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Lessons from church planting in 2020

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of life around the world. The lives of families, schools, businesses, and industries have been turned upside down. It's been no different for churches.

Brian Howard
Courtesy of Brian Howard

While the overall long-term impact of the pandemic on churches is unknown, you might be surprised to know that new churches were started in the middle of this mess. For centuries, God has raised up men and women to dive head-first into challenging environments to reach lost people, and that continued in 2020.

At Acts 29, by God’s grace, we planted 25 churches this year. In the U.S., we planted 18 churches and seven churches globally (2 in Italy, 2 in Australia, 1 in the UK, 1 in India, and 1 in Canada). We usually plant about 50 churches in a normal year; we didn’t expect near the same this year.

We've heard similar trends from other church planting networks and denominations, and we praise the Lord for this work. The same God that parted the Red Sea, and healed thousands, and raised Jesus from the dead is the same God who has created and sustained congregations during the natural disaster of 2020.

But church leaders would be remiss if we didn’t learn from the ups-and-downs of this year. The following are key takeaways from 2020 church-planting that I pray are useful for pastors, leaders, and church-planters in 2021.

Importance of community

First of all, we've found that while small church-plants have struggled (especially financially), many small congregations have provided the close-knit community that people need. In the middle of the isolation, our small churches and church-plants have been very relational. When you think about it, this is how many New Testament churches thrived and grew, in homes and small groups.

For example, Pastor Jason Jones startedNew Hope Church in New York City on March 1, 2020 – weeks before the pandemic lockdowns began. Throughout the spring and summer, this church stopped and started in-person worship meetings and Bible Studies multiple times, but through it all maintained a community of people who were in constant contact with each other throughout the week.

While some of our churches were able to meet socially-distanced or with outdoor services, virtual services opened the door to more people being reached by churches across the world, and New Hope Church NYC was no different. Today, this church has a committed membership of over 50 people, and nearly 300 attendees for their weekend services online.

2020 reminded us that God did not create people to be alone. Pastors have always known the value of small groups, but COVID proved this in a dramatic way.Bill Gates has predicted that one of the biggest long-term cultural changes from COVID-19 is that we will spend less of our social energies at work, and more with our loved ones in our local community. I think he’s right. Churches of all sizes should lean into this, offering more ways to fellowship and create close community, both in-person or digitally.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, Pastor Russell McCutcheon plantedReconciliation Church this year, and used a very relational style of ministry that he learned from his work with Young Life Ministries years before. Although the original goal of Reconciliation Church was to launch in September 2020, their core launch team started meeting earlier in the year, and surprisingly grew out of those gatherings. Today, the church has 120 regular attendees, and is thriving as a close-knit community.

Mental health ministry

It is widely expected that the psychological impact of COVID – like many natural disasters – will last much longer than the medical impact. We know that depression, domestic abuse, and suicidal thoughts have increased dramatically. ADecember 7 study found that Americans' mental health is worse now than it has been at any point in the last two decades.

Christian mental health experts, like thoseat the American Bible Society Trauma Healing Institute, have warned pastors to take this seriously, rather than view depression as a sign of spiritual weakness. While the management of facilities and programming may have decreased for pastors, most church-planters have focused on direct shepherding, especially as mental health has become a crisis. At New Hope Church NYC, Pastor Jones’ wife, Jyothi, is a professional licensed counselor and offered mental counseling through their church. This ministry was priceless for those who visited the new church plant, and it contributed to their growth.

Churches have tremendous opportunity to address issues of mental health and counseling. God’s house should be a place where people can seek peace and healing.

Serve the community more

Lastly, most of our church plants – like many large congregations – have focused on serving the community through direct services for people with physical needs. Families have been blessed by food distribution and other forms of services, but they also have been drawn to join the churches offering these services.

In Italy, Pastor Daniel Taut planted Chiesa La Vita in January, a few months before his nation was among the worst hit in all of Europe. They met in a Catholic church as long as they could before finally shifting to Zoom worship and meetings in March. At the same time, attendees in their church began to suffer great physical needs because of the loss of jobs. This small church distributed food from local grocers, and even paid the medical expenses for families who didn’t have healthcare.

This is not uncommon for many churches across the world. In many countries with high poverty, the church is the premiere place for meeting the needs of the poor, the elderly, the widow, and the orphan. In Acts 6, the early church’s pastors created the role of deacons to serve the widows in their church body. This is part of the call for Christians to “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17).

The ministry of justice, benevolence, and community service should be more prevalent among the church. Meeting practical needs in the name of Jesus is an effective evangelistic tool that has stood out during the pandemic, and should continue beyond it. In a study of North American church growth, Rich Birch has found that acommonality of growing churches is that their people are actively involved in volunteering and serving their community.

The biggest miracle across the board for our church planters in 2020 was that they were not overcome by the pandemic, but actually became more of the "essential church," as the Lord sustained them in the middle of the chaos. Metrics fell away and community became the main focus as the number of unchurched people searched for community any way they could find it.

As we look to 2021, don’t expect all of our church-planting challenges to automatically disappear with the emergence of a vaccine. It is unclear how COVID-19 has changed our way of life long-term, but we can learn from 2020 and what worked well.

The local church is God’s primary mission strategy. 2020 showed us that the gospel will not be stopped by natural disasters, including a pandemic. May this planting work be an encouragement to the global church. If churches can be launched and still standing in this of all years, there is nothing that God can't do through our congregations.

Brian Howard is Executive Director of Acts 29, a diverse, global family of over 700 church-planting churches. Brian lives in Orange County, California with his wife and four children.

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