Eternity sat down with Matt Chandler, President of the Acts29 church planting network and pastor of Texan mega-church The Village Church. Chandler was in Australia speaking on the east coast at several church planting conference events and evangelistic rallies. We asked him what it takes to be a successful church planter, how the network keeps new pastors encouraged and accountable and the impact of calling to account one of its own ministers and founders, Mark Driscoll.
The conference you spoke at in Melbourne, Leading on the Frontlines, used language in its materials that were reminiscent of battle: ‘frontline’; ‘trenches’. Is that what you think ministry is becoming in Australia?
The guys from Australia are the ones who built our themes and materials. I’m simply here to serve them. So, you’d have to ask them (Guy Mason, Adam Witanowski and those brothers), why they chose that language. But I certainly believe Paul uses that imagery, as a soldier, but I don’t know if that’s what ministry is becoming or if, at some level, that’s what ministry has always been.
What are the challenges you see here in Australia that are different than other places?
I think my sample size here is small, but I think the vibe I pick up on is that there appears to be—and I do want to be careful here—but it seems that there’s a lack of gospel ambition or confidence in God’s ability to cut through the secular society’s beliefs and see the type of change that the gospel can bring about in the lives of people.
What we’ve tried to do is to build trust and de-centralise and let guys manage in their context, run and lead and plant churches.
So even in Brisbane, teaching at QTC (Queensland Theological College) for a day this week, there seemed to be this kind of ‘woe is us’, which I wanted to acknowledge—I mean, doing ministry in a highly secular culture is extremely difficult. But at the same time, you have to get over that because God is mighty to save, and our confidence should be birthed not in where we have been planted but really what God can do regardless of where we’ve been planted. So I think I’ve just picked up on more of that here, than you would in the [United] States.
The Acts 29 model of selecting potential pastors seems to favour a particular A-type personality. They’re driven, they’re enthusiastic and, more often than not, they’re quite young. Does that present challenges?
Of course it does. I mean, any time you’ve got high entrepreneurs and Type-A personality, driven men, regardless of domain, regardless of whether that’s in some sort of business or whether that’s church planting, that’s got a back-edged sword that you have to manage.
I think what we’ve tried to do is to build trust and de-centralise and let guys manage in their context, run and lead and plant churches. And so what we’ve tried to do is build out a grid of what we’re trying to accomplish. Here’s the end-goal, here are our hopes, and within that guide, just run and work and plant and evangelise and disciple. There’s always—I just think community in general is messy. You know, life on life is messy. And so I think you’ve got to take the good with the bad and walk in humility, where you’re willing to learn despite the fact that everyone around you might think you’re awesome. You’ve got to learn from others and grow.
This is what [we believe] is more than likely going to be the type of leader who will build the type of culture and plant the type of church that ultimately will be successful.
To me, I like that personality type. I probably am that personality! And so my hope would be that we might learn from one another and there might be mutual submission, as the Bible would call us to, and a gladness in the Lord to serve him together.
As President of Acts 29, what is your personal role in fostering some of those things?
First and foremost I want to lead by example. I want to posture myself in the way that I would hope they [church planters] would posture themselves. The reality is that I probably have the largest church in A29, so I want to make myself available, make myself willing to serve the brothers in any way I can. My hope would be that by the way I’m living and engaging with them I might model well our hope for how they would engage others and walk alongside others.
How hard is that to do when you have +500 pastors around the world?
I think we’re together often enough, and they get correspondence enough from me that they’re able to see that. I’ll post videos to our internal communication platform often, addressing them via video so they can see me, and hear me say ‘here’s why, here’s how, here’s what we’re doing, here’s the way forward’. And I’ve found that to be really helpful.
I can personally say that in 20 years of ministry, I don’t know if there’s a more difficult situation that I’ve found myself in with the Board having to address things that we saw and hopes that we have for [Mark Driscoll].
As an independent, multi-denominational church movement, you don’t have the history and structure of something like the Baptist or Anglican denominations. How do pastors stay accountable?
There are a couple of things. One is that we are covenanted to one another with regards to how we operate and behave. And so where there is a breaking of that covenant we’ve created off ramps and on ramps and processes by which we handle members who would go contrary to the covenant. At this point, almost all of that’s occurred organically, where you’re just confronted in the city or the area your church is planted in, by other pastors in that area and it’s been much more brotherly than organisational.
What’s the ideal structure for the accountability of a young pastor just starting out?
Accountability works best when there’s proximity. So a central office in the United States is not a good accountability structure for brothers in Australia, right? So if you look at just the state of Texas, where I am, there’s a group of A29 pastors that meet regularly in Dallas and they’re there to encourage, to build up, to hold accountable. There’re groups everywhere. That’s where accountability, training, encouragement, is taking place—in regions. Our hope would be that ultimately in Australia, that’ll take place. In Sydney, there’s a core group of pastors doing that already.
We talk a lot about the success of church planting—and there are many success stories in Australia. What are the main things that makes a church plant successful?
A29 has a document called ‘competencies and characters’, and we’re training and looking for men with those competencies and with those characteristics. This is what [we believe] is more than likely going to be the type of leader who will build the type of culture and plant the type of church that ultimately will be successful. To this point, statistically speaking, Acts 29 has been widely successful with assessed men who have planted. So after 3 years, 97 per cent of plants are vibrant, growing and still there. If you compared that to my roots—from the Southern Baptists—you can’t even compare them. The SBC stats when I looked at it before I became a part of A29, it [church planting] was almost a guaranteed failure.
So what’s the key? Is it all about leadership?
I think some of it’s leadership. I think some of it’s a type of leadership, where there’s humility but zeal. Where there’s a willingness to be prayerful and spiritually vital, not just pragmatic leadership. A commitment to the Word of God; a commitment to mission. I think there’s all sorts of pieces that make the difference.
I don’t know if there’s anyone currently on the Board whose ministry hasn’t been directly impacted by Mark Driscoll’s love for the Lord, Mark’s love for church planting, love for the Church.
What about the failures. How does Acts 29 cope with churches that aren’t working?
I think our first concern is for the people that might have been hurt or harmed in that failure. Then we look at what’s occurred there. Was there something broken in our assessment [of the leader]? Was there some dishonesty in the man? Was the plan bad? Was the brief bad/or was there a funding issue? We want to identify what went wrong, and then make corrections. But we’re concerned about the pastor, and concerned about the people who were a part of the church that failed.
News this week that Mark Driscoll has stepped down from his leadership of Mars Hills pending investigations about his behaviour as a leader must be difficult for you to hear, though you were amongst those who believe it was a necessary action. There’s so much of Driscoll and Mars Hill in the history of Acts 29. Are you sad to hear the latest development?
Yeah. I can personally say that in 20 years of ministry, I don’t know if there’s a more difficult situation that I’ve found myself in with the Board having to address things that we saw and hopes that we have for him [Driscoll]. And so even as I saw his statement roll out, I found a lot of grief in my heart, and sadness for him. But hope—hope that the Lord will do a good work in that, and I just trust the Lord in that.
Our hopes would be to plant churches wherever there are people who don’t know and love the name of Jesus Christ.
What impact will this have to the movement, do you think. There will be many for whom Mark Driscoll was a mentor, someone to look up to. What’s the fall out from that?
At this point, we haven’t really had any fall out. I think guys have grieved, they’ve seen Mark as a great influence, they continue to be grateful to God for Mark’s influence in their lives but also could see that some action needed to be taken. And so, they’ve had questions and we’ve tried to answer those as best we could. There hasn’t been a massive fall out. But there’s been some heartbreak, and rightly so. [Mark] did help to start the network and has been a huge part of it. In fact, I don’t know if there’s anyone currently on the Board whose ministry hasn’t been directly impacted by Mark’s love for the Lord, Mark’s love for church planting, love for the Church. And so it’s just been a real sad thing for all of us.
Australia in particular appears to be having quite an explosion of new churches under Acts 29 and other church planting movements. But many seem to be targeting city dwellers, younger professionals. Are we in danger of a homogenous church full of hipsters and no one else?
I certainly hope not. I know even one of our plants here in Sydney is in the suburbs. So we’re not all in the city. I think that goes beyond just an A29 thing. I think Tim Keller kind of made the city the mark: if you plant in the city then you’ll affect the rest of culture. And I love Tim, and love his ministry, but I don’t necessarily know if that’s true. The church I pastor is predominantly a suburban church and the suburbs are quite a mess. So, I don’t think—if I look across the network, most of them are not in urban settings. Some are, but some are even in rural settings. So as a network as a whole, we’re all over the place.
In Australia, in particular though?
Yeah, in Australia I think the majority are in cities. But even then, a lot are on the outskirts of the cities, not the heart.
What I have learned… is that new church plants tend to see more people come to know Christ than existing churches do.
How do you think Acts 29 can ward against homogeneity?
I think a couple of ways, and we’d want to do this regardless of location. We want to see ethnically diverse congregations. We want to see diversity in regards to locations, and people groups. So even as we drove in here today, I could see there was a part of Sydney that was predominantly Asian, so I think our hopes would be to plant churches wherever there are people who don’t know and love the name of Jesus Christ.
If someone in Australia was thinking ‘church planting is for me’, what’s your advice?
Connect with people here who are doing church planting well and see what the on-ramp is. Begin to explore, check things out. Come to the Acts 29 site, or Geneva Push is planting churches here, and City to City is planting here. They just need to research what the best fit for them would be in terms of theology. And also where do they land in regards to how they approach culture? Those are the variables that a brother has to consider as they begin to look at who they want to plant with, and if they should plant a church.
What about Christians in churches. How do you know when or if you should be considering leaving your church to join a church plant?
There are so many variables in that. And one of the things in Australia, which I’m trying to pick up on is scale in regards to size. So a church of 50 in Australia—that’s a different animal on when to leave versus when to stay, and how to keep a planting church vibrant and healthy.
What I have learned, and I think can be backed up statistically, is that new church plants tend to see more people come to know Christ than existing churches do. I think there’s a bit of a straight-line mission that everyone’s aware of when you’re a church plant, and maybe an existing church tends to go more internal and handle in-house affairs—which isn’t a bad thing, and I would say at times is a necessary thing—but I would say that church plants are more interested in seeing people won for Christ and all their energy is pressed in that way.
The largeness of the kingdom of God, and the massiveness of the church of Jesus Christ is the thing that just renders my heart full.
As a speaker who travels the world, what’s the one thing you don’t get sick of saying?
I think the largeness of the kingdom of God, and the massiveness of the church of Jesus Christ is the thing that just renders my heart full .To know that I’ve been in a hut in Sudan and seen brothers and sisters open up the Word of God and rejoice in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and been in Paris, and in London and in China and in Australia and in Kenya, and watched the people of God be the people of God.
I never grow weary of seeing that and talking about that and tracing it back to what God promised Abram in Genesis 12. And we’re living in that! I mean, Abraham had no idea what Africa was, and how far south it went, and no clue what North America was or what Australia was. And yet, here we are. Sons and daughters, just like the stars in the sky, just like the sand on the beach. So that for me, I just never grow weary of that.