By John Caldwell
My first experience with the National Missionary Convention was when it came to Joplin, Missouri, in 1965 while I was a student at Ozark Bible College. A few hundred people met at Memorial Hall with Woodrow Phillips, Ozark’s missions professor, serving as president. The halls were lined with displays, mostly homemade. Quite honestly, there is little else I can remember except that I felt honored to be in the presence of missionaries from all around the world whom I considered to be heroes of the faith. It would be many years before I would attend the convention again.
The next year, in 1966, a young preacher attended the NMC in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was so impressed that he volunteered to help out. Organizers made him the convention director. Since that time, Walter Birney has capably and sacrificially served in that capacity, assisted by his wife, Iva Lou.
From humble offices in Copeland, Kansas, and on a shoestring budget, the Birneys have seen the convention grow to its present status as a megaconference attracting thousands. This past year was to have been Walter’s final year before retirement, a year in which he was also to serve as convention president. However, health issues changed that, forcing Walter to turn over most duties as convention director to Dave Empson, already tapped to be his successor, and the presidency to Rick Jett, originally slated to serve in that capacity in 2011.
The Birneys’ genuine humility and disdain for the limelight made it difficult to properly honor them for their 43 years of service at the 2009 convention. They refused any personal recognition from the platform. However, a video chronicling the Birneys’ ministry and the related growth of the convention was shown to convention attendees, who responded by giving the Birneys a standing ovation. A simple reception was held in the exhibit hall on Saturday afternoon.
Much of the 2009 convention focused on giving honor to whom honor is due. On opening night, Rick Jett asked all cross-cultural missionaries, past and present, to stand. Scores of men and women rose all across the arena. He asked those who had served for 10 or more years, then 20 or more, then 30, and finally 35 years, to remain standing. It was amazing how many still stood. Again, the crowd applauded.
A highlight of the convention was prayer chairman Jeff Robertson leading in prayer, session by session, for each of the continents. Missionaries to that continent, past and present, were asked to stand, along with family members and forwarding agents. Others in attendance gathered around each of them, laying on hands, and praying specifically for them.
Honor was paid to incoming convention director Dave Empson and his staff, whom transition chairman Curt Nordhielm called “The A-Team.” These folks, all of them in new roles, put together a wonderful convention, even while moving NMC offices from Kansas to Indiana.
PREACHING AND TEACHING
As significant as it was to honor those who have been mentioned, the core of this convention was the preaching and teaching in the main sessions and workshops. Jay Henry of Damoh, India, is from a part of the world where persecution of Christians is rampant. His personal experiences and humble demeanor made him the perfect spokesman for a message entitled “God’s Gift Strengthens Me to Serve Faithfully.”
My friend and neighbor Steve White preached one of the finest sermons I’ve ever heard on stewardship, basing his message on Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. He reminded us that giving is to be motivated by grace and not guilt, by faith not fear, by God’s ability and not our own, and by the heart and not the head.
President Jett’s message on sacrificial love and caring was grounded in his experience as executive director of IDES (International Disaster Emergency Services), a wonderful ministry standing alongside missionaries all over the world by assisting in times of crisis. The most moving part of his sermon, however, was the personal story of his desperate need for a kidney transplant, and the willingness of another preacher in the town where he was then preaching to be the donor. He then introduced that preacher, Gale Janofski, who along with his wife, Janet, sang at the close of the message.
Roro Eustache, founder of Haitian Christian Outreach, called us to passionately bathe the cause of world evangelism in prayer. Mike Schrage, a former missionary to Kenya who now serves with Good News Productions, International, preached the most enthusiastic message of the convention. His was a call for workers to go into the fields that Jesus said are white for harvest.
Sunday morning’s moving closing session featured an outstanding message by Ozark Christian College President Matt Proctor—who has become one of my favorite preachers—on praying for and recruiting laborers for the harvest (based on Matthew 9:35-38). In response to Proctor’s message, and Schrage’s message from the previous night, more than 50 individuals—young, older, male, female, married, and single—came forward to commit themselves to long-term, vocational, cross-cultural missions.
MUSIC, WORKSHOPS, AND MORE
There is far more to report on than space allows. Worship teams from both West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, and Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana, did a good job. Both were excellent, although too many unfamiliar songs in one particular service left many people disengaged.
At least 136 workshops were offered on just about every imaginable subject relating to missions—perhaps even too many workshops—and nearly 300 exhibitors included representatives from missions around the world. Bible studies were led by Jon Weatherly of Cincinnati Christian University. Luncheons, receptions, special events, and board meetings filled the schedule and fulfilled their role as fixtures at such conventions. And deserving of its own write-up was the “Windows of the World” Teen Convention that exposed more than 1,700 high school students to the whole missionary enterprise.
CONCERNS AND CONFIDENCE
The National Missionary Convention has come a long way from that modest event I first attended in 1965. Do I have any concerns? Yes, a few.
It troubles me that so few preachers attend, especially my brothers from our larger churches. And while the Teen Convention flourishes and there’s always a major presence of college students, the primary constituency of the convention seems to be aging. Interest in the convention seems to have peaked, and I wonder if that isn’t, in part, because the format has remained basically unchanged for a number of years.
Having voiced those concerns, I am still very excited about the future of the convention. I have great confidence in Empson and his staff.
Next year’s president, Dave Linn, has a great vision not just for the November 18-21 convention in Lexington, Kentucky, but for the next decade. “Restoration Revolution” places a heavy emphasis on prayer and has set challenging goals: launching church-planting movements around the world; creating and distributing resources, including Scripture translation, that will help bring people to Christ; and identifying, equipping, and deploying 10,000 new vocational Christian workers to lead in evangelizing the world. The NMC will play a significant role in seeing that vision realized. This year’s convention theme, “Harvest of Hope,” will be the official launch of this effort.
So mark your calendars and join with thousands of other folks who are concerned about seeing the Lord’s Great Commission fulfilled, as we strategize and are equipped to get on with the job.
John Caldwell serves as senior pastor with Kingsway Christian Church, Avon, Indiana.