A “church planting” network has launched 25 churches – including 18 in the United States – in the past year amid a global pandemic that has forced millions of believers to forgo weekly church services, often by order of the government.
Acts 29 includes 697 congregations around the world, including 483 groups based in the United States. Several are in and around the District of Columbia, although the pandemic has led to the demise of a congregation, the leaders concede.
In addition, the Calvinist network has 132 churches and pastors with “candidate” status and 459 “candidates in the process of membership,” notes the group’s website. Up to 225,000 people attend Act 29 weekly services, a spokesperson said.
“We are a church planting organization and a church planting network,” said Reverend Brian Howard, executive director of the group. “We started 25 new churches, which is pretty amazing for 2020, because obviously people were hardly gathering anywhere.”
(The name of the network is a play about the New Testament Book of Acts, which has 28 chapters. The “29th chapter” involves the current growth and development of the Christian church.)
Mr. Howard said Acts 29 emphasizes Bible teaching, but focuses on starting new churches and is less concerned with making finer points on doctrinal issues.
“We’re not trying to sit around and debate theology a lot,” he said in a telephone interview. “We are trying to debate the number of [towns] in France do not have a church at all, or in how many villages in Guatemala there is no church anywhere. It is true that we care about theology in the sense that we care about what the Bible teaches, but we do not do large conferences that have theological debates on these issues, because our main purpose is to try to plant more churches.
Acts 29 was not without its problems: In 2014, its board of trustees expelled co-founder Mark Driscoll, then pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, over ethical and behavioral issues. Last year Act 29 CEO Steve Timmis, who ran a church in central England called The Crowded House, was sacked for alleged spiritual abuse.
Union Church, a church planted in 2015 in the community’s northeastern district, closed amid pandemic restrictions last September when “a number of key families left the DC area,” said said a spokesperson.
Mr. Howard conceded that it is difficult to start new congregations in today’s post-modern culture in which less than half of all Americans claim church membership. But that doesn’t mean that Acts 29 ignores his challenge to do so.
“Certainly there are unique challenges to planting a church in an urban area, for you have all the challenges that come with city living,” he said. “In fact, we have an initiative called Church in Hard Places. We fund it in huge amounts every year, we have big donors who focus specifically on planting churches in difficult places. “
Reverend Jason Conner is the senior pastor of Portico Church in Arlington, Virginia, which was established in 2010 and considers the area between Rossyln and Ballston in Arlington County as its “primary mission area”. Its 200 members are “associated with a very young demographic,” mostly people in their twenties for whom working in the DC area “is their first step out of college,” Conner said.
A former US Airways pilot and flight instructor, Mr. Conner sensed a call to the Department and the Portico Arlington facility. He said the young people in their 20s he was dealing with were similar in many ways to the young people in their 20s he worked with as a pilot. Just as it is important to have a major airline behind you, he said membership in the Acts 29 network is just as significant.
“As a local pastor, the importance of the Acts 29 network is, first and foremost, to keep the gospel at the center. As you can imagine, there are many reasons that people can come to a church. As far as the network is concerned, it is difficult to keep the essentials, the essentials, ”said Mr. Conner.
The “main thing”, he explained, is “not what we can do to find God, but what God has done to find us, which is the story of the gospel”.
Liz Dawson, 30, is a development associate for a nonprofit criminal justice organization in Alexandria, Virginia. She is active in Redemption Hill Church, which meets on D Street SE in the district. She learned it during her graduate studies.
“I would say finding Redemption Hill has really helped me to found my life and has really helped me become Christ-centered and gospel-centered again,” Ms. Dawson said.
The success of Acts 29 over a short period of time shows the “enterprising and competitive spirit” of the American church, said Curtis Chang, a professor at Duke University and an expert on church growth. He asserted that “new structures emerge from disaffection with current structures”.
Chang added that new organizations run the risk of repeating mistakes made by others.
“The growth of some more theologically conservative movements in recent decades has occurred in part because the more theologically liberal mainstream denominations have become too captivated by politically liberal worldviews and have lost the distinctiveness of the gospel,” Mr. Chang said. “As new structures like Acts 29 emerge in response to dysfunctional governance and tolerance for abuse within existing denominations, I hope they learn the right lessons. “