During times of instability we naturally seek out allies to stand back to back with us as we feel attacked. Yet this ecumenism of the trenches can be quite dangerous. It causes us to abandon faithful brothers and sisters who we ought to persist in working with, as well as encouraging us to form quite dangerous and unstable coalitions with people who might align with us in some highly specific ways but are actually quite out of step with orthodoxy. As Gen X leaders failed or lost credibility and as older friendships broke down, these vital restraints on individual and movement behavior fell away. The thought leaders who need people leaders in their ear lost those relationships and vice versa. The outcome of all this is that our movements have become smaller, less effective, more prone to schism, and more angry (if right wing or progressive) or more anxious (if centrist). One of the tragedies of all this is that we now find ourselves in an enormously exciting time from an evangelistic point of view.
While reading an ARC of Mike Cosper’s forthcoming book, I was caught up in how Cosper described the church planting scene of the mid 2000s, particularly as it existed around the then still embryonic Acts 29 network.
There was a blending of innocence and confidence and hopefulness that Cosper captures well. I wasn’t part of it directly, but I remember listening to Mark Driscoll sermons and then Matt Chandler sermons at the time and picking up something of the atmosphere from afar. (I was born in 1987, left the fundamentalist church I grew up in in 2005, spent 18 months in an attractional megachurch more in the Willow Creek stream than Mars Hill, and then found my way to RUF and the PCA in 2007, where I have been ever since.) From about 2005 until the early 2010s it seemed as if Acts 29 might represent the defining movement in the next wave of evangelicalism: They had found a way of blending the best insights of the attractional movement of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren with the theological and missiological acumen of Tim Keller and John Piper.
Moreover, because of their particular grunge-inflected aesthetic they naturally avoided some of the worst excesses of the attractional movement, which was a tendency toward the superficial and happy clappy. Their strength here wasn’t necessarily a product of any special virtue—Gen X tends toward the brooding and melancholic, after all, and virtually all their leadership were poster children for Gen X. But the resultant synthesis of their many influences was compelling.
Moreover, as their three defining leaders of that era became established, you could see how the three fit together and could, together, chart a path toward long-term health and success: Mark Driscoll represented the kind of alpha figure who could draw a crowd, win a following, and define the direction of the network through sheer charisma and force of will.
Darrin Patrick, meanwhile, represented a more cerebral and patient voice who was in many ways ahead of his time in his analysis of cultural issues as well as being more balanced in his approach than many of today’s commentators.
Matt Chandler was the more personable balance to Driscoll. Driscoll would deliver the “bodies behind the bus” type speeches and Chandler could then come in behind to help patch up whatever relational issues were created by Driscoll’s harsh style that frequently shaded into straightforward bullying, especially as he became more and more detached from external authority. Again, this sort of arrangement within leadership is not without parallel in church history: Melanchthon was the moderating force on Luther. Oecolampadius was the moderating presence with Zwingli. Bucer was a moderating influence on Calvin. Friendships of unlike personalities who balance one another out are a common occurrence in church history.
In a happier timeline, Driscoll, Patrick, and Chandler would still have another 15-20 years of effective ministry ahead of them as a team: Driscoll is still only 53, Patrick would be 53, and Chandler is 49. For context, Tim Keller was 58 when he published The Reason for God and John Piper was 42 when Desiring God was published and 54 when he spoke at Passion in 2000 and gave his “Don’t Waste Your Life” sermon. So if you think Piper’s Passion sermon and Keller’s Reason for God are their most consequential or influential personal works, that would mean that each of the Acts 29 triumvirate would still be several years away from the ages Piper and Keller were for their most far-reaching, influential works—and that is all to say nothing of all the things both men did after those two signature works. Keller published 29 books after he wrote The Reason for God, many of which I actually like better than Reason. Piper wrote or contributed to nearly 60 volumes after his Passion sermon many of which, likewise, surpassed the Passion sermon or, in my opinion, Desiring God.
Of course, that isn’t the timeline we’ve gotten. Driscoll’s story took a dark turn toward ever greater autonomy and away from real accountability, Mars Hill collapsed, and the magic of those early years never returned. Patrick tragically took his own life after a lengthy and by all accounts genuine process of repair and reconciliation with staff and church members at the church he planted. Chandler has remained in ministry and the Village has continued to do much good work, including particularizing their many campuses into standalone congregations—the same trajectory of the former Redeemer and Bethlehem campuses. But the continued ministry of The Village has not been enough, on its own, to sustain the old Acts 29 momentum. Additionally, Chandler himself took a leave of absence in 2022 after engaging in an inappropriate online relationship with a woman from the church.
Meanwhile, Acts 29 itself has struggled with pastors in the network breaking off in a variety of different cultural and theological directions with some going more progressive while others have taken a reactionary conservative turn.
The story of Acts 29’s trajectory will feel familiar to many of us outside of the network as well. Indeed it may serve as a small-scale model for much of the evangelical fracturing that began around 2015 and has continued through to the present. So it is worth considering why all this took place.
One pastor friend who serves in Acts 29 observed to me that many of the early Acts 29 leaders began ministry in the early 2000s. Sermon podcasting was only just beginning and many Acts 29 guys were early adopters, as Cosper documented in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. What this did is it allowed many early Acts 29 pastors to grow what today would be called a somewhat large digital platform and to do so at a relatively young age and very early in their pastoral ministry. That in itself is somewhat dangerous spiritually because, as others have observed (including Driscoll himself at one time), talent can become confused for maturity. So obviously talented men grew large platforms while still quite young and, often, they were not prepared for the spiritual weight of having such a sizable audience.
But there is one other factor to consider here: The mid 2000s was a very unusual time on the internet. Podcasting was established enough that you could grow, by the standards of the day, quite a large platform via sharing your sermons. And yet social media had not yet emerged as a tool for flattening hierarchies and bringing institutional leaders into more direct contact with their audiences. So the positive reenforcement one gets from possessing a large platform was there for these young pastors, who could generally have a decent idea of how many people their sermon podcasts were reaching. But the negative feedback and critique one can get from social media were not yet present.
So even by the standards of ministry in the digital era, a strong case can be made that no one labored in a more spiritually dangerous digital environment than Gen X pastors in the early 2000s. This might seem counter-intuitive given how destructive smartphones and social media have been and that neither of those things existed in the early 2000s and were not at all well established until the late 2000s. But if the danger in our current era is being malformed by negative attention, the danger of the former era was the easy optimism of digital tech with virtually no familiarity with its now very well known dangers. It was an era marked by a false hope that recognized the reach of digital media but did not perceive the spiritual dangers of it and was, technologically speaking, largely insulated from the negative feedback mechanisms that became unavoidable in later eras.
What this adds up to is a technological context that made it difficult to be obscure and that tended to inculcate pride and militate against humility. Certainly, one could simply not podcast one’s sermons or one could charge for them, as Keller did, which had the effect of minimizing his reach. But the entire tech optimist ethos of Acts 29 tended to militate against that sort of tech skeptic approach, I think. And so the network that had a chance to be the future of American evangelicalism writ large saw its leaders and young pastors formed in a deeply corrosive environment whose dangers were for the most part invisible and, often, were only discovered much later.
Perhaps the defining story of the past five years—and likely to be an ongoing story for the next five to ten years—has been the often disastrous leadership transitions in many evangelical organizations as Baby Boomers have retired and their Gen X successors have failed to hold the institution or movement together. Amongst the many reasons these failed transitions have been a problem is that effective movement leaders serve as a restraint within their institution. When the restraint fails, the movement fragments. You might say that effective leadership creates an environment in which the impact of Charles Taylor’s nova effect is somewhat muted. (The nova effect refers to the nova-like explosion of new identities and forms of expression that arise under modernity.)
To take two examples from outside Acts 29, Keller did this in the PCA by helping limit some of the battles that the missional wing of the denomination would sometimes try to fight. On at least one occasion he intervened to get a presbytery to withdraw an overture to GA that would have created enormous (and quite unnecessary) controversy and dissent within the church. Piper played a similar role in his circles: Piper was able to hold together a cultural critique that could say hard and necessary things about racial injustice while also maintaining a firm commitment to necessary right-coded political issues. This had the effect of restraining his institutions as a whole, keeping them back from both the hard left and hard right. His annual practice of preaching on racial injustice one week and then taking up abortion the following week is indicative of this synthesis. But in the aftermath of Piper’s retirement, the dam broke, as it were: The leaders attracted to the social justice aspects of Piper’s ministry flowed in one direction while those drawn to his more right-coded positions became similarly less restrained.
As Mars Hill collapsed and Driscoll fled ecclesial oversight and discipline, the leadership that had framed, guided, and directed the network began to fail. And as with any dam that breaks, the resulting flood can run in many different directions and behave unpredictably.