And You Thought Presbyterian Polity Is Onerous

So many alliances and networks, so little church discipline:

The roots of the Sojourn Network go back to the early 2000s, where Sojourn was invited to join Acts 29, a diverse global family of church-planting churches. Mike Cosper and other members of Sojourn participated in boot camps and events, using this experience of brotherhood and curiosity to influence the development of the Sojourn Network.

With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.

Soon realizing that Sojourn was the only network who chose to make the change to an infinity network, Acts 29 inspired them to go out and start something new. It was an exciting time for everyone to see new networks growing and moving forward in new directions.

Wanting to put more resources to the church planting mission, Mike Cosper and Daniel Montgomery set out to find a leader with a passion to coach and mentor church planters. The ideal candidate had to be devoted to the local ministry while pioneering the network simultaneously. Finally, they discovered Brian Howard, a member of Acts 29 and a church planter in Southern California looking spend more time on church planting and working with planters.

After joining Sojourn, Brian not only served as a pastor, but he helped launch the East campus and the J Town campus, evolving the network’s vision. Dave Owens first joined the Sojourn Network in 2011 as Brian’s administrative assistant. Though his experience as an assistant was humbling and transforming, Dave knew his passion lied with planting churches and helping other planters.

Defining the vision
With several leadership transitions redefining the network’s mission, the Sojourn board of directors wanted to focus on crafting lasting values and a vision for the future.

Many church planters believe a network can only be a head or hands network, meaning the focus is either to take time to ensure beliefs are lined up or to just get it done. The Sojourn Network questioned this status quo and wanted to bring both soul and a healthy posture back to ministry. With this value, Sojourn became known as the place where church planters came to be healthy, quickly shifting the network’s grand visions of planting thousands of churches to simply helping church planters recover from spiritual warfare and disillusionment. Mike recognized many church planters were burnt out, working as both a pastor and a planter. Sojourn realized this was not a sustainable or healthy path. Knowing Sojourn would take a few years to take off, the members focused on holistic renewal to prepare church planters for multiplication, growth and outward energy, driving passion for church planting.

At this time, Sojourn started to look inward for inspiration to develop the vision and values. Sojourn ran the 930 art center, a diverse, artistic place from wood carving to videography to skateboarding. This culture around art, music and literature helped the network realize the ultimate goal is transforming communities and lives.

As God continued to send creative and artistic people to Sojourn, the network understood their culture flows from creative contextualization coupled with health and wholeness. Praying for the lord to lead the way, Sojourn found themselves defining a vision based on sustainable, healthy growth.

This may be the most challenging paragraph:

With extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches, Acts 29 was dealing with a lot of tension due to the different views on what it means to be a church and a real community. In efforts to relieve the tension, Acts 29 began the transition from regional affiliated networks to infinity affiliated networks.

What is an affiliated network as opposed to an allied network?

What is an infinity network as opposed to a finite network?

What is wrong with Redeemer NYC that it has not solved the “extreme diversity consisting of multi-city and multi-campus churches to conservative Presbyterian churches”?

Acts 29?

Why I Love My (all about me) Denomination

The Young Restless and Reformed may be surprised to learn that some Reformed Protestants do not consider the young and restless to be very Reformed. They might even be surprised to know that Reformed Protestantism exists outside Desiring God Ministries, The Gospel Coalition, and Acts 29 (but that is another matter). But the Old Settled and Reformed keep tabs on the younger crowd and the reviews are not encouraging.

Brent Ferry is an OPC minister who is not particularly old and since he is a husband and father is fairly settles. But as an avocation he plays drums for a band and has a feel for youth and restlessness. Despite his demographical profile and musical talent, he is not much impressed with the recent Crossway book by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (2010). The recent issue of the OPC’s magazine, New Horizons, has Ferry’s review of Driscoll and Breshears. Here is an excerpt:

Driscoll is sometimes identified as part of evangelicalism’s resurgent Calvinistic movement. Besides puffs and quotes from Reformed authors, however, the book does not reflect the contours of Reformed thought at all.

For example, the authors omit the covenant of works (p. 177). They argue against limited atonement in favor of hypothetical universalism (p. 267). They condition regeneration upon faith and repentance (pp. 317, 436). There is no clear affirmation of unconditional predestination. The book excludes the fourth commandment from the abiding moral law (pp. 198-99), yet has a high view of the Lord’s Day (pp. 381-84). It also contains pictures of Christ (pp. 208, 244). . . .

In short, Doctrine is a hodgepodge of various theological trajectories. When the authors compare Noah’s drunkenness to “a hillbilly redneck on vacation” (p. 184), they reveal the nature of their contextualization project, which is to promote a Christianity that embraces irreverent adolescence. Theologically, this book does does rise above that standard, but not by much.

Feed My Sheep — With Fast Food?

Over at Mere Orthodoxy a couple of posts have tried to identify two wings of the Young, Restless, and Reformed “movement” by applying the labels Old School and New School. Since many members of the PCA and OPC would even be unaware of this nineteenth-century division among American Presbyterians and what it meant, I was naturally intrigued by the diagnosis. I am also unpersuaded.

Both posts start from the premise that in an age of Facebook and blogging, social institutions and structures have become radically voluntary. I am not sure if this is true, especially when it comes to Christianity in the United States. Ever since the Constitution and ecclesiastical disestablishment, faith in America has been voluntary. Granted, the suppliers of religious services have expanded considerably and the golden age of Protestant denominationalism is no more. But even during the first half of the twentieth century, conservative Protestants were awash in a cornucopia of religious institutions, from Bible schools (as graduates of BIOLA should know, rights?) and faith missions, to independent congregations and celebrity revivalists.

Then comes the application of Old and New School categories by Kevin White to the Young, Restless, and Reformed:

The “Parachurch” or “New School” prefer more informal church networks and more emphasize the big conferences as the anchor points for the movement. They are more likely to identify as missional and to be part of independent churches or newer church connections. (e.g., Sovereign Grace Ministries, Acts 29, Mohlerite Southern Baptists) The parts of Reformed Theology that they emphasize are sovereignty and the doctrines of grace. You might call them the “Evangelical Reformed.”

The “Church” or “Old School” have a stronger emphasis on confessionalism and formal church polity. They more emphasize the visible church as a covenant community. The conventions are more of a supplementary fellowship opportunity. Like the 19th century Old School Presbyterians, they think revivalist, pietistic evangelicalism is a good thing, that can go hand-in-hand with the best of Protestant scholastic theology. They are more likely to emphasize Reformed ecclesiology as the context for the doctrines of grace and election. You might call them “Reformed Evangelicals.”

I sure would have thought that Acts 29 or Sovereign Grace were about as churched as the Young, Restless, and Reformed get. Those are communions of some kind. Together for the Gospel or The Gospel Coalition would appear more New School than Old School compared to the networks of congregations headed by Driscoll or Mahaney. In other words, I’m puzzled by this notion that an Old School element exists among the Young, Restless, and Reformed. Neither post mentions any examples of such an Old School contingent, a figure, or set of churches. I even wonder if the authors know about the communions that comprise the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

Mind you, the hope for a well grounded account of the church to counteract voluntarism is a welcome sign. White writes, for instance:

Once entered, membership and fellowship become a holy obligation and a familial bond, not to be broken lightly. The visible fellowship of the church is made (ideally) a living critique of unstable, self-defined voluntary culture.

Matthew Lee Anderson adds:

. . . voluntary associations of an arbitrary sort simply do not provide the stability and depth that we need for human flourishing. For that, we must look elsewhere, to God Himself, which is the first movement of the church and the fountainhead of virtue.

But when Anderson talks about the dangers of localism as a kind of nostalgia, I am not sure he understands the nature of the church. He says:

It would be easy to dismiss voluntarity and pine for a return of immobility and a small patch of land with a picket fence. But the promise of localism needs to be tempered by the perils as well. The soil is just as fallen as the pavement, and electing to reject the easy, voluntary associations of our late modern world for the involuntary ones of the local community may offer just as false a hope as the social networks did.

Well, actually, when it comes to food production, a patch of land is much better than pavement, superior in every respect. And spiritual food is best produced locally rather than corporately. It is easy to sound elitist when promoting the values of slow food over McDonald’s, and the work of a pastor is much closer to that of a slow food chef than a teenager flipping burgers at the local store of an international company. But closer to the truth is the similarity between a local pastor’s work and a mother’s. These officers prepare food (whether spiritual or physical) with a sense of what is good for the eaters. They use good ingredients and do so with a sense of what the sheep or children need nutritionally.

In which case, when Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, our lord likely did not have in mind Peter going to the spiritual equivalent of McDonald’s to purchase burgers for the flock. Care, discernment, and preparation were as important to the feeding as the actual cooking. That leaves the megaconferences like TGC or T4G or even the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology much more in the position of providing fast food than a home cooked meal since the cooks are not dining with the eaters, or spending time in between meals to see how the digestion is going or if the diet needs to be modified.

I an very glad to know that some Young, Restless, and Reformed are aware of Old School Presbyterianism. But I’d sure like to know which cooks they have in mind and what authorities are overseeing the kitchens.

Mark Driscoll Has Some 'Splaining To Do

A story about megachurch multi-site projects at Christianity Today contains an arresting quotation from the Mars Hill corporation. Driscoll’s church is planning to plant a church in Portland, Oregon and the justification runs as follows:

The city of Portland is known for many things, but the gospel of Jesus is nowhere on the list.

Let’s see, when I think of Seattle, does the gospel come to mind? Not really. All I can think of are corporations — Starbucks, the McDonalds of coffee, Red Hook beer, now part of one of the consolidated breweries, and Microsoft, the company responsible for inserting bullet points whenever I hit the indent key while using MS Word. I used to think of the Supersonics but that was before the National Basketball Association caved to the greed of one of its franchise owners.

All in all, the gospel is not one of the associations I make with Seattle. Maybe Mark Driscoll should turn Seattle into the Jerusalem of the Pacific Rim before setting up shop in Portland (where even congregations with ties to Tim Keller exist).

Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone? They Joined Networks

Russell Moore, academic dean at Southern Baptist Seminary, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that attracted the attention of many Presbyterians thanks to his title, “Where Have All the Presbyterians Gone?” Since Moore is a Southern Baptist, perhaps he should not have weighed in on matters Presbyterian. But then again, asking the question “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?” would be silly since the Southern Baptist Convention weighs in a the largest Protestant entity in the United States. We can’t really call it a denomination or a communion because being Baptist is premised on preserving the authority and autonomy of the local congregation.

Moore’s point was not so much to tell Presbyterians to shape up but to observe the decline of denominationalism in the United States – or more accurately, the loss of denominational brands for believers’ identity, such as “Hug me, I’m a Presbyterian.” He writes:

Studies conducted by secular and Christian organizations indicate that we are. Fewer and fewer American Christians, especially Protestants, strongly identify with a particular religious communion—Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. According to the Baylor Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches now represent the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and they are also the fastest growing.

Moore argues that the rise of megachurches corresponds to Americans looking for church for practical reasons: “Is the nursery easy to find? Do I like the music? Are there support groups for those grappling with addiction?” If people bring these concerns to a Baptist church, they may be disappointed: “A church that requires immersion baptism before taking communion, as most Baptist traditions do, will likely get indignant complaints from evangelical visitors who feel like they’ve been denied service at a restaurant.”

But Moore sees some hopeful signs for a return to an older understanding of church, grounded in a doctrinal and evangelistic identity. One sign is the growth of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has 10,000 seminarians now a six different schools.

Moore concludes:

If denominationalism simply denotes a “brand” vying for market share, then let denominationalism fall. But many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about—personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community. Perhaps the denominational era has just begun.

The SBC may not be the best case for denominationalism not simply because it is self-consciously not a denomination but also because it hardly has the order or unity that insures a SBC congregation in Saddleback, California will be remotely similar to one in Louisville, Kentucky. But the point about the decline of denominations is fitting and the example of Presbyterians is a good one. Aside from the mainline PCUSA, which continue to hemorrhage its millions, the largest Presbyterians denominations are in the thousands: the PCA at roughly 300,000, the EPC at approximately 60,000, and the OPC bringing up the rear at around 30,000.

One factor in Presbyterian decline that Moore should not have been expected to acknowledge (since you need some local knowledge) is the phenomenon of Presbyterians becoming networkers. An irony of Moore’s piece is that it came out the same week that David Nicholas, one of the leaders in church networking, died. The founding pastor of Spanish River Church (PCA) in Boca Raton, Florida, Nicholas also established the Church Planting Network, which according to the website has nine churches around the world.

That may seem an insignificant number until you factor in that Nicholas was an important force behind two other significant church planting networks: Acts 29 and Redeemer City to City. Nicholas’ Church Planting Network may not have impressive numbers, at least according to its website, but his congregation, Spanish River, helped to plant close to forty other churches in the PCA, including Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It is hard not to imagine that the idea for Keller’s Redeemer City to City network of churches came from Nicholas’ own Church Planting Network.

But even more impressive, if you’re of the New School Presbyterian worldview, is Nicholas’ connection to Mark Driscoll and the Acts 29 Network. According to the Acts 29 website:

Pastor Mark Driscoll founded the Acts 29 Network with Nicholas in 2000. Nicholas was influential in starting many current Acts 29 churches, and provided much support for many of our church planters.

The list of congregations associate with Acts 29 is too long to count – though it does feature some nifty logos (which also make the page a bit tardy in loading) – but it indicates another successful network that traces its roots to Nicholas. I am almost tempted to say that Nicholas is the man behind the Gospel Coalition since his fingerprints are all over two of the larger celebrities in that phalanx of Christian allies. Which makes Nicholas the leaven for yet another network of congregations, since the Gospel Coalition is also web of congregations.

And just when we were finished with Presbyterian networks comes news of yet another Presbyterian connection of congregations, in this case a group of churches from the mainline PCUSA who have finally concluded that their denomination is “deathly ill.” As such, these pastors believe a new form of connection is important for Presbyterian conservatives:

We believe the PC(USA) will not survive without drastic intervention, and stand ready to DO something different, to thrive as the Body of Christ. We call others of like mind to envision a new future for congregations that share our Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical heritage. If the denomination has the ability and will to move in this new direction, we will rejoice. Regardless, a group of us will change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate. We hate the appearance of schism – but the PC(USA) is divided already. Our proposal only acknowledges the fractured denomination we have become.

In which case, the answer to Moore’s column is this: Presbyterians abandoned the structures that made their denominations tick – such instrumentalities as sessions, presbyteries, synods, and assemblies for overseeing the ministry of word and sacrament. Instead of being Presbyterian, many Presbyterians find more congenial surroundings in locales where the schmoozing, entrepreneurialism and informal alliance-building are characteristic of being the church. Have they swapped Presbyterianism for Rotarianism? Maybe so.

This is a revealing development on two levels. The first is the fading cachet of Presbyterianism itself as a religious and theological brand. Time was in the not so distant past when saying you were Presbyterian was to indicate that you were part of a broad swath of American Protestantism that was respectable, reliable, dignified, and even refined. Granted, such cultural Presbyterianism was too much bound up with the mainstream Protestant project of aiding and abetting the American way as the Protestant way. Still, being Presbyterian was desirable because it connoted a certain seriousness of purpose – like DuPont or IBM.

For conservatives outside the mainline, being Presbyterian said less about being from the right social circles and more about identifying with the Reformation and its wonder-working powers in reshaping western civilization. To be Presbyterian was to draw a connection to John Calvin and John Knox, and to place yourself within a certain trajectory of European history and the West’s heritage. To be sure, Presbyterianism was more than history or cultural significance, but it suggested a faith and worship that was older, weightier, and more profound than fundamentalism or dispensationalism.

But Presbyterianism no longer has such cultural resonance. The networkers seem to have calculated that they have less to lose by abandoning an older identity for a new constellation of congregations orbiting around a single congregation, visionary pastor, or – better yet – celebrity preacher.

The second oddity about the current Presbyterian penchant for networking is how little consideration its advocates seem to give to the ephemeral character of these ties. Say what you will about denominations, they last in ways that networks do not. Does anyone remember the Moral Majority? How about the Evangelical Alliance? So why will Acts 29 survive the career of Mark Driscoll or Redeemer City to City outlive Tim Keller? Once Jack Miller, the founder of one of Presbyterianism’s original networks, the New Life phenomenon, New Life Presbyterian congregations have persisted but the buzz no longer fizzes. So if you are a congregation looking for a larger set of associations, you may think that Acts 29 is a solid bet. But will you actually receive any of the care and oversight that a Presbyterian denomination provides through its – yes dull – but effective structures?

Of course, the more important question is whether God has ordained networks to feed his flock. Granted, some will likely argue that denominations have no such divine imprimatur. But because Presbyterian denominations do have sessions, presbyteries, and assemblies, they are actually far more biblical than any network of churches, no matter how Calvinistic its celebrity leader or creative its congregations’ logos.

Correction: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church claims approximately 115,000 members. (Thanks to one of our scrupulous readers.)