When the Acts 29 Network recently announced it would offer up to $50,000 over two years to church planters, a common response among traditional pastors and lay leaders was, “What’s Acts 29?”
And even among those who were aware of the 23-year-old network, a second question was, “Where did they get that kind of money?”
And yet a third question from close observers was, “Are they becoming a denomination?”
To answer those questions, Acts 29 President Brian Howard recently agreed to an interview with Baptist News Global. He answered these questions and more in a wide-ranging interview.
Howard has been at the helm of Acts 29 for the last two years, but he has been a part of the network as a church planter and board member for many years.
He acknowledged the offer to fund church planters is something new for Acts 29. “We haven’t systematically ever done it before,” he said. “We’ve been more of a peer-to-peer funding network in the past, where churches would come alongside and fund other churches.”
And he acknowledged that such efforts traditionally have been done by denominations — yet Acts 29 does not consider itself a denomination.
“We have a lot of different denominations represented within Acts 29, and I think the reason we’re sticking with the word ‘network’ is we feel like it adequately, accurately, I should say, defines what we’re trying to be,” he explained. “So, we are a network of healthy multiplying churches.”
“We are a network of healthy multiplying churches.”
While church planting is the primary and most visible function of the network, it also is involved in other ministry areas, such as international ministries. Acts 29 has 200 international missionaries, along with staff members in places like Kenya, to support affiliated churches and church plants in 51 countries. The network has 50 U.S. employees, an online publishing arm and its own seminary, Grimke Seminary, which just graduated its first class.
Currently, Grimke has 110 students enrolled and is led by Southern Baptist pastor Tony Merida, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Raleigh, N.C. Merida holds three degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also is a council member of The Gospel Coalition, another parachurch ministry deeply connected to conservative Southern Baptists.
The church planting model, which now has come to widespread attention, is something Acts 29 has been piloting over the past five years in the Western United States. That’s “an area that wasn’t denominationally heavy because when you look at the Western U.S., there’s not many Acts 29 churches that are receiving denominational support,” Howard said.
In the pilot program, 40 church plants were funded.
The funding for the new large-scale church planting effort is possible because of the giving of 750 churches nationally and internationally that make up the network — as well as another 586 churches that are currently awaiting acceptance into the network.
To get into the Acts 29 network, a church must apply. Upon acceptance, the church must sign a covenant. There also are financial commitments.
“Historically, churches have agreed to give 1% of their annual budget every year to Acts 29 church plants,” Howard said. “So when you have, you know, 500 churches in the U.S. giving 1% each that’s not a massive budget. However, in the Western United States, five years ago, the churches came together and decided to give 3% to church planting and those who were denominationally aligned committed 2% so that we didn’t step on toes of the denominations they were involved in.
“We talked to some of the strong denominational leaders across the country to make sure we weren’t stepping on too many toes.”
“And we talked to some of the strong denominational leaders across the country to make sure we weren’t stepping on too many toes when we did that. But remember a lot of the churches in the Western part of the United States were not connected to a denomination, and so some of them could give 4% or 5%.”
All Act 29 churches are required to give at least 10% of their income to some form of church planting, That’s part of the covenant, “but we don’t monitor or … inspect where that 10% goes,” Howard explained.
The new development is churches pooling their church planting funds specifically for Acts 29 church starts.
“In the Western part of the U.S. five years ago, the churches all agreed to give between 2% and 3% and funded 40 churches. So, the same thing happened in the Southeast of the United States. About three years ago, the Southeast leaders came together and decided to put a 2% giving in place so that they would covenant together to do that.”
A number of Acts 29 churches are Southern Baptist churches, and Southern Baptists likewise have a strong commitment to church planting. The SBC’s North American Mission Board has realigned over the past decade to allocate more than half its $124 million budget to church planting efforts.
Although there are some close personal relationships between the SBC and Acts 29 personnel, none of the Acts 29 money for church planters is coming from NAMB, Howard said. That was confirmed by NAMB Senior Marketing Strategist Scott Knuteson, who said there is no agreement between the two organizations.
“I know that Matt Chandler, who’s our president, is friends with (NAMB President) Kevin Ezell and the two have a good relationship.”
Howard explained: “I know that Matt Chandler, who’s our president, is friends with (NAMB President) Kevin Ezell and the two have a good relationship. I know of Kevin Ezell, because when I moved to Louisville to work with Russell Moore closely for two years, it was about the time that (Ezell) left (a Louisville pastorate) and took the NAMB role. However, there is no working relationship with NAMB.”
Although he is lesser known than his predecessors at the helm of Acts 29 — the group’s founder, Mark Driscoll, was removed due to charges of abusive leadership, as was the next CEO, Steve Timmons — Howard is steeped in the culture of church planting. He not only has started churches himself, he has created other networks of support for church planters.
At age 51, he joked, “I’ve been around a little while.” And it’s fine with him that no one outside Acts 29 knows who he is; that’s the way he likes it.
“I love it that you don’t know who I am. My hope is to keep it like that forever,” he said. “The best place to be in the world is to just put one foot in front of the other and nobody knows who you are. So, I love that, that’s kind of my story.”
Howard earned a bachelor’s degree from The Master’s University, a California school affiliated with the well-known Calvinist pastor John MacArthur. Then he earned a master of arts in theology from Talbot School of Theology.
He also served in Operation Desert Storm with a Marine Corps battalion.
But it was through church planting that he found his true calling. After his first experience with this form of ministry, “I thought, man, I want to do more of that. And I want to impact whole families. And so, we planted a church just outside of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County with 10 people who joined us.
“We raised a little bit of money. We went into a new community, planted a church, and saw a lot of people come to know Christ. And so about five years into that church plant, I joined the Acts 29 network.”
Acts 29 by the numbers:
- U.S. churches giving percent commitment: 2% to 3% of budget to Acts 29 but 10% is required to be given to church planting efforts in general, including and beyond Acts 29.
- Total Member Churches: approximately 700
- Churches in the U.S.: about 500
- Churches internationally: about 200
- Candidate and applicant churches: about 600
- Total countries served: 45
- Total languages spoken: 31
- “Churches in Hard Places” interns: 180 presently, and 81 previously completed the program