make things happen. He said that he was “over being a cool pastor, getting his significance on how people viewed him and the church or leaving his mark on the world,” but was instead striving for quiet, simple faithfulness to God.
As Appleton expertly and eloquently expanded on the hard work of faithfulness and keeping Jesus central to our lives, I began thinking about the larger context of the C3 church. It is part of the “Acts 29 Network” of church planters (http://www.acts29network.org/). Northpoint Church, 2701 Hartlee Field Road, and the Village Church Denton campus, 1106 West Oak St., are also part of this network.
A founding pastor of the Acts 29 network was Mark Driscoll, sometimes called the “bad boy” of the church planting world. Charismatic and gifted, he was widely known for his sex-obsessed profanity from the pulpit and routine denigration of anything female or feminine. This ambitious man built a church empire known as Mars Hill in the Seattle, WA area.
This past year, shortly after the current leaders of the Acts 29 Network expelled Driscoll and his church from their association, Driscoll himself resigned his position as Pastor of Mars Hill. The church disbanded, in both spiritual crisis and financial trouble. Some of the seven separate campuses, where Driscoll preached by means of video, became independent; others folded. Poof. Gone. Brought down by one man’s unbridled pride and arrogance, his disdain of women (Driscoll insisted that their entire job is to service men sexually), his arrogant surety that his message was straight from God so it didn’t matter if he routinely mistreated and bullied others either weaker than he or who dared to differ with him.
Unfortunately, two of the five doctrinal distinctives underlying the Acts 29 Network can open the door to such practices. One places emphasis on God’s sovereignty to chose whom God wishes for salvation; the other, while affirming essential equality between male and female, limits both church and home leadership roles to males only, thus eliminating the female voice from the highest ranks of power and influence.
But Appleton’s 45 minute message stayed firmly on Jesus. He asked “What is Jesus to you?” and “Is He enough for me to strive after?” Appleton contends that at the final judgment there will be only one question asked, “What did you think about my Son?” Appleton announced, “If we know about Jesus, but haven’t placed our hope in Him, then we have rejected Him.”
After the sermon, the congregation was invited to come forward and receive pieces of bread, dipped in either wine or grape juice, for communion. The invitation did not, however, specify whether a gluten-free station was available, so, for yet one more time in this church worship adventure, I was unable to participate in the sacrament. I did speak with Pastor Appleton about the oversight and received a tender and gracious apology.
Meditative worship music gave space for contemplation during this time and then the congregation was dismissed a swift hour and a half after the beginning of worship. Although the next worship service would soon begin, church leaders generously made themselves available for conversation during the short break between services.
I found on this day a place of welcome, worship, and winsome humility, centered on their understanding of the Gospel.
[Note: this article is slated to be published in the January 9, 2015 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.]
Acts 29 Network is a small, flexible network of highly motivated church planters. Every church within their network sends 10% of its revenue to the Network to help establish more new churches. They offer an extensive process of bringing in new church planters and prefer to work with those who have already established church plants on their own and have at least 75 adults in worship each Sunday. More about the assessment process can be found here. One thing I found particularly interesting: all planters must be married, and all wives (there will never be a female church planter within the Acts 29 Network) must participate in the assessment process.
Just an FYI: the initial process of bringing in a new church planter within the UMC starts with this questionnaire. It’s a good listing of the qualities necessary to be a church planter, and a lot more training follows, so it is not as though we are slackers here.
The Acts 29 Network also operates off what they call “doctrinal distinctives.” Each church within their realm must affirm them thoroughly. There is no wiggle room here, no room for disagreement over these things, no doctrinal arguments. Either believe it or you are out.
Below are the main points and a small portion of the explanation of the doctrinal distinctives that I took from their website–please go to there for more full explanations. They are important to understand.
1. We are passionate about Gospel centrality.
This gospel is centered in Christ, is the foundation for the life of the Church, and is our only hope for eternal life; this gospel is not proclaimed if Christ’s penal substitutionary death and bodily resurrection are not central to our message.
2. We enthusiastically embrace the sovereignty of God’s grace in saving sinners.
We affirm that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, not on the basis of foreseen faith but unconditionally, according to his sovereign good pleasure and will.
3. We recognize and rest upon the necessity of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit for all of life and ministry.
The Spirit permanently indwells, graciously sanctifies, lovingly leads, and empowers all who are brought to faith in Christ so that they might live in obedience to the inerrant Scriptures.
4. We are deeply committed to the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of male and female and to men as responsible servant-leaders in the home and church.
. . . but God has given to the man primary responsibility to lead his wife and family in accordance with the servant-leadership and sacrificial love characterised by Jesus Christ. This principle of male headship should not be confused with, nor give any hint of, domineering control. Rather, it is to be the loving, tender and nurturing care of a godly man who is himself under the kind and gentle authority of Jesus Christ.
The Elders/Pastors of each local church have been granted authority under the headship of Jesus Christ to provide oversight and to teach/preach the Word of God in corporate assembly for the building up of the body. The office of Elder/Pastor is restricted to men.
5. Acts 29 embraces a missionary understanding of the local church and its role as the primary means by which God chooses to establish his kingdom on earth.
We are called to make Christ known through the gospel and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to bring his lordship to bear on every dimension of life.
They also subscribe to the Lausanne Covenant and Statement of Faith, which may be found in its entirety here. A strong inerrancy statement is part of this covenant: “We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”
To put it mildly, they are far, far more effective in their church planting mission than The United Methodist Church has been. They are focused, nimble, tight, clean, ruthless in weeding out less than top-notch planters, not burdened with bloated bureaucracy to support or guaranteed appointments for marginal pastors, and there are no arguments about theological nuances or inclusion issues.
They are simply not inclusive. That’s been settled. Furthermore, their exclusivity provides for a cohesive group culture with clear definitions as to who is in and out.
The planters are primarily young, virile men, but safely married (see my tongue-in-cheek post about why the UMC is such a dismal failure at church planting), and whose wives work silently and supportively in the background. All of the wives. It’s required.
This is probably similar to the tightly run organizational structure first envisioned by John Wesley, the church planter master of them all, except his circuit-riding clergy were required to be unmarried.
It worked then; it’s working now. By all human measurements, it is a successful method.
What About Depravity on the Part of the Pastor?
Because of the emphasis on the total depravity of humanity and thus our essential untrustworthiness, they do focus on Jesus. But the question becomes: “Whose Jesus?” And herein lies the biggest fly in the ointment of this well-oiled machine: church members are supposed to trust that the pastor himself speaks absolute truth. But, how can the pastor do that? He (remember, always a “he”) is also totally depraved and untrustworthy. But the church members are told to trust him–or at least trust the doctrines preached by him because . . . well why?
After church this past Sunday, my companion and I spent a long time in discussion over this. There are so many different ways to see who Jesus is and what he was about. There are lots of other theories of atonement besides the penal substitutionary one, which effectively says God is so impotent in the face of sin that God has to kill someone in order to forgive it.
But questions along those lines are not to be asked within the Acts 29 network churches. Questions about the possibility of a sexual spectrum rather than a rigid male/female binary may not be raised. There is no space for questions about what on earth does inerrancy mean with a text that was written in a mindset that would have no crossover with such a western, modern concept. Questions about justice, compassion for the poor, exploration of the feminine as well as the masculine as expressed in the Trinity–all anathema. Out of limits. Violators will be expelled.
It is not a church for thinkers, but it is a church for those who want certainty of salvation–as long as they remain blind to the fact that the certainty is based on the opinions of privileged white men, groomed in the western way of thinking, and who are themselves totally depraved by virtue of the decisions they have made about the nature of God and humanity.
A real conundrum, in my opinion. And I lived in that world a long, long time before I walked out.
Even so, they do know how to plant churches which also plant churches.