At Ebenezer Baptist Church, where I serve, various ministry groups visit and we often take up special offerings for them. Many times we would find out months later that some members continued to send money to that particular ministry, designating it through the church. But we eventually took a stand and set a policy that the church would only forward funds to outside ministries specifically approved by the whole body and we asked individuals to send contributions to their special interest ministries directly and without the imprimatur of the congregation.
We felt it was inappropriate to tie the church to a ministry without the consensus support of the entire membership.
Now Southern Baptists have learned that the North American Mission Board is not using this same type of discretion in the distribution of church planting funds Southern Baptists have contributed through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
At the outset, I want to express my support of NAMB in general, and I want to state up front that I am a proponent of cooperative ministries including church planting. Also, I am not writing to slam NAMB’s**** reorganization in face of the Great Commission Task Force recommendations that were approved by the messengers who attended the SBC annual meeting this past year in Orlando.
I would add that I have some hesitation in expressing my concerns because of my strong past support of Annie Armstrong.
At every church I have served I have done everything I can to challenge each one to take a step of faith in setting a goal for this special missions offering. Even when previous controversies enveloped NAMB, I still challenged my church to give to Annie Armstrong.
However, I need to express caution about what is taking place now with NAMB in terms of its use of at least part of Southern Baptists’ home missions offering to support the controversial Acts 29 church planting network.
In a photo accompanying a NAMB article published in Baptist Press, church planter Jan Vezikov is described as “one of hundreds of North American Mission Board missionary church planters starting new churches across North America.” Unfortunately, two of the churches identified with him, Grace Church Boston and Russian Church Boston are Acts 29 churches, and not what most Southern Baptists would consider as churches in “friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work.”
Acts 29 is controversial not just because of the vulgarity and over-the-edge biblical interpretations by its co-founder Mark Driscoll, or because of its active promotion of alcohol consumption. But it is controversial to Southern Baptists because the network has conditions for membership that exclude any role for more than 90 percent of Southern Baptists – other than to give it money. Acts 29 membership calls for members to adhere exclusively to Reformed theology (Calvinism), and the network expresses a desire for a new church plant ecclesiology to be an elder-rule form of governance (a corporate board type of control that excludes the New Testament congregational form of how most SBC churches self-govern).
On top of that, Acts 29 calls for churches within its network to contribute 1 percent of church collections to the Acts 29 foundation and another 9 percent to start other Acts 29 (Reformed-only) churches – which means money contributed to Annie Armstrong by Southern Baptists expecting it to be used to establish Southern Baptist churches is actually being siphoned off and redirected to create a “competing” type of denomination. That is, unless the denominational responsibility these Acts 29 churches may also have calls for them to contribute a portion back to the denomination. To my knowledge NAMB does not require a church plant to ‘contribute back’ any portion of the funds they receive.
Some SBC leaders point to these church planters as “young leaders” vital to the SBC’s future; however, it is clear that these Reformed-only-minded church planters are much more committed to being Calvinists/Acts 29 members than being Southern Baptists. Moreover, Southern Baptists have been kept unaware of this de facto redirection of designated funds.
To be fair, Dr. Kevin Ezell, president of NAMB, said in a sit-down with Dr. Al Mohler that as a pastor he had disengaged from the SBC and he “was sorry” he did. He offered that one result of this disengagement was a greatly increased learning curve for him. On his behalf, NAMB’s communication office said he was unaware of any Acts 29 connection with the church planter profiled in NAMB’s photo.
Moreover, earlier this year he stated there were no organizational ties between his entity and Acts 29. According to this report, during questions-and-answers at SWBTS, “When asked about NAMB’s connection with the Acts 29 Network, Ezell told the faculty that NAMB has no formal relationship with the church-planting organization.”
However, Dr. Ezell is relatively new to NAMB and still learning the intricacies of his organization and Acts 29. In an interview with The Georgia Index Editor Gerald Harris the following exchange was reported:
“Q: I believe I read that one of the seven churches you helped start was a part of the Acts 29 Network of churches. Do you expect to partner with the Acts 29 Network in your church planting movement? I understand they are targeting Georgia for their church planting efforts. How do you feel about that?
A: The Acts 29 Network doesn’t plant churches. I think you have to be in existence for a year and show certain credentials in order to qualify as an Acts 29 church. That is why their success rate is so high because it is like joining the Willow Creek Association. The church that we planted that became a part of the Acts 29 Network only did that recently and the pastor made that decision on his own.
Our missions pastor checks on our church planters monthly and the pastor of this church never mentioned that he had become a part of the Acts 29 Network, and we are correcting that. I have no plans to partner with the Acts 29 Network to plant churches.”
NOTE: For the record, the Acts 29 Network does plant churches through its member churches. Here is a web page listing new Acts 29 churches, an interview with “their” church planter, Jan Vezikov, and the Acts 29 covenant requiring member churches to plant network churches.
So, maybe he and NAMB didn’t know about the Acts 29 affiliations when they agreed to fund these particular Acts 29 churches.
But they know now, and so do Southern Baptists.
Their doctrinal beliefs, form of governance and how they use church planting funds are being dictated by their membership in the Acts 29 Network. Southern Baptists are not the major influence (other than funding) and it’s not likely SBC causes and beliefs will be promoted except as they fit with Acts 29 aims and purposes.
Moreover, because gifts from the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and the Cooperative Program are going to Acts 29 churches – churches that are required by Acts 29 to spend 10 percent of their funds to the work of the Acts 29 network – this convenient dual alignment type of arrangement benefits Acts 29 at the expense of Southern Baptists.
I urge Dr. Ezell to re-think his conclusion that NAMB***** has no formal relationship with the Acts 29 Network. Although the absence of a “signed agreement” might make his statement technically true, the facts of the matter show there is at least a practical relationship that allows Acts 29 church planters access to Southern Baptists’ money.
Moreover, there are questions that beg answers from him and others regarding the safeguarding of Southern Baptists’ collective church planting funds:
— What other Acts 29 church planters receive Annie Armstrong funds?
— Do church planting agreements with state conventions clearly state conditions that prevent Southern Baptist resources from being used to start or support churches whose form and function are dictated by the Acts 29 Network (i.e. are only church plants with an authentic relationship of “friendly cooperation” with the Southern Baptist Convention being supported)?
— Messengers in Orlando voted to allow the International Mission Board to target language groups in the U.S. Does the IMB have safeguards in place to prevent usurpation of Southern Baptists’ designated and cooperative gifts from benefiting the Acts 29 Network?
— Do those who, leading up to the vote on the Great Commission Task Force recommendations, dismissed concerns about Acts 29 church planting ties as a “myth” now owe Southern Baptists at the least an explanation if not an apology? Dr. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, and Dr. Ronnie Floyd, chairman of the Great Commission Task Force, and pastor of Cross Church (formerly First Baptist Church in Springdale. Arkansas) both took pains to rebuke the notion that there was any move to align Southern Baptists with the Acts 29 Network. Now, two members of the former task force seem to express a different take on the issue. Akin told Christianity Today, “we” have “no intention of emulating” Acts 29 and Redeemer Presbyterian Church (Tim Keller) “at every point” but that “we” are looking at them. In the same article, Dr. Al Mohler stated more emphatically, “When you’re looking for theologically vibrant, healthy models that lead to growing churches, where else are you going to look [than at Acts 29 and Redeemer Presbyterian Church]?”
Let me conclude that I encourage Pastor Jan Vezikov to follow his call from God with all his heart. He has chosen a tough cultural area in which to serve and I do not want to discourage him as he has every right to find funds where he can. Because of his fellowship and partnerships I consider him an Acts 29 church planter and not a Southern Baptist one. If he desires to be a Southern Baptist church planter he would need to break all ties with other church planting networks other than those solely committed to the Southern Baptist Convention. I also want to express support to Dr. Ezell for his strong focus on church planting — and I also ask him to seriously consider my concerns.
When my church commits to give through the Cooperative Program or a special offering, we expect that money to be used for the Southern Baptist causes we intended. If our congregation wanted to partner with Acts 29 it would have explicitly done so. The funds Ebenezer Baptist sends through the Cooperative Program are to be used for specific reasons: planting Southern Baptist churches, enabling efforts of Southern Baptist missionaries, and furthering the theology of Southern Baptists. When I lead my church to give sacrificially above their tithes to Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, I expect that money to pay the salaries of Southern Baptist missionaries and church planters, and also fund SBC ministry needs on the mission field. We do not expect any portion of those funds to go to those who are working for another denomination or serving a non-SBC related church planting network. If we wanted to support them, we would send our money directly and not bother going through Southern Baptist Convention channels.
****I contacted Dr. Kevin Ezell with the following questions: Are you defining “formal relationship” as a signed agreement with Acts 29? As it appears the answer to that question is, yes, the follow-up question is simple. Does NAMB jointly fund any other church planters that are receiving church planting funds from Acts 29 churches? If the answer to that question is, yes, then I do have one follow-up question. Do you not consider that as a “formal relationship?” Mike Ebert, VP of Communications contacted me at Dr. Ezell’s request. Because of our email correspondence and cordial phone conversations I allowed him to examine the article concerning any inconsistencies or mis-representations before I posted this article. In addition, according to the position of NAMB they will not allow a church planter to solicit funds from another denomination and remain as a church planter with the SBC. However, despite the obvious tensions NAMB does not classify Acts 29 as a “denomination.”
*****Please see, VP of Communication at NAMB, Mike Ebert’s response to my article here. I sent him a rough draft of a final edition on Wednesday AM and in the email I expressed that the article would be released on Thursday. He did respond that he had meetings and appreciated my openness in sending him the article. I did not hear back from him so I ran the article with the footnote. I have not implied in any way that Mike Ebert approved of the article. I have implied there were no factual errors, mis-representations, or inconsistencies. He feels there is a mis-representation which there is not, so we will agree to disagree. The fact remains NAMB has accentuated a Church Planter that is clearly tied to the Acts 29 Network and receiving funds from Annie Armstrong.