Brian Howard has a unique perspective on the hardships church leaders faced in 2020 and those that followed us into the new year. Yet while the executive director of Acts 29 would not typically describe himself as an “optimist,” Howard says he is hopeful as the Church heads into 2021.
“I am very optimistic for the future,” said Brian Howard in an interview with ChurchLeaders. “I didn’t feel like that six months ago—I felt like we were surviving six months ago. But I feel like I’m very optimistic about the Church, about church planting, about what God is going to do during this time.”
Acts 29’s Brian Howard: Pastors Across the World Have Common Pain Points
In early May, Brian Howard stepped into the role of executive director at Acts 29, where he oversees seven global church planting networks that include around 800 churches. He says it has been a “rollercoaster of a year.” In addition to “thousands of Zoom calls and very little travel,” it has involved “lots of coaching pastors and church leaders through how to plant churches and lead churches in really difficult contexts.”
Acts 29 typically plants around 50 churches during a normal year. This year, the church planting network launched 25 church plants. Said Howard, “The fact that we got 25 churches planted this year seems pretty extraordinary because it feels like we could have planted no churches this year.”
But it was still a hard year for church planting for obvious reasons. “I think what was so challenging,” said Howard, “is that if you are a church planter preparing to plant a church and all of a sudden COVID hits, where do you meet? Are your finances still in order? Are people still with you?…It just feels like this whole blizzard of things that have happened this year have affected church planting.”
As someone in contact with a variety of church leaders throughout the world, Howard says he has a sense of the pain points many pastors are experiencing. “Because my job is really to keep my pulse on the whole,” he said, “I feel like I’ve been able to have a pretty broad view of it…I’m working with churches all around the globe, and I think there are some really common themes.”
One pain point pastors are feeling is not being able to meet in person. While it is not news to anyone that not meeting in person has been difficult for churches, Howard pointed out this is a completely new problem. “Nobody has ever experienced that in our lifetime,” he said. “I’m 50 years old. I’ve gone to church most of my life and have never wondered if church was open this Sunday before.” And when churches suddenly had to go online, many of them lacked the training or the technology to livestream their services.
A second pain point pastors are experiencing is not knowing who is actually still in their churches. Said Howard, “I think pastors and church leaders have found it really difficult to even know, ‘What does church look like for us now? Who is in it?’”
Howard also sees a theme of pastoral discouragement. It has been hard for pastors to know how to lead when they lack training and experience in certain areas and when they are wondering if they will be able to open or if any more lockdowns will occur. “Another challenge,” he said, “has been just navigating the political culture, particularly in the United States. I think this is much more intense [here].”
Those are just a few common pain points. Said Howard. “I feel like I could name 10 more. It’s been a really challenging year.” And many of these difficulties could carry over into 2021. Acts 29 is planning to plant churches this year, but how that process goes really depends on how soon communities reopen. Howard lives in Southern California, where, “Our hospitals are completely overflowing.” He knows of two local churches where large percentages of people tested positive for COVID-19 within very short timeframes. He said, “So you hear those stories and you go, ‘Ok, what does it look like for me to plant a church’?”