A “church planting” network has launched 25 churches — 18 of them in the U.S. — in the past year amid a global pandemic that forced millions of believers to forgo weekly religious services, often by government order.
Acts 29 comprises 697 congregations worldwide, including 483 U.S.-based groups. Several are found in and around the District of Columbia, although the pandemic did lead to one congregation’s demise, leaders concede.
In addition, the Calvinist network has 132 churches and pastors in “candidate” status, and 459 “applicants working towards membership,” the group’s website notes. As many as 225,000 people attend weekly Acts 29 worship services, a spokesman said.
“We’re a church planting organization and network of church plants,” said the Rev. Brian Howard, the group’s executive director. “We started 25 new churches, which is kind of extraordinary for 2020, because obviously, folks weren’t gathering hardly anywhere.”
(The network’s name is a play on the New Testament’s Book of Acts, which has 28 chapters. The “29th chapter” implies present-day growth and development of the Christian church.)
Mr. Howard said Acts 29 emphasizes biblical teaching, but is focused on starting new churches and less concerned about making finer points on doctrinal issues.
“We’re not trying to sit around and debate about theology a lot,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to debate about how many rural [towns] in France don’t have a church at all, or in how many villages in Guatemala, there’s no church anywhere. It’s true that we care about theology in the sense that we care what the Bible teaches, but we’re not doing big conferences that are having theological debates on these issues, because our primary focus is to try to get more churches planted.”
Acts 29 has not been without its problems: In 2014 its board expelled co-founder Mark Driscoll, then the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, over issues of ethics and behavior. Last year, Acts 29 CEO Steve Timmis, who led a church in central England called The Crowded House, was removed over alleged spiritual abuse.
Union Church, a 2015 church plant in the District’s Northeast community, shut its doors amid pandemic-related restrictions last September when “a number of key families moved out of the D.C. area,” a spokesman said.
Mr. Howard conceded that it’s tough to start new congregations in today’s post-modern culture in which fewer than half of all Americans claim any church membership. But that doesn’t mean Acts 29 is ignoring its challenge to do so.
“There are unique challenges to planting a church in an urban area for sure, because you’ve got all of the challenges that just go with urban living,” he said. “In fact, we have an initiative called Church in Hard Places. We fund it at huge dollar amounts every year, we have big donors that are specifically focused on just planting churches in difficult places.”
The Rev. Jason Conner serves as lead pastor of Portico Church Arlington in Virginia, which was planted in 2010 and sees as its “main mission field” the area between Rossyln and Ballston in Arlington County. Its 200 members are “associated with a very young demographic,” mostly people in their 20s for whom working in the D.C. area “is their first stop out of college,” Mr. Conner said.
A former U.S. Airways pilot and flight instructor, Mr. Conner sensed a call to the ministry and to plant Portico Arlington. He said the 20-somethings he ministers to are similar in many ways to the 20-somethings he worked with as a pilot. Just as having a major airline behind you is important, he said affiliation with the Acts 29 network is equally meaningful.
“As a local pastor, the importance of the Acts 29 network is, first and foremost, they keep the gospel central. As you can imagine, there are many reasons why people might come to a church. As far as the network goes, it’s difficult to keep the main thing, the main thing,” Mr. Conner said.
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 criminal justice nonprofit in Alexandria, Virginia. She’s active in Redemption Hill Church, which meets on D Street SE in the District. She learned about it while attending graduate school.
“I would say that finding Redemption Hill really helped ground me, and really helped me bring my life back to being Christ-centered and Gospel-centered,” Ms. Dawson said.
Acts 29’s success in a short period of time shows the American church’s “entrepreneurial and competitive spirit,” said Curtis Chang, a Duke University professor and church growth expert. He asserted that “new structures emerge out of disaffection with current ones.”
Mr. Chang added that the new organizations run the risk of repeating mistakes others have made.
“The growth of some more theologically conservative movements in the last several decades happened partly because more theologically liberal mainline denominations became overly captive to politically liberal worldviews, and lost the distinctiveness of the Gospel,” Mr. Chang said. “As new structures like Acts 29 emerge in response to the dysfunctional governance and tolerance of abuse within existing denominations, my hope is that they are learning the right lessons.”