Walter Birney, a 1956 graduate of Dallas Christian College, with his wife, Iva Lou, has been the face of the National Missionary Convention for four decades. The Birneys have five adult children and live in Copeland, Kansas, which, says Walter, is home to 300 people and 50,000 head of cattle.
Do you have a background as a missionary?
Absolutely not. I took one two hour missions course at Dallas Christian College. I had one business course in high school that was typing. I’m really educationally prepared for this job (laughs).
Then how did you become director of the National Missionary Convention?
I had attended one night of one Missionary Convention in Joplin, Missouri because I was leading a national campaign to raise funds for the Chidamoyo Christian Hospital in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The first complete convention I attended was the next year in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1966; the one where this job was created.
So you go to one night of the convention, decide to go for the whole thing the next year, and end up signing on for the next 40 years!
I was preaching in Copeland, Kansas, and we used faith promise for missionary funding. One of our speakers was Bob Lillie. He was the mainstay of the Missionary Convention for most of the first 20 years. The 1967 Missionary Convention was going to meet in Dodge City, which is just 37 miles from us. They created the job of coordinator at the Fort Wayne convention and asked me to do it since I preached here at the church in Copeland.
How long did you continue to preach at Copeland while directing the convention?
I did both for 18 years. I went full time with the convention in 1985, so I’ve been doing it full time for 20 years.
How did you feel about this past convention in Atlanta?
I use three criteria to measure the success of the convention. One is if we have a crowd of 2,000 or more this year at our largest session we had about 3,500. Second, if we have at least 50 decisions for missionary service, and we had 62. Third, if we don’t come out too far in the hole financially. We’re still figuring that out (laughs). The key to the Atlanta convention was Keith Bunn (he took care of local arrangements) and the Georgia churches. They have 80 some churches that are in some way involved with the Georgia Missionary Rally.
What has been your greatest convention highlight?
In San Antonio, Texas, David Bayless spoke and there were 98 decisions for missionary service. The next year, throughout the entire convention in Knoxville, there were a total of 162 decisions. In some cases there were college persons who were running down the aisle in order to respond to the invitation before it was over! Another highlight was in Cincinnati in 2003. We had 170 decisions during that convention and we had about 7,000 people at the Friday night service, which was the largest we ever had.
What do you see as the future of the convention?
I think the possibilities are enormous because there are 2 billion people who haven’t had a chance to hear the gospel yet. We have three objectives: to mobilize churches for world evangelism, to serve as a venue to recruit new missionaries, and to encourage existing missionaries. The real objective is to keep as many people out of Hell as possible, and that’s what really motivates us.
How is Indianapolis looking for 2006?
We are already out of exhibit space in Indy and we have room for 560 exhibits. We’ll be maxed out in exhibits and attendance, but everybody’s invited to come we’ll find a place for you to sit.
OK Walter, be honest with us, who really does the work around there?
She says don’t mention her name she did threaten me! But this office doesn’t work unless Iva Lou’s here working. She is better than I am at the convention because she has this perpetual smile on her face. Everybody loves her. Most everybody tolerates me.
Brad Dupray, director of public relations and advertising with Provision Ministry Group, Irvine, California, conducted the interview with Mr. Birney and wrote this article.