Greetings and salutations! Hmm.. no, that’s not quite right. Hi and welcome back! Yes, that’s better. Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about red flags in Christian hype. Red flags wave everywhere in Christianity, and the closer we get to the extreme right-wing nutjob end of the pool the more of them we find. The more seriously Christians take their ideology, the more dangerous a malignant leader becomes to them. One prime example of these rules could well be what just happened in Acts 29, a huge Christian church-planting business. Their leader, Steve Timmis, just lost his job there. And he lost it by being, apparently, a grade-A jerkweed. Today, let’s check out Acts 29 and see what red flags Steve Timmis might have been waving there long before his situation came to a crisis point.
Everyone, Meet Acts 29 Network.
Acts 29 Network (or just Acts 29) came to life in 1998. Mark Driscoll helped found them with a much-older pastor, David Nicholas (he died in 2011). He’d only recently met Nicholas, but was quite impressed by him.
Driscoll had this idea of forming a huge church-planting network, and thanks to this older pastor’s wise counsel they got it all started and launched and everything was Jesus-rainbows and Jesus-puppies forever after.
I mean, that’s how it went according to Mark Driscoll.
Others dispute Driscoll’s fuzzy, gauzy story, Driscoll’s dating of the group’s beginning, and most particularly his placement of himself at the center of the organization’s founding. The writer of that link offers some eye-opening links to prove their points, too. These critics place David Nicholas much closer to the center of Acts 29’s origins (with Driscoll just an add-on follower of Nicholas’), and place the group’s founding somewhat later. Another book linked there paints Nicholas as the leader of a church-planting group already, calling Driscoll in 1998 to offer financial help to his struggling church. Either of those fit a lot better with our understanding of Driscoll’s character.
Whatever the case, shortly afterward Driscoll and Nicholas stopped speaking of each other. One wonders if this abrasive, aggressive, surly, narcissistic, egomaniacal, petulant man-child managed to drive away this patient-sounding, kindly-seeming older pastor like he did pretty much everybody else.
Ultimately, we can assert with confidence that around the turn of the century Acts 29 got founded as a church-planting
ministry organization, and Mark Driscoll was involved with the group’s origin to at least some extent.
How This Business Works.
As we discussed recently, church-planting has become one of Christianity’s big cottage industries since its decline began. In their age of decline, churches need all the help they can get to game the odds, now that they’ve lost the ability to simply coerce people into attending.
Here’s how it works:
Some group or larger established church funds the starting of a brand-new church in a location typically already-well-served by churches. They also typically offer the new churches’ leaders some semblance of management training and sometimes mentors to assist them with most if not all aspects of starting a new church.
Many of these businesses offer the new church some sort of financial help. Starting a new church can be hugely expensive. Pastors usually don’t make much money at all until they get a decent-sized congregation to maintain them. Thus, typically these pastors are newbies–like Terrance Wilson. They’re willing to put up with a tiny paycheck to get their big break–and church planting groups can offer both. That appears to be how David Nicholas entangled himself with Mark Driscoll. That, or they’re professionals paid by the sponsors to start new churches. Once things get off the ground, these professionals then sign them over to others and leave–which probably describes that “planting pastor” we covered recently.
Sometimes, church planting sponsors even send a small number of their existing congregants down to attend the new church. Their presence establishes a core of believers there. That’s how Benedict Atkins’ church plant began. That way, new members don’t walk into a Sunday service and see literally nobody there in the pews. So yes, church planting operates in the same way as “seeding the hat” in busking. (See endnotes for more info.)
The goal is to help the churches reach a state of self-sufficiency–and to get them there as quickly as possible. By now, many Christian leaders consider these helper groups indispensable.
Acts 29 In Particular.
I’m all for congregational and denominational change. But when it’s the same old white guys preaching largely the same old agenda, it smacks more of a desperate power grab than a genuine longing to better know and connect with the world around us.
—Christian Piatt, on Acts 29
Since Acts 29 takes donations from a large number of Christians, they cater to no official denominations. But there’s very little variation in fundagelical groups these days. They tend overwhelmingly to be literalist, ultra-authoritarian white misogynists. They want a Republic of Gilead in America ruled only by themselves and completely lacking accountability. Needless to say, they’re Calvinist–the darkest, most cruel and abusive flavor of Christianity ever devised.
Indeed, fundagelicals stopped pushing their moral panic about evil ecumenism quite some time ago. All they ask now is that everyone be on the correct side of their culture wars. Indeed, they welcome even hardline Catholics to join their party. (Though sometimes we see some startling insistences on full doctrinal lockstep.)
However, Acts 29 represents not a huge Christian success story, but a mile-marker along the road of fundagelical decline. As late as 2006, fundagelicals felt like they were at the peak of the game. But disturbing portents already fluttered past them on the wind. The Christians behind this organization likely sensed that something had already escaped from their grabby little hands. They invented this group as a way to regain that thing.
As such, Acts 29 is, at heart, an authoritarian group’s attempt at rebranding to take a new crop of victims by surprise.
Unsurprising Criticisms of Acts 29.
With the origin story I’ve outlined and the ideology they use, you won’t even be half-surprised to learn that criticisms have always abounded of Acts 29.
Mainly, critics focus on the shortcomings of the group’s leaders (though some focus on the Calvinism!).
Obviously, Mark Driscoll became a huge drag on the organization as his controversies and notoriety mounted. Eventually, in 2014 they booted him entirely from the group.
Well before he left, Driscoll tapped Matt Chandler to become the president of Acts 29 in 2012. Then in 2015, Matt Chandler, the pastor of the Village Church (TVC), tried to push “church discipline” on a woman who annulled her marriage when she discovered that her husband consumed child pornography. Chandler still leads Acts 29, of course. Starting a public-relations fiasco by letting his abuse of a congregant go public and then viral represented no sort of dealbreaker to them.
(The four “Hopes” Chandler outlined upon his ascension to power must be seen to be believed. He just ensured our future post topic of Christian leaders who offer up roadmaps that absolutely can’t get people from Point A to Point B.)
The next year, 2016, Darrin Patrick found no similar luck. This Board of Directors member found himself embroiled in a scandal in his megachurch. In addition to behaving in inappropriate ways around
Carmen women-who-weren’t-his-wife, the elders’ accusations outline some very serious problems with him. These include lack of accountability and self-control, dishonesty, misuse of power, and using social media to build his brand.
So first, Patrick lost his cushy megapastor gig for this “historical pattern of sin.” Then, Acts 29 booted him.
What These Criticisms Reveal.
This group claims to be “diverse.”
They’re about as diverse as my ten toes.
In reality, Acts 29 is largely run by middle-aged white fundagelical dudes. They subscribe to a slate of very repressive, very authoritarian beliefs that elevate middle-aged white fundagelical dudes exactly like themselves to the status of kings-in-their-castles in every situation. They assume this power without fears of oversight or accountability. Once laying claim to it, they ruthlessly enforce their royal prerogative through the horrifying practice of church discipline, which we’ve examined many times around here.
Authoritarians revel in groups set up along these lines. The creators of these groups rip power away from one group, along with its voices. Then, they hand all of that power to another group to use as it likes. Then, they refuse to allow oversight or accountability to themselves and their co-leaders in using that power.
And then, everyone wonders why scandals erupt constantly in authoritarian groups.
The truth is so simple. There’s no other way this could go.
Scandals erupt in authoritarian groups because authoritarian groups set up power differentials and policies that attract abusive people.
The Red Flags.
- Any group run by one demographic will cater exclusively to that demographic. Those in power in these groups will always set their first priority as guarding the safety of their tribemates-within-the-tribe.
- Watch out for groups that set up authoritarian power systems to put one group in “leadership” over another purely on the basis of inborn traits rather than qualifications for leadership. Especially watch out for groups that forbid leadership on the basis of inborn traits.
- Demands for submission from others, excepting agreed-upon shared kinks: never a good sign, especially when paired with ersatz, one-sided contracts or “covenants.”
- Threats of any kind represent the worst kind of red flag.
- Proceed with caution if a group builds itself not around shared activities or tangible goals with effective roadmaps to achieving them, but rather around lockstep in beliefs.
- Regard Calvinism as a really dire sign. For some reason, fundagelicals who subscribe to Calvinism (including Reformed Theology) also tend to be the worst kind of control freaks. The only decent people in Calvinism, as in complementarianism, either end up leaving it or modifying it into unrecognizability.
- It should be a warning sign to encounter a group weathering an abuse scandal that doesn’t result in a change in leadership and a serious re-examination of its guiding philosophies.
- If the group abuses or trash-talks people who leave or disagree, run away and don’t look back.
- Salespeople cannot be trusted to be perfectly honest about the product they sell. If the salespeople are authoritarians, trust them even less to be honest.
Most of all:
- If a group abuses anyone for any reason, eventually they’ll abuse you too. Don’t think you’re different or special or immune. You are not.
Now Let’s Meet Steve Timmis.
Before uber-authoritarian Matt Chandler fired his ass, Steve Timmis was the CEO of Acts 29. People lauded him for a church model he called “close community.” He even ran some kind of halfway house for aspiring fundagelical pastors called The Crowded House. There, he taught these followers of a way to “do fellowship” all day erryday. He even wrote books on the topic. He made Christianity’s new industry of church planting his entire focus.
So he was likely considered a natural for that CEO gig. He hasn’t been there very long (see lengthy endnote).
His followers loved what he had to sell (like this guy did). It was exactly the set of talking points they needed. These talking points helped them all to pretend that their ideology worked as the basis of a social system. Better yet, it told them that yes why yes, they could completely Jesus-fy their entire lives.
He sought a way to get people completely invested in their church communities. More than that, even, he sought ways to get new leaders onboarded quickly to his style of all-in pastoring. His entire style of leadership propelled followers into higher and higher levels of that perennially-popular fundagelical mindgame, More Hardcore Than Thou.
But inside that “crowded house,” his closest followers now say Steve Timmis acted like a raging bully and tyrant.
If You Can’t Get Love, Get Fear.
Christianity Today offers up this quote about Steve Timmis’ removal from Acts 29:
“People were and are afraid of Steve Timmis,” said Andy Stovell, a former elder who led alongside him for 14 years at The Crowded House in Sheffield.
In fact, the news site obtained testimony from fifteen people who’d served under Timmis at Crowded House. In all, we learn about an alleged “pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipline, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty.”
Worse, Stovell wrote a letter warning the elders serving alongside Timmis–back in 2016. Nobody cared. Timmis’ approach to church planting worked. Acts 29 almost tripled in size under his watch, finally acquiring the global reach they’d always wanted. In those post-Driscoll-scandal days, things only improved every day with Steve Timmis.
Nobody cared about those abuse rumors until about two weeks ago. Then, Acts 29 finally ran some kind of internal investigation on the subject.
I wonder just how bad the complaints had to get to prompt that move.
That, or I wonder who wanted Timmis’ job.
(After-publishing edit: I forgot to mention this. Matt Chandler, the leader of Acts 29, received multiple strong warnings about Timmis’ bullying. He and Acts 29 ignored all of them. In fact, the article about Timmis’ firing notes that in 2015, five staffers came to Matt Chandler for help with Timmis. In response, Chandler personally fired all five of them. Don’t let him snow you into thinking he had no idea this was going on. He knew, and he did nothing to stop it till he couldn’t do anything else–or wanted Timmis’ job to go to someone else.)
Crowded House’s Statement.
In the aftermath of this story breaking, Steve Timmis also resigned from Crowded House. They added a note on their front page about it. Really, this note functions so well as an indictment of fundagelicalism itself that I’m reprinting it here:
We also feel the weight of the stories told in the article. It is therefore our intention to ask someone from outside our network to explore what has happened and make recommendations. It will be for that person to shape the process, but we want to listen to all concerned with humility. We are willing to hear where we may have failed people.
This pious declaration is almost certainly a pretense.
This organization was created and constructed specifically to exclude the feedback of outsiders and of those Timmis trampled.
Power doesn’t ever welcome changes, especially ones that impede powerful people getting what they want. Thus, it’s hard to imagine they’ll make any kind of lasting changes to their structure.
Why Nothing Will Change.
When scandals break out in their organizations, fundagelicals always promise they’ll fix things. They’ll listen to their victims now, y’all. They’ll protect the victimized and punish the offenders.
Big changes! Much sweeping changes! Very lots of changes! Changes! Coming soon! Lasting forever! Watch this space!
Often, the official responses to scandals feature some kind of big come-to-Jesus meeting. Dear Leaders shed tears. They hug those victimized and hurt.
Awww, lookit their widdle lower lips trembling! Lookit their big ole eyes filling with Jesus tears! They’re so saaaaaad!
Then time passes.
People move on to new things to be outraged about. The big plans quietly fall by the wayside. And everything goes back to normal again.
… I just realized I describe here my entire first marriage. Haha! But seriously. This is how things always went for me.
Why They Won’t Change.
The way he is at 15 is the way he’ll be forever. If he refuses to do his share at 15 and sees household chores as women’s work, he’ll never willingly share the load with you later on.
— Matrimonial advice I got as a teen
that I didn’t listen to at all
and should have,
in that case at least
If fundagelicals actually wanted to do any of that stuff, they wouldn’t have become fundagelicals in the first place. You can’t make people start caring about something they just don’t care about, especially if doing so cuts into the selfish, greedy, malignant stuff they really want to do.
(Wow, it’s so weird that “Jesus” seems so singularly disinterested in helping his followers do any of it, especially proactively before the scandals break out.)
But we’ll see. Hey, maybe Acts 29 and everyone involved with this scandal will be the first fundagelicals who don’t just pay lip service to the notion of sweeping systemic change!
I’m just not holding my breath for it, is all. And neither should you, or any of Acts 29’s various followers.
NEXT UP: Why authoritarian Christians cannot have their beloved authoritarian Christian groups and leadership without also having huge scandals constantly breaking out.
See you soon!
About the importance of seeding the hat: I worked as a puppeteer in college with my then-husband Biff. On the side, he performed individually as a busker for various historical faires around town, like Dickens on the Strand and Texas Renaissance Festival. Before his performances, he always “seeded” his donations hat with $1 and $5 bills before setting it out in front of himself for performances. Early on in our association, I asked why he did that. He replied that it communicated to his audience that bills, not coins, were the expected and habitual stuff to put into the hat. If he only had coins in it, then he’d only get coins as tips.
Very occasionally, we were so broke that we had no bills to put in the hat–none whatsoever–only coins. And on those days, I’d see the stark truth of this rule: his take on those days was a bare fraction of what he got after properly seeding the hat.
My ex made downright amazing money as a busker.
Also, this is how we came to attend that little bitty second church we attended before leaving for Japan. The pastor, Gene, asked us to attend to “seed” his tiny church. I’ll talk more about this whole situation later on.
I couldn’t find a reference to exactly when he got appointed as the CEO to Acts 29. Christianity Today says he spent “seven years at the helm,” but I’m not sure of that. It didn’t sound right to me. I wanted to know when and how he got the job.
Weirdly, that turned out to be a difficult question to answer!
In my searching, I finally found a book blurb from a 2012 Matt Chandler book. In it, a reviewer described him as “director for Acts 29 (Western Europe).”
That description proved to be a veritable Rosetta Stone in unlocking information for me.
Thanks to it, I learned that Mark Driscoll’s very likely the one responsible for appointing Timmis to this first position back in 2009. By 2013, an interviewer notes this title and asks how Timmis got the position. The way Timmis describes it, Crowded House got the attention of Acts 29, who then extended their invitation.
In 2015, he still wears that “Director” title.
Since I couldn’t find any references to him using that title after 2015 (aside from some newer sites reprinting older information), I’m guessing he got promoted around then.
This is a pointless segue unless you’re as interested in church politics as I am. So I’m sticking it here 🙂
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