More than 150 years ago, missionary to Burma, Adoniram Judson, proclaimed, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” This was no insignificant statement for Judson, considering he had just experienced the loss of many loved ones on the mission field due to war. He was also imprisoned for his faith, and yet, he remained resolute in his faith. Judson’s passionate pursuit of his mission mimicked another church planter nearly 2,000 years earlier.
The apostle Paul, too, passionately and deliberately pursued the call of church planting and evangelism despite many obstacles:
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers (2 Corinthians 11:25-26).
No one ever said the life of a church planter—or any church leader—would be easy. Increasingly, however, many of us are feeling an extra burden when we consider the church in the U.S. Though American pastors and church leaders are not experiencing persecution like the early apostles or 17th century missionaries, the work is indeed challenging.
News about the decline of Christianity in America is everywhere. Last year, Barna found that Christianity has declined steadily over the last 19 years, and the share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000. According to a Pew Research poll a few years ago, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population stood at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. Gallup recently reported that U.S. church membership fell below 50% for the first time.
Where God works
The reports of Christian decline are concerning. Many of us are also tired after a year of social unrest, sickness and uncertainty. We are tired of the church scandals. We are tired of how the Christian faith has gotten so inextricably tied to politics. Many of us are weary from the weight of mental stress and depression. Some of us are concerned about church finances.
But this is not the end of the news.
This, in fact, is where God sometimes works best: in our brokenness and weariness, in our need and dependence, in our prayers and pleas.
Think Acts 2 — that powerful passage that many of us preach or discuss in small groups. The passage is an example of the formula God has set out before us: We make ourselves available, and He works. The early believers believed God would work in and through them, and they acted upon it. From these small bands of believers have come2.5 billion professing Christians today.
Let me share, however, a few reasons why I’m optimistic about church planting as we navigate out of a global pandemic.
First, because God is in it. All throughout Scripture we read how God continually draws people from every generation to Himself. He, after all, “wants all people to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). Church planting is near to God’s heart — it’s His primary mission strategy. It’s also an act of community and outreach rolled into one call.
I have an unshakeable confidence that Christ will continue building His church. Jesus says, “...upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). If we trust in our own talents to build the church, believe me — we will be disappointed.
Second, because interest in church planting is on the rise. Here at Acts 29, interest in church planting has never been higher. Acts 29 now has 7 networks across the globe: the U.S., Canada, New Zealand/Australia/Japan, Europe, Latin America, Emerging Regions, and South Africa. Despite the pandemic, we planted 25 churches in 2020, including 18 in the United States. Already this year, we have over 125 planting pastor candidates who have been through our assessment process and more than 300 applicants, all with plans to plant across the world.
Other church-planting ministries are also experiencing growth; for example, the North American Mission Board planted more churches in 2020 — during a pandemic — than the year before. That’s incredible.
Third, because we know that we are broken. Many of us in leadership are seeing the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reset — to make things that were wrong right again. To make what was broken whole again. Many of us are rediscovering spiritual practices of repentance, reconciliation, service, and working in community. We are looking around and seeing clearly the ugliness that has become a barrier to people coming to know and trust in Jesus, and we want to fix it.
As COVID-19 numbers subside, recent stats reveal that the pandemic pushed people to turn to faith. A January Pew Research study found that more Americans say that COVID-19 strengthened their faith. The 2021 American Bible Society State of the Bible survey found that Bible engagement and interest have increased sharply.
While the news about Christianity in this country may seem grim on the surface, I have an optimism that is grounded in an unshakable foundation — on Jesus Christ and His love for the world. The future is as bright as the promises of God, and that future seems to be pointing to God working in powerful ways through those called to plant churches.
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.