The coronavirus caught the world off guard. Church planters are scrambling to restructure our churches around nationwide lockdowns, overwhelmed medical communities, looming economic recessions, and health risks. For all the advantages that come with living in the information age, there are no handbooks on how to plant and pastor churches during a global pandemic.
In these uncertain times, we can trust in our God who is sovereign over all. We walk by faith and rely on his all-sufficient grace. We stay committed to basic pastoral and missional endeavors to love our neighbor, to care for Christ’s church, and to do the work of an evangelist. But to do this, we need wisdom.
Brian Howard joins me on the podcast today to help us to think through the challenges facing church planters and pastors during these wild and crazy days. Brian is the acting executive director for Acts 29 and one of the wisest men I know.
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Tony Merida: Welcome to ”Churches Planting Churches”, a podcast on the theology and practice of church planting. I’m your host Tony Merida.
The coronavirus caught the world off guard. Church planters are scrambling to restructure our churches around nationwide lockdowns, overwhelmed medical communities, looming economic recessions and health risks. For all the advantages that come with living in the information age, there are no handbooks on how to plant and pastor churches during a global pandemic. In these uncertain times, we can trust in our God who is sovereign overall. We walk by faith and rely on His all sufficient grace. We stay committed to basic pastoral and missional endeavors to love our neighbor, to care for Christ church, and to do the work of an evangelist. But to do this, we need wisdom.
With me on the podcast today is Brian Howard to help us to think through these challenges facing church planters and pastors during these wild and crazy days. Brian is the acting director for Acts 29 and he has been a pastor, a coach to pastors, and indeed is one of the wisest men that I know. Brian, thanks again for being on the podcast.
Brian Howard: Great to be here with you, Tony. I’m glad to be talking with you today in what are definitely unprecedented times.
Tony: Man, it is just wild. Brian and I were in Paris together not long ago and made the trip knowing what, you know, we might have some risks and being quarantined when we got back home and we went ahead with the trip. We had a great trip, had some great meetings, had to cut the meetings a couple days short because of this crisis. And then when we landed, found out that we were to be under self-quarantine now for two weeks. And as we record, this is our last day, right, of self-quarantine.
Brian: We are done with quarantine 14 days and don’t seemingly have the virus.
Tony: Yes. Which is a good thing. And Brian is in California. I’m in North Carolina, so we are coast to coast today. And we’ve actually already been on a meeting that Brian leads a staff call and I’m just having Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting like a lot of pastors and leaders are these days. And so I just wanted to capture a few moments of Brian’s wisdom, kind of best practices for a church planters and pastors during this crisis that we’re in the middle of. Brian, why don’t you to get us started by just telling us a little bit about your background and then what you do in Acts 29.
Brian: Yeah. So I grew up in a Christian home. My dad was a pastor for 40 something years. Great parents, good solid family that I grew up in. Very blessed to have experienced that when I know so many have not. And so parents pointed me to Christ at a young age. And I came to know Christ at a young age. And 49 years after my birth, almost 50 years now, I’ve now been in pastoral ministry for almost 30 years, I guess, 27 years now in full-time local ministry. I’ve also started several businesses along the way and had a vibrant coaching ministry and practice for many, many years, both in the church world and in the business world. So today that brings me to leading Acts 29, so I’ve been involved in Acts 29 on for many, many years now since back around 2006 or so, and have served in a lot of different leadership capacities in Acts 29. I’ve served as chairman of the board, served as a board member, served as vice president of the United States. And currently, I’m serving as the acting executive director of Acts 29. So what that essentially means is it means that I work with the network leaders across the world. In the US where we have 500 or so churches, 500 plus churches, as well as working with the leaders across the world in South Africa, in Guatemala, in Australia, New Zealand, all across Europe and in Canada, across the globe really, Brazil, South America. So, and I work to help those leaders lead local Acts 29 networks because we’re now in 53 countries and I think in 33 languages.
Tony: Yeah. And we were just in that meeting in Paris, which had representatives from all over, you know, our networks who came from far and wide. Our brother Adam Ramsay in Australia. And here we are now, man. Just what’s crazy about this pandemic I was telling Kimberly yesterday is some of us went through, you know Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 various local, you know, crises that various individuals have experienced. But this is global. Like we are all dealing with this situation. It really is unprecedented, isn’t, it?
Brian: Really is because we’ve had these regional crises that have clearly upended the lives of people, but we’ve never had, at least not in our lifetime and my parents who are in their mid to later 70s, not in their lifetime either have we had global run on food supplies and global pandemic all…well not, I wasn’t alive in 1918 and most of you were not either. And so this is certainly unprecedented in our lifetime and we’re in a really different spot than we were three months ago at Christmas.
Tony: Yeah. Hey Brian, back to your Acts 29 role. I know everything is changing for everybody in one way or the other. You know, we can’t get out of the house, that sort of thing. But what is your basic responsibilities? I know you mentioned kind of the regions that you are you know, dealing with all the networks, that sort of thing. But what is it now in this current situation, what do you do all day?
Brian: Well, essentially I would say you could probably group what I do into three or four different things. The first thing that I do is I work with the key leaders in Acts 29 to empower them and equip them to lead locally, regionally, nationally. And so I probably have done 20 Zoom calls in the last three days with Francisco from Guatemala and Matthew Spandler Davidson, who leads in our Church in Hard Places collaborative and Doug Logan who you’ve heard on the Acts 29 podcast before and Adam Ramsay in Australia. So I’m working with these leaders to help them and equip them to equip local church pastors.
Another thing that I spend a lot of time doing is I’ve been doing it a lot of town hall meetings with Acts 29 pastors. I have had 400 Acts 29 pastors on town hall meetings in the last week alone trying to coach them and encourage them toward a how to lead their churches. Really, really important right now where we’re leading churches in an era where we can’t meet as churches and most churches just finished their second Sunday of not meeting. I just got off of a meeting just a few minutes ago with 20 pastors and several of them pastoring in smaller contexts. And they’ve never done video before. They’re not multi-site congregations and they don’t have video technology. And so I’m trying to help those guys even figure out how to lead and care for their churches and reach out to their communities. And then I’m also working on a longterm plan for Acts 29 that in terms of the future of where we’re headed in Acts 29. So those are probably the three biggest things I’m doing right now.
Tony: Yeah. Now, I wanted to hit some of the high points from these town hall meetings. One of the reasons I wanted to have you on the podcast, and I should say Brian did this last minute. So I’m very grateful, trying to schedule before I get shut in my house and can’t get out to the studio. But yeah, you don’t need to rehash it all. But if you’re talking to 400 or so pastors, what are some of the two or three things, you know, that are reoccurring concerns, questions or the best practices that you’ve been talking about with these guys?
Brian: Well, I’ve got five things that I’ll run through fairly quickly that I’ve been training pastors in over the course of the last 10 days or so, say 14 days now. Because we are, you know, in the Western US where we’ve been on a quarantine order now for in Orange County where I live for the past, it’s been at least a week now. And what we’re finding is that people are increasingly headed toward that all across the US and across the world.
So there are five things I’ve encouraged churches to do right now. The first thing is to write a new ministry plan for the next three months immediately. And this is not you know, not to do this in two weeks, but to stop everything right now and to address things like weekly gatherings, daily presence groups, equipping families, finances, how are we gonna care for people within the church, how we’re gonna reach out into the community, what we’re gonna do for communication. There needs to be a new plan written right now because everything we were doing three weeks ago, maybe I should just say much of what we were doing three weeks ago is now different. So write a new ministry plan right now. Right now, like when you finish listening to this podcast, spend your next eight hours of work time writing a ministry plan in these seven or eight areas.
And then next would be redeploy your current leaders into these areas. So you might have a children’s director who’s been coordinating volunteers on Sundays and now it’s time for that children’s director to do a job differently. We have an events coordinator on our Acts 29 team work not currently planning events. She’s a highly competent, gifted lady on our team. We’re gonna redeploy her into another area right now that we feel like is more essential to our next three or four months.
The third thing I would say is we’ve gotta survive the next three or four months you know, financially and as a staff team and that sort of thing. And we just had a stimulus package passed in the United States. So for our US listeners, this might really benefit churches going forward. There’s indication that it might, that will help us get through this time. We will learn more about that in coming days, but I would say trying to survive the next three or four months and not have to make dramatic cuts or changes because we don’t know what the future looks like.
And then number four would be reassessed this every week. We need to be reassessing our plan every week as church planters, as pastors and churches, as church leaders because things are changing week to week. Tony, you just mentioned just a minute ago, I’m in the last day where I can drive to the studio. And so, you know, next week will be different. And, you know, along with that being a daily presence and being a calm presence in assuring people of God’s sovereignty.
One last thing I would say if I’ve given you four so far, write a new ministry plan, redeploy your team to those ministry plan components. Find ways to survive for the next three or four months as a team. Reassess every week. And then number five, which is really just becoming more and more important right now is connecting new people. There’s a pastor in Acts 29 that Tony and I are both friends with who’s a leader in Acts 29 named Harvey Turner, pastors a church in the Los Angeles area. It’s a couple hundred people in the church and they had 9,000 people tune in and listen to Harvey’s sermon last Sunday, 9,000 people.
Tony: That’s unreal.
Brian: What are we doing to capture those people? And so I was just on the phone with Andy Dina [SP] from Albania and Andy Dina was saying, ”We’re caring for our people well.” He’s an Acts 29 pastor and planter in Albania. We’re trying to figure out how to get the gospel out to unbelievers right now. How do we get the gospel out to unbelievers? And then how are we connecting people? So those are the kinds of things that right now I’m trying to coach pastors around, encourage churches to be thinking through.
And then, you know, I would just say one more thing. We probably, many of us read articles in the last three or four days about the fact that, you know, some are saying and they’re probably right, well, I don’t know, I can’t predict the future, but we’re not currently in the crisis. And the crisis is not necessarily how do we stream our sermons. We need to do that and figure out how to do that. The crisis is what’s coming perhaps in the next two or three or four weeks across the United States. That we’re seeing in New York City far greater crisis than other parts of the country are currently seeing. But we have leaders out there who are encouraging us now are we preparing to serve and love our communities for the crisis that is most probably coming. And we’re certainly not hoping that that comes, but it seems that it will be coming and that’s overwhelmed health workers and sick people in our churches, in our society and deaths in our church. We have many Acts 29 churches, just four different churches yesterday contacted me and said, we have people in our church now that are sick from COVID-19, it’s starting to move in our church. And so we’ve gotta be prepared for what’s coming. The time to prepare is now. I like to say, and I think this is clearly biblical, there’s a difference in worrying and planning. All right. So the scripture clearly teaches us not to worry. Worry is essentially negative meditation. But the scripture clearly teaches us to plan. And so right now we’re planning for how will we meet the needs in our community. So that’s kind of stuff, Tony, that I’m trying to encourage our churches to be thinking about right now.
Tony: That’s good, B. That’s good. And I think, would you agree that, you know, certain plans are for seasons that are, you know, normal and then there are kind of plans we’re making for crisis seasons. And it seems to me, I remember I was a young pastor, my first pastorate in New Orleans during Katrina. I was very hesitant to change things. I was a little nervous about changing things. This is a more traditional church, right? But when I’m talking to guys now, I’m trying to encourage them it’s okay to make some changes and realize your plan may not be perfect, but don’t let like perfectionism keep you from progress, right? I think there’s a say in like perfectionism is the enemy of progress. Like if we’re waiting on the perfect thing, that will never do anything. And so it may not be the best plan in the world right now, but these categories of reassigning and, you know, how to survive for three to four months, the fact is we’ve gotta make plans and we’ve gotta make changes. And so let’s do the best we can, bring in counsel, right, of other pastors and wise individuals as we make these plans. But to try to go as normal, seems you know, to be unwise. But also I think I just wanna encourage, especially the younger, less experienced guys to not let fear just dominate your heart and to keep on doing the work of ministry that God’s called us to love our neighbor, to share the gospel. Don’t let the season keep us…make us procrastinate doing things, but let’s get about it as creatively as we can, as well as we can and realize we’re gonna make some mistakes along the way. And hopefully, we can cultivate a spirit of grace among our teams, right, as we’re leading. So any thoughts related to kind of the difference of creating a ministry plan in crisis and a ministry plan during kind of the normal days of existence?
Brian: Well, I think the biggest thing that stands out to me is that when we are planning and preparing for ministry, normally we’re preparing for two, three, four years. We’re thinking down the road, we’re thinking about what’s ministry gonna look like, how many groups are we gonna need in a couple of years in order to care for people and get people connected. Right now, we’re not thinking about that in the same way. I mean people are…churches are canceling large scale capital campaigns that had been planned for years and years. I talked to one of our most prominent church leaders in Acts 29 yesterday, their entire campaign that they’ve been planning for two years to go into a new facility, and that’s all off. That is all off. And so what we’re doing right now is we’re essentially saying, that’s why I said write this plan in a day or two not in two weeks is because we’re essentially right now needing to respond in real time to the fact that people are not allowed to eat at restaurants and cannot come to a worship gathering on a weekend and can’t go get a haircut and are afraid to go to the grocery store.
Okay. And so right now, we are writing plans for the next three months. Now, look, Tony, neither you or me took a class on how to write a plan in seminary. At least I didn’t. And I don’t know anybody who did. We studied Greek and Hebrew and we took theology and we learned how to preach and how to care for people. But, you know, most pastors don’t feel like they’re great at writing plans. You know, they didn’t go into business planning, they didn’t do degrees in business entrepreneurship or something like that. And what the point that you made is critical for all of us to hear. You know, people oftentimes say, well, what should we do for the weekly gatherings and what should we do for daily presence? It’s, you know, your…God has equipped you to answer that question. You might not feel super equipped, but get in line with all of the leaders in scripture that also didn’t feel super equipped that God called. I mean, the disciples didn’t have seminary degrees, they were manual laborers, a lot of them, right, who weren’t even sure who Jesus was yet. Jesus was already sending them out on mission. And so I think the thing is, is when I give you these different categories and say, “Hey, write a new ministry plan for what the next three months looks like. What are you gonna do to care for people? What are you gonna do financially? What are you gonna do to meet needs in the community?” You can all do that. And you are absolutely right. Don’t be paralyzed by perfection. Anything’s better than nothing. Come up with three or four ideas and start doing those things.
Tony: That’s good, man. Hey, on the finance piece, B, what are you seeing in related to…in relation to churches? How are giving trends that from what you’ve observed or talked to guys how can pastors be prepared for that particular challenge?
Brian: Boy, this is a difficult…this is a difficult question in some ways because I have some people telling me we’re expecting giving during the season to drop even up to 40%. I have other leaders that are telling me, we’ve surveyed our small group leaders and we’re planning more on 20%. I was on a call with some leaders this morning and they were saying, we are preparing to cut our budget by 20%. Then another leader on the call said our giving is actually going up during this time. Look, here’s what I think is probably the case. This really depends on your context. And so if you minister in a context where you have a lot of people who work in the service business and people that are losing jobs, and we have the highest unemployment rate I think in the US, I’m not an economist, I’ve just been reading news, that I think we’re headed toward 13% unemployment, which is the highest unemployment we’ve had in modern history. So if you’re in a situation where people are losing their jobs like crazy, that’s gonna be dramatic in terms of giving. I think wisely, we’re looking at the global economy wisely no matter where we are in the US, outside of the US, we have to expect that this isn’t a time of economic thriving. It’s a time of economic challenge and difficulty and health challenge and difficulty and we’re gonna need to be really careful.
You know, I would say a couple of things we need to be doing in the area of giving. The first thing we need to be doing is we need to be tightening the belt a little bit so-to-speak and being wise and careful in terms of what we invest money on is churches. I hope we don’t stop investing in mission during this time. You know, one church in Philadelphia that I work with, larger church, they’re giving 50% of their giving to missions during the [inaudible 00:20:56] to…no to COVID-19 needs only during this time and that’s $60,000 a month. So I talked to another leader yesterday in Denver. He said, we need to tell our people in our churches right now, those…but we don’t want to be tone deaf. When people are losing their jobs, we’re not gonna be shouting at people, please keep, you know, you better be giving your weekly tithe or whatever. We have people who are doing fine economically that might just be wrestling with fear and anxiety and this is the time to say to those people, let’s continue to be generous. There are needs to meet. The church has always done that. God’s people step into pain. And meet needs. And there’s a sense where we have people that can meet needs and we have people that need to have needs met. And so we are, you know, we…I think it’s likely that we’ll see our givings struggle, but we trust God in this area and we know that we have generous people who can continue to give. And this is the time for us to do that. And we have people that are gonna not be able to give and have needs that need to be met. And so it’s gonna be a challenging time but a time where, boy, certainly not unlike what the church has faced before, perhaps just not in our immediate memory.
Tony: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the unique challenge with, with COVID, you know, in addition to it being global is the distancing. You know, how do we engage with people when we’re not supposed to get near them? And that creates such an interesting dynamic. We’ve got the media, right? We’ve got the Zoom, we’ve got the live stream, which is great. You brought up Harvey’s numbers of 9,000 listeners. I think we’ve had more listeners at our church. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I hope people aren’t leaving their own church to come and listen to ours. But I do think there’re probably some new people. That’s certainly the case I bet with Harvey. And but in terms of like the pastoral care, I just wanna be able to be in closer proximity and I don’t know when that’s gonna come. But I think we, as you mentioned at the top, have to be prepared for a longterm, a longer term ministry related to this crisis rather than, oh, in the first couple of weeks, we figured out how to do a live stream and not make our videos look terrible, right? But the ongoing pastoral care and missional opportunities are just gonna be right in front of us, I think for weeks and weeks to come.
Brian: I mean, think about this, Tony. We have been doing ministry for decades and decades and decades. You and I for a couple of decades. And we all of a sudden in the span of two or three weeks have had to completely change every part of the way we do ministry. I mean, we spent three years in seminary and I spent four years in college before that. We spent all these years being mentored and coached and preparing to do ministry and learning how to do ministry and learning from other people. And all of a sudden we can’t. You can’t give a person a hug and you can’t shake a person’s hand and you can’t gather in the living room close to people and pray together in the same room and you can’t break bread with people and share a meal right now. That is really, really challenging.
I was just talking to Matt Chandler about this yesterday who was just saying, man, he was just saying to me after two weeks, I already really miss that. I just miss that. You know, I miss being with people and standing… And for those of us that really…many of us really thrive on that. We love that. This is really difficult. I think we just have to remember we’re not out of God’s plan right now and we’re gonna have to…we’re gonna have to react quickly to be faithful, to do mission, to disciple people, to encourage people to be in community during this time even though it feels subpar in some ways, doesn’t it?
Tony: Yeah, it does. I said last Sunday, the first Sunday I livestreamed I thought, you know, this is kind of fun, kind of cool. Felt almost like a snow day. We have those over in North Carolina where you’re at, B. And, but the second week was kinda like, I’m already tired of this. Like what I really miss is greeting people at the door and walking through the childcare wing at our church. You know, because I’m really a relational leader more than a, you know, organizational leader. And to not be able to be around people it’s just tough, man. It’s tough. And then add to that, you and I had the two weeks self-quarantine, so I’m going nuts over here. Ready to give some people a hug. But it is a challenge. And I think there’s also opportunity, right? Every time there’s a crisis, there’s certain things we can learn that we are learning and I think we have opportunities in front of us, but we also probably have some opportunities to do things differently once we get back to a new normal, right? And I think our church, you know, like we built a whole studio and we’re like, man, this is awesome. We can use this for years to come now that we probably wouldn’t have built unless we had to. And, you know, we’ve got these working spreadsheets now on all of our members on their age, their job. I mean, we had some of that, but it’s now more organized because you know, we’re trying to keep up with people who are over 65 who work in the medical field, etc., etc., who have particular needs. In some ways it’s improved my own administrative pastoral care because now I have the time to do it and I don’t have a way to…I didn’t have a way to know this some of this information and, you know, just being a more proactive pastor than reactive, you know. So I’m just taking the initiative to interact with the people under my care because we have our church organized under all of our elders. And so I have a particular group of people, every other elder has a particular group of people. And that’s good. And that’s something Kimberly and I were talking about yesterday, like we wanna keep doing that, you know. I feel like it’s opened up in some ways communication with folks that can really be strengthening in the days to come.
Brian: We’re gonna learn new rhythms during this time that we were forced into that we’re gonna carry out of this time. I just was asked that question by a guy a couple days ago. What do you think the things are? And I, you know, I hadn’t been asked the question before. And so I think we’re all still reflecting on that, but we’re gonna learn rhythms and ways of doing ministry during this time that we’ll carry out. No doubt about it.
Tony: Amen. Amen. With that, B, last question, what are you hopeful about right now when it comes to church planting? Even Acts 29 if you wanna speak to that. It’s hard to think again beyond this current mountain that we’re on, but just talk to us a little bit about the things that excite you.
Brian: I’ll tell you I’m hopeful for a couple things. First of all, I don’t think…I do not recall talking to any pastor in the last two weeks who has told me our church is collapsing. Things are going horribly. In fact, I’m hearing the opposite. So again, I mentioned Andy Dina earlier in this call in Albania. He said, we’re closer than ever before. They have 10 families planting a church in Albania. We’re closer than ever before. We’re experiencing deep community. Last night, my 14-year-old daughter was with her small group. It’s 12 other 14 year old girls on a Zoom call. And at dinner last night, she said, ”Man, I feel like we’re having so much fun right now.” You know, they’re learning the Bible in their life group on a Zoom call, you know. So what I would say is, first of all God’s people are continuing to thrive in the midst of a difficult time. And so I’m hopeful about that.
I’m hopeful second, because this is not outside of God’s sovereign plan. This is not a mistake in the…I mean, I wanna say that gently and carefully because I’m not trying to somehow make light of this in any way. I guess what I mean to say, maybe a better way to say rather than this is not a mistake is to say this didn’t catch God by surprise. We believe in a big God. We believe in a God who’s sovereign over all things. And so I know that that’s difficult. But we know that this ultimately is not out of God’s scope and plan.
And then I’m really encouraged by how many people, pastor after pastor after pastor is telling me 10 times more people were on our live stream sermon last week on Facebook, even though it broke down half the time than we ever communicate to. And so when Christians step into a time of need, when churches step into a time of need, I think God is gonna exponentially give us opportunity to bring the gospel to hurting people, to care for hurting people. And, you know, I’m not necessarily just trying to find a silver lining because we’re in some difficult times. We have people that are hurting and people that are sick and people that are dying and people that are experiencing the death of loved ones. And that is really, really difficult. So I don’t wanna gloss over that. But I also know that this is the time for us to faithfully live out what we believe, to be the church, to look for opportunities to bring the gospel to people that are hurting and to care for our people. And so I’m hopeful about that.
Acts 29 is in a great season. We’re large and growing and planting new churches. This is a hard time to plant a church. You know, I know of guys that were…churches that were planning to launch in the next year…week or two, not year or two, but week or two and all of a sudden they’re trying to figure out where to be. And we don’t have great answers for that because four weeks ago we didn’t know that churches would not be able to gather publicly. It’s not without challenge, but we are all very hopeful that we will rise from this with God’s help into a new season of gospel fruitfulness.
Tony: Amen. Amen. Well, may the Lord be gracious to us as we seek to pastor and lead our church to ongoing mission. In whatever way we can, as creatively as we can, just trust in that the word of God does not return void, whether we’re preaching it through a livestream or writing down in a book or sending it out in an email, newsletter, blog. Let’s just let’s put the word out in as many ways as we can and pray for the Lord to work and trust that the Lord of the harvest, the Lord Jesus will gather a people for Himself and we can be confident in that regardless of what kind of season we’re in. So Brian, thanks again, man, for taking some time to be with us to share your wisdom. I speak for many in Acts 29 in expressing our gratitude to you for your leadership, for your care, for your counsel. So thanks again.
Brian: Thank you, Tony. We’re all in this together and so let’s continue to step into the opportunities that God’s given us.
Tony: Amen. Amen.