The Miracle of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network

Acts 29 is a church planting network I had the honor of co-founding with Presbyterian Pastor David Nicholas in 1998, when Mars Hill Church was small, disorganized, broke, and seeking to greatly out-punch its weight class. 

At our first bootcamp, even though there were only a few planting candidates, God got us off to an amazing start with some great men including Darrin Patrick, who now pastors The Journey in St. Louis and wrote the fantastic book, Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission.

Acts 29 is a miracle of God’s grace and a demonstration of the gospel’s power.

Leading Acts 29 is Pastor Scott Thomas, who is an elder at Mars Hill Church. He’s been in full-time church ministry for what is approaching thirty years. His ministry includes replanting multiple declining churches, and his education includes an MA, as well as an MBA he is presently pursuing. 

Acts 29 pastors and their families love Scott. He’s a gifted leader, gracious man, skilled teacher, kind father, loving husband of thirty years to Jeannie, who grew up four blocks away from him, and fruitful father of two grown sons walking with Jesus. 

For those who are unfamiliar with Acts 29, or may want to know more, I thought it would be helpful to interview my friend, Pastor Scott.

Why did you join Acts 29?

In 2003, Tyler Powell and I came to an Acts 29 boot camp in preparation for starting a new church in Denver. It was at this boot camp that the Holy Spirit impressed upon my heart that I would one day lead Acts 29. I never told that to anyone. 

I subsequently became a member of Acts 29, and in 2005, I became a board member. The board convened in 2006 to find a replacement for then director Steve Tompkins (who was taking over the first Mars Hill multisite), Acts 29 President (Mark Driscoll) pointed at me and said, “We want you to be the new director.” I sat back in my chair and immediately recalled the Holy Spirit's impression on me three years earlier.

What is the brief history of Acts 29?

Acts 29 began with 11 churches in the US. The goal was to plant churches through recruiting, assessing, training, funding, and coaching. Interestingly, besides recruiting, these other four values are still the four main emphases in the Network.

Acts 29 started slowly and built to 17 churches by 2003. It grew to roughly 50 churches by 2006. Since then, Acts 29 has planted over 360 more churches.

The beginning years set the direction and the DNA of Acts 29, which continues to guide the movement to plant healthy, effective, reproductive missional churches.

Where is Acts 29 at presently? 

We have 410 churches officially partnering with Acts 29, of which 372 are in the US and 38 are in 16 countries outside of the US. The most represented international country is the United Kingdom, with 13 churches and led by Steve Timmis. By God’s grace, we have 446 current applicants, and we get about 35 new applicants each month.

How is Acts 29 organizing church planting—regions, networks, etc.?

Acts 29 intentionally decentralized to multiply more rapidly and to unleash a movement of God. We’re a movement of church-planting networks rather than a single network. 

Acts 29 encompasses multiple “Missional Networks,” all formally organized and united by a common desire to expand the Kingdom through church planting. Regional networks are the main networks, and they are based upon geographic proximity. These networks are where one works, serves, and invests the most time, money, and energy. 

Sub-networks, based on affinity, context, denomination, or mission may be formed for the purpose of church planting most effectively. These are typically where one learns or collaborates with like-minded individuals to advance church planting.

All of our networks have a singular focus of planting churches. Every network must have our assessment process, coaching of church planters, training (formally, informally, non-formally), and funding. This is true of our networks in the United States and in our networks around the world.

Internationally, we approach countries and continents as if they were a network in the US. The first thing we seek is a capable, competent, and catalyzing leader who can effectively plant churches, assess leaders in their indigenous context, and fund them from among other churches in the network. Churches in the United States often times help this catalytic leader financially, and this helps him to lead his network more effectively.

What kind of church planting is done in A29—traditional, multisite with preachers live and video, etc.?

Acts 29 represents a diverse range of church-planting methods and networks and will therefore recognize at least eight types of church plants:

Classic church plants: A pastor gathers a core and starts teaching as a primary strategy for planting and leading the church.

Incarnational community plants: Smaller groups (communities) are formed as the core of the church and eventually brought together for regular corporate word and worship. This includes incarnational communities that exist as a church for the purpose of multiplying gospel communities throughout a city or region as a method of making disciples. Single house churches (without a multiplicative strategy) do not qualify.

Mother-daughter plants: An existing church imbeds a church planter who gathers a core from the church to be sent out with leadership, support, and resources. This includes a network of churches collaboratively planting a daughter church.

Multi-site teaching team: Leveraging a strong teaching team across multiple locations either at the original site or an additional site.

Multi-site video preaching: Leveraging a single preacher through video as a method of planting and growing a church.

Replants: An existing church makes catalytic changes to advance toward a missional philosophy and formally submits to Acts 29 for assessment and partnerships.

Single-site video preaching: A church that distributes video sermons (live or pre-recorded) across multiple rooms, buildings, or other environments in close proximity, often as a way to diversify the worship experience or accommodate additional attendees.

Existing church planting churches: Existing churches seeking to align with Acts 29 to collaborate with resources, experience, and leadership to plant more churches together.

What denominations and networks is Acts 29 partnering to plant churches with?

We regard many ministries as dear friends of ours. As a multi-denominational network, we continue to work with churches that affiliate with nineteen different groups, denominations, networks, or collection of churches.

  • Baptist

  • CBA

  • CBNW

  • CCI

  • Christian Evangelistic

  • Christian Reformed

  • CIEM

  • Compassion Connection

  • Conservative Congregational Christian Conference

  • Converge

  • EFCA

  • Evangelical Presbyterian

  • Fellowship Associates

  • Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Church in Canada

  • GCM

  • NAMB

  • PCA

  • RCA

  • SBC

How does the financing of A29 work?

Every church in Acts 29 church signs a covenant that includes the promise to give 10 percent of all of its general income to church planting. This money doesn’t come into a centralized fund. Rather, the elders of each local church control their own contributions to church planting. 

Regional networks are now putting their resources toward a collaboratively chosen planter. Many of the churches restrict their financial support to those who have been assessed and approved in the Acts 29 process. Churches affiliated with Acts 29 are not obligated to give toward Acts-29-only churches. For instance, some of our planters are affiliated with a denomination that helped financially support them and they in turn help support planting through that denomination. 

The goal of our funding covenant is twofold. 

First, it’s to strongly encourage each local church to be mission-minded, evangelistic, and strategic with their mission dollars. By requiring a new church plant to give 10 percent of its donations to church planting, the new church is thinking about multiplying at the onset of their existence. 

Secondly, the church planting financial covenant provides a pool of resources to multiply church planting. In all cases, the local church elders determine how much and to whom their contributions are directed. The funding covenant is for the health of the local church and its evangelistic mission—not for the existence of Acts 29.

What does one “get” for joining A29?

The greatest benefit of membership with Acts 29 is a relational connection with other like-minded churches and among pastors with a similar Gospel-centered, missional focus. 

The pastors of Acts 29 sacrifice for one another. We are brothers on mission together. We enjoy one another, and we are committed to each other personally. But we also have a mission to proclaim the gospel in our communities that is best accomplished together. No pastor in Acts 29 is allowed to be a rogue consumer. Accountability for the sake of the mission and personal Gospel transformation is a part of our DNA.

Once a planter becomes a member, he has access to our coaching, funding, assessing, and training. Members financially support members, coach members, train members, and counsel members.

What do you see as the future of A29 in the next 5 and 10 years?

The vision of Acts 29 is to build a unifying and an uncommon move of God made up of interrelated networks centered on the gospel and advancing the mission of Jesus through rapid church planting, leading to millions of changed lives by the power of the Gospel. 

I’m setting up the structure, systems, and leadership to grow Acts 29 Network to a total of 1,000 churches in the next four years. This is about a 25 percent increase each year. When I took over in 2006, I made a graph depicting the growth of Acts 29 to reach 1,000 church plants by April 2015. Currently, we are ahead of schedule and have entered the rapid growth years.

I want to plant healthy churches and not just a lot of churches. By our decentralizing strategy, we will set in place proper assessing, practical training, Gospel coaching, and strategic funding in each region.

Summarize how Acts 29 assesses church planters and their wives?

The assessment of our church planters is standardized for every pastor applying to become a member. We have assessed pastors whose churches were over 5,000 in attendance, those who've had PhD's, and even those who have planted Acts 29 churches in other cities in the past. All Acts 29 pastors respect the assessment standard.

Assessment begins online. A planter submits material about his personal life, strategy for planting, theology, marriage, education, work history, and family. He takes tests that measure his entrepreneurial aptitude, his personality profile, and personality assessment. The potential planter is also subjected to a confidential background check.The pastor then has a phone interview lasting two hours where the interviewer probes the potential planter about all the material he submitted.

The final step in the assessment is a face-to-face formal interview with the planter and his wife with three current Acts 29 church planters. They ask questions based on our ten qualities of a church planter. The assessors determine if it’s healthy for the pastor to plant a church at this time in the geographic location he desires. The motivation is to help him make a wise decision based on the facts and interpretation of material submitted. The approval rate for applicants is about 56 percent. The top four reasons a church planter is not approved in Acts 29 are theological misalignment, marriage or family issues, character issues, and competence issues.

What is the success rate of approved planters actually planting a church?

For those planters in Acts 29 who had been assessed, approved, and have become full members, the viability rate is 98.4 percent. We measure viability by those churches that continue to meet regularly, have elders in place, preach the gospel, are on mission, and are surviving financially. In almost fourteen years, we've only seen a small number of churches fold. In contrast, church planting research analysts claim that only 68 percent of all church plants survive beyond year four and that 73.1 percent of all church plants have declining attendance.

What things are you seeing as vital for a successful planter and family? 

The number one characteristic for successfully planting a church is spiritual vitality of the lead planter. Other church planting assessments by their own admission, assume the spiritual vitality of a pastor at the assessment. We examine it closely for his personal benefit. 

In Acts 20:28, the Apostle Paul gave a two-fold formula for caring for the Church of God. He said that a shepherd must pay careful attention to his life and pay careful attention to all of the flock in which the Holy Spirit had made him overseer. John Calvin said that if a pastor does not pay careful attention to himself, he is disqualified to pay careful attention to the flock. For the spiritual good of the flock, a pastor must possess a vibrant and strong spiritual vitality and not just a theology of a spiritual life.

The second thing we are looking for is biblical qualifications for an elder. Personality, charisma, abilities, and competence are secondary to the biblical criteria found in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, Acts 20, and 1 Peter 5. A disqualified elder with a lot of abilities is useless.

Among the biblical qualifications is a man who is able to manage his household well and who is a one-woman man. This is examined very closely in Acts 29. Planters with ongoing problems in their marriage are vulnerable to a myriad of spiritual, relational, and sexual attacks.

The only biblical qualification that is competency based is the ability to teach. We value and measure a planter’s theological clarity and application. A successful church planter is able to clearly articulate and apply the Gospel in every aspect of his life and in the lives of others.

What is most enjoyable about your job?

The most enjoyable thing about my job is being able to dream about and then lead the pastors in a region to unite together for the purpose of planting churches to the glory of God and not for our own personal benefit or recognition. Resources, ideas, abilities, or the fighting of personalities for control does not encumber us. We're united as brothers on mission together. 

We are united as brothers, defending one another, supporting one another, and fighting for the good of one another. 

We are united on mission by planting churches. We don't get bogged down with a multiplicity of agendas or programs. We plant gospel-centered churches. 

We are united together, knowing we can accomplish more together than we could separately. If I had to fight pastors who demanded their rights or wanted their own way, I would not enjoy my job is much as I do now. I deeply love these pastors and their families in desire that they lead their churches to be healthy, reproducing, multiplying, convert–making, gospel–preaching, and gospel-transforming churches for the glory of God.

I also love being a pastor of Mars Hill Church. Other Mars Hill pastors may not appreciate the impact Mars Hill is making across the world and among believers and churches in the United States. Most of them have only been pastors at Mars Hill and may not be as awed as I am with God's blessing and fruitfulness upon this church and ministry.

What is most difficult about your job?

The most difficult aspect of my job is not being able to personally shepherd in every situation that the pastors of Acts 29 encounter. For instance, recently the wife of one of our church planters gave birth to a baby that died two hours later. I couldn’t even go to the funeral. 

I'm learning how to lead others to shepherd the pastors in their region. I'm content to share with others how to care for the church of God, to show generosity, and to display the gospel. But, I love to be on the frontline shepherding, leading, and exhorting.

What are the common misperceptions people have about A29?

Acts 29 takes criticisms from both the theological right and the religious left. We’re conservative theologically and that draws fire from the religious left. We also don’t depend upon our adherence to extra-biblical traditions and mores to earn a right standing before God. This draws fire from the theological right who believe that their standards should be everyone's standards, even if it is not supported in Scripture. 

Our pastors believe in an inerrant, inspired, infallible Word of God, and they proclaim it with boldness, clarity, and passion. Our pastors believe that Christ's righteousness was placed upon us and our sin was placed upon him on the cross at Calvary. Our pastors believe we are all called to proclaim this Good News, and we do this in large gatherings, in small groups, and one to one. Our pastors believe the gospel calls us to display God’s love, justice, mercy, and grace in the communities in which we’re planting. Our pastors believe that a right standing before God leads to a right life lived among others. They don’t believe the opposite is true. A façade of Christian holiness does not need a foundation. This is misunderstood from both perspectives.

You have a book coming out in April published by Zondervan. What led you to write Gospel Coach?

As I was wrestling with how we could continue to coach our pastors to effectively plant a church and to shepherd them at the same time, the Holy Spirit impressed upon me that these were not two separate or distinct systems of delivery. The Spirit revealed to me that this was to be one method of caring for every aspect of the leader. I sought to build a system that was based upon the gospel as well as principles of shepherding or pastoring the flock under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus.

The beautiful thing about this is that I didn’t set out to write a book. What I sought to do was to present the theological and practical framework for how we could care for the church of God by paying careful attention to the flock and simultaneously pay careful attention to our own lives (Acts 20:28). 

Most coaching systems focus primarily on the competencies of taking care of the flock. I wanted to incorporate the personal and spiritual aspects of a church leader, as well as his or her missional leadership. When I was done writing, I felt this Gospel-centered approach to coaching needed to be shared with others and not just within Acts 29. I’m humbled by its warm reception as I train others to lead as an under-shepherd of Jesus for the glory of God.