Last year, the Barna Group reported that “one in three practicing Christians had stopped attending church during COVID-19.” In addition, David Kinnaman of the group also argued that potentially one in five churches could close permanently due to COVID-19 shutdowns.
The statistics are rather bleak, but there is hope.
The ministry of Acts 29 “is a diverse global community of healthy, multiplying churches characterized by theological clarity, cultural engagement and missional innovation.”
And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry opened around 25 new churches around the world, despite the various restrictions. Those that apply to the program go through a rigorous evaluation process, and now the ministry helps support 700 new and thriving churches.
Recently, The Daily Citizen had the opportunity to speak with Brian Howard, Acts 29 executive director about the ministry, how they managed the COVID-19 pandemic and what the future looks like for the American church.
“I joined Acts 29 around 2005 or 2006, but it technically started all the way back in 2000,” Howard said. “And by that point it had already grown by about 60 or 70 churches.
“At that time, I was already pastoring a large church in Los Angeles County that I planted years before with the Baptist Association. And there were a lot of guys like me who joined up who wanted to plant churches together. We wanted to see more churches planted. We weren’t sure where to do that, and we happened upon this organization called Acts 29.”
The ministry continued to grow and change, but it wasn’t until 2015-2020 that it really exploded, expanding to 700 churches globally and preaching the Gospel in over 30 languages. This includes 500 churches in the United States.
“Pretty much every day I get an email about a new church that has joined us, and 200 or so churches outside the United States, spread across 50 nations and growing rapidly,” Howard shared. “For example, in Brazil, we expect that over 100 churches will join us in the next two or three years. We’re really, really focused on planning churches not only in the United States, but globally as well.
“We have an initiative called Church in Hard Places, which is planting churches in slums in Brazil, India and other difficult places.”
Initially in 2020, the ministry was growing by leaps and bounds and really starting to gain serious momentum, but things started to slow down as the pandemic hit. However, thankfully, the stall didn’t last for long.
“All of a sudden, things have exploded moving forward again,” he said. “When a church is planted, it really started a couple of years before, like the work, the planning, the preparation, the fundraising, and studying the context that a team is going to plant in. When COVID started, it didn’t shut down church planting because we had many, many people who were actively working on planting churches.”
For Act 29, the preparation process for a church plant takes a couple of years, which ensures that the leadership of the new congregation has everything they need for the church to really become a beacon of hope within the community.
This was especially evident during the pandemic, where the church met the needs of those locally. For example, a church planter in Albania has a congregation of 10 families, and those families decided to adopt 10 families to feed during the pandemic.
“What we saw is, churches that have been planning to plant and went on and planted. We funded those churches and trained those church planters, but they had to shift the type of work they’re doing,” Howard explained.
“The ministry kept going. Church planters didn’t just sit and watch TV for 12 months, they really strived to be innovative. We still have to get the Gospel out—people are still alive and they’re hurting. People are hungry, and other people are depressed and have lost jobs. I think what happened is that our churches really stepped into that.”
He continued, “We just really dug down and tried to love and coach and keep our 700 churches engaged in talking to each other, encouraged and on mission. We continued to plan, knowing or at least being optimistic, that COVID would not last forever. And so, we just kept moving forward realizing that this is difficult, but we’re not going to stop.”
Church planting is needed now more than ever, as the statistics are dismal when it comes to Christianity and church attendance in the United States. A recently released Gallup poll shows that church membership among U.S. adults is at an all-time low at 47%, compared to 76% in 1945. While those statistics don’t necessarily reflect the entire truth, it’s still discouraging. But, despite the negative reports, Acts 29 is still seeing tremendous growth.
“We have seen a lot of churches grow during these times,” Howard said. “You read in the media about the decline in church attendance. I can give you five examples of churches that have doubled during this time because of how they serve their communities. We have seen our churches trying to meet felt needs in our communities”
One example is a church in Long Beach, California. Led by an ex-gang member and prison inmate, the church partnered with the city in order to help feed those in need within the community.
“People are lonely, lacking community and locked down in homes. Time after time, I hear stories every day of our churches stepping into the weeds, and having opportunities to see the Gospel go forward,” Howard said.
So, how does a church become part of Acts 29?
“First of all, every couple who plants a church goes through a robust, essentially six-month long assessment,” Howard explained. “Doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you’re going to go through an assessment process that’s going to involve all of our core competencies that’s going to culminate in a three-day assessment conference with a trained team of assessors. They have to present a strategic plan—they have to demonstrate they’ve done the kind of work that needs to be done.”
Most of the time, Howard and his team are not starting off with a person who suddenly decided that they want to plant a church, it’s a process. Usually, that person has been interested in planting a church for some time and has even participated as part of their local church’s leadership on church planting and have read up on the topic. Even Acts 29 church planters are looking for those within their own congregation that would be good candidates.
“But then our goal is to see that through for a number of years,” he said. “We’re with you for life. We’re not like, hey, let’s get you to the altar and then we’ll see you later. We will stick with you, because now we’re going to plant more churches together.”
That went double for the pandemic, where church leaders were forced to follow government regulations, that were sometimes restrictive and unfairly enforced.
“My experience with our churches is that we really sought to follow regulations that we were given by the government for the purpose of not damaging our testimony or witness,” Howard explained.
“We’re going to do our best to exist in the culture that we live in, and abide by all of the authorities that are over us, while not abandoning the call that God’s given us. Thankfully, God has given us good technology to be able to gather, to some extent.”
It’s been a challenging season but Acts 29 is hopeful for the future.
“We’re actively and constantly working on seeing more churches planted in rural and urban locations,” Howard said as we were concluding. “And so, we’re really hoping to continue to grow and plant churches in the U.S.
“I’m not seeing any lack of any lack of enthusiasm.”
Photo from Facebook