An Overlooked Aspect Of The Story: PCA Influence On Acts 29 And Mars Hill

Regular readers of the Heidelblog and listeners of the Heidelcast will know that considerable time has been spent here analyzing and interacting with the podcast series produced by Christianity Today and hosted by Mike Cosper (see the resources below).

In that interaction most of the time and attention has been spent on the nature and effects of Mark Driscoll’s Narcissism and abuse and on highlighting the differences between Reformed theology, piety, and practice and that of the so-called “New Calvinism” or the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement as represented by Driscoll and Mars Hill.

The most recent episode of the Presbycast (“Deconstructing 2021 and Big Eva with D G Hart”), however, hits on a very important aspect of the Acts 29/Mars Hill/Driscoll story that I overlooked: the role of the PCA, specifically the Church Planting Assessment Center (CPAC) in Atlanta, and Spanish River PCA in the formation of Acts 29 and Mars Hill.

In that regard it is interesting to note that this is the first thing one sees on the CPAC page:

Choosing and Retaining the right pastor is the key variable in planting a new mission.

—Lyle Schaller

Was the Apostle Paul “the right pastor”? After all, the Corinthians were not much impressed with him. They were interested in “wisdom,” and “power,” and eloquence but Paul came to them with “foolishness,” “weakness,” and stumbling: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:3–5; ESV). They were much more taken with the self-proclaimed “Super Apostles” than they were with an actual apostle and they continued to be unimpressed with simple gospel ministry for, as far as church history knows, the rest of their history. Indeed, from a pragmatic church-planting-guru perspective, the Corinth project was a failure. People were still writing to them about their divisions and sins a century after the Apostle Paul wrote to them. After all, they had a strategic location but failed to capitalize on it. Schaller was one of the more prominent church-planting gurus of the late 20th and early 21 centuries. He died in 2015. In their notice of his death, Leith Anderson, in Christianity Today hailed him as a “preeminent church consultant.” It is interesting that a P&R church planting agency leads with a church-growth expert and not Holy Scripture or a passage from the Westminster Standards about the due use of ordinary means. Sociology is a valuable common-grace tool, not an ordinary means of grace.

In the course of their discussion, Brad Isbell (“Chortles Weakly” on Twitter), Wresby, and Hart turn to the role of Spanish River PCA and her founding pastor, David P. Nicholas (d. 2011), in the formation of the Acts 29 church planting network. Nicholas’ obituary describes him as a co-founder, along with Mark Driscoll, of Acts 29. In “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” Cosper highlights the role of the Spanish River Church Planting Network in the formation of Acts 29, Mars Hill, and in the rise of Mark Driscoll to a position of leadership and influence. Nicholas, the CT series reports, was “high on pragmatism.” The episode highlighted by Presbycast tells the story of how one church planter connected to Mars Hill met Nicholas at the PCA’s CPAC in Atlanta. It notes Spanish River’s support for Redeemer PCA in New York City and of City Church in San Francisco. In 2020 I analyzed City Church’s website and it tells an interesting story.

Cosper says that Nicholas and the Spanish River Church Planting Network had a “vision of supporting churches that might not have fit the more stringent requirements of the PCA, pastors who didn’t necessarily have the seminary training or who weren’t necessarily even part of the denomination.” He says that Nicholas would identify young leaders at CPAC in whom he really believed and would “go in big to help them launch.”

If you have not listened to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” you should. It helps us to understand the so-called New Calvinism or the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. It also helps us to understand the intersection between a part of the PCA and Acts 29 and that might help us understand some of the debates occurring today within the PCA.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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10 comments

  1. The various elements behind the scenes which are having a corrosive effect on the PCA make me wonder if the PCA can (or should) last another five years. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, something like this comes to light. It’s hard to imagine that this is the last. I almost believe that it would be better to dissolve the national aspects of the PCA and have each presbytery be autonomous because they already are in large measure. Any confederations beyond the presbytery level would be left to their discretion. This would help to eliminate the bureaucracy and restore accountability to some extent.

  2. Lyle Schaller!! Talk about a blast from the past!

    I was ordained and served in the UPCUSA/PCUSA for over 30 years. Schaller was surely the greatest pragmatist of that Era. His influence in the mainline churches was unsurprising, but even in the 70’s and 80’s, his writings were being introduced into evangelical D.Min programs. I think it was for reasons like this that Harold OJ Brown quipped that the new D.Min and D.Miss programs were going to turn into D.Mick and D.Mouse!

    • That was interesting. Especially his op-eds from back in the day. He never really changed and was never minister material. Same can possibly be said for the other gentleman, but he’s off my radar…

  3. This was a great podcast as it always is when Darryl is a guest. The high point of this Presbycast for me was at about minute 43:54 through 46:40 where Darryl is talking about the ever increasing insistence on the part of evangelicals for someone’s “conversion experience” before they’re genuinely accepted into the flock. He compares this sticking point to someone who always belonged to a church, learned the confessions and creeds, etc. and wonders rhetorically “converted from what!?” I had a similar experience a number of years ago when being confronted by an elder in an independent evangelical congregation that went something like this:

    Questioner: When were you saved?

    A: 2,000 years ago.

    Questioner: No, I mean when did you have a conversion experience?

    A: I don’t know what you mean.

    Questioner: Well…how did you come to ‘accept’ Christ as your savior?

    A: Oh. I was baptized as an infant, grew up the church, was catechized and learned the creeds and confessions and the meanings of the petitions and questions, and was confirmed by the board of elders when I was in the eighth grade. So I’ve more or less always been a believer. I’ve just increased and enhanced my knowledge over the years.

    (puzzled look) Questioner: So…you never had a significant ‘turning away’ from your former life when you felt the holy spirit calling you?

    (increasingly frustrated look) A: Let me ask you this: are you familiar with Bart Ehrman?

    Questioner: Yes, of course.

    A: Well, he supposedly walked the aisle at a YCC or Cru rally when he was an undergrad and felt motivated to “accept Christ.” Then he studied at several evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute. Finally, he went out East and studied textual criticism under Bruce Metzger at Princeton, somehow got the mistaken idea that the ancient parchments were just so many disjointed pieces of paper and is now an agnostic (at best) who goes around doing great harm to the gospel. What would you say about that “conversion experience” he supposedly had as a youth?

    Questioner – silence and end of discussion

    • A question I have for those with that kind of “conversion” story; why did it take so long for you to become a communicate member? Isn’t that 13 or 14 years of watching the means of grace get swallowed by others without tasting it for oneself? Maybe that is another version of the come to Jesus question, where the answer is something like, “well I was first able to discern the body when I was 11 years old…” I might have to try that out some time.

      • Brian,

        In the Reformed churches we distinguish between baptism as the initiation into the visible church and communion as the confirmation that one has, as far as we can tell, appropriated Christ for himself.

        Holy communion is not for small children. It is a profound mystery wherein the Spirit feeds believers with Christ’s body and blood, through faith. It also carries with it jeopardy for those who eat and drink in unbelief. For that reason we fence the table and catechize (instruct) our covenant children thorough before we admit them to the table.

        We rejoice when our covenant children, as George says, cannot remember when they didn’t believe. That is a great blessing and it is a great blessing for them and for us we they are admitted to holy communion.

        Resources On Fencing The Lord’s Table

  4. Romans 5.8 gives us a precise look into the contrast between those governed by the “righteousness of the law,” (5.4) and they who “do mind the things of the flesh.” We must not be surprised by the tensions between sin—death–deceit, and holiness—life and peace.

    We witness this opposition even within the context of the visible church. When the leadership of the church make “the things of flesh … the objects of which their hearts are set, and to which their lives are devoted” (Charles Hodge) then worldliness and corruption will prevail.

    What is your object of attention candidate for the ministry? Why do you seek to serve the church? Ruling Elder, what is the true hope for your life? What do you want for your flock? Deacon, why do you seek to serve the tables? What is it you pray to obtain for yourself? Oh let us return to the things that the Spirit proposes and approves for the Church and then we shall be found again singing with melody in our hearts unto the Lord!

  5. A former PCA pastor and friend of mine went through the PCA church planters’ assessment center, twice, and the EPC’s church planters assessment center once. He said that after the first time with the PCA he learned to “play the game” and realized there were people watching how you drove into the parking lot and got out of your car–whether you greeted others immediately or not. It was “constant psychological assessment” from the moment you drove into the parking lot until the very end of the time at the center. My friend had been a “kinda big deal” in the RUF circles in the Southeastern part of the US and knew how to schmooze. He was gregarious, funny, a bit cynical and sarcastic–and a classic “fraternity guy” out of the southeastern universities in the US. He was not the usual athlete-turned-pastor but looked the part.
    The assessment centers ended up pegging him as a significant church planter and it was not long after choosing his “American city hotspot” and establishing a PCA church plant (with hip jazz musicians for the worship band) that he became disillusioned with how the PCA handled his “good buddy at City Church in San Francisco,” how his presbytery was reacting to him, and he left the PCA and joined another alphabet-soup reformed church. Within less than a year after this, he left the church, left his wife and kids, and now does not even claim to be a believer.
    For all the pop, church-growth, psychology touted at the assessment centers they did not seem to note the fissures in my friend’s life and marriage that helped lead to the mess that happened a few years later. I still grieve over the mess that was left for these people in this one family–people who loved me and my family during some difficult years. I continue to pray for the Lord to grip his heart.

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