By Brad Dupray
As the president of the 2010 North American Christian Convention, Ben Cachiaras has led the planning of a convention that goes “beyond” the ordinary. “What if we didn’t have a North American? What would we wish we did have? What would we need? Let’s plan that convention,” he says. Ben and his wife, Karla, met in the food court of the 1987 North American Christian Convention and this year will be celebrating their 20th year of marriage. For the last 12 years, Ben has served as senior pastor of Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland.
What was the inspiration for this year’s theme, “Beyond?”
It’s driven by a couple of truths. The first is that God is on the move. God isn’t a static figure in the sky. Jesus invites us to follow him. There is energy, motion, and movement with our God. At the same time, the world we’re sent to work in is changing; there is a great sense of urgency for the work of the gospel and the mission of the church today that we sometimes fail to fully apprehend.
These two ideas mean we can’t stagnate in cruise control. We need to go beyond.
What does that movement of God mean to us?
We have a relationship with a God who is on the move, so that means we will be moving and changing and growing. I don’t think Jesus is done leading us to new places as disciples or as a movement. We need to be discerning where God is leading. God will find willing followers to get his will done. I want to be in the middle of that.
If God is moving, how do we keep up with him?
It’s interesting, because we seem to worry a lot about how to keep up with the culture and all the changes in a world like ours. Our biggest need and call is not to keep up with the culture, but to keep up with God, to figure out where God is leading. I think the NACC can be a place to discern where God wants us to grow, to change, to go beyond our blind spots and ruts. We need to hear a fresh call from God that has a way of jolting us from our comfort zones.
And, as you said, we have a world that’s changing too.
Yes, we have a God on the move and a world in crisis. It’s a tremendously urgent situation—this is not time for business as usual. This convention is a call to move, to more assertively meet the needs of the world around us.
Precisely where would Jesus have us go beyond where we are now in order to better embody the kingdom of God today? That’s the beyond question. The church in America is numerically losing ground, so we’ve got to ask God, “Where are you leading? What do you want out of me? What do you want out of my church?”
This is a call to action.
Very much so. The goal is not just to have another convention or conference. We don’t have time for that. The goal is to help change the face of the church in North America. To say, “God, change us, disturb us.” Our prayer is, “We know our churches don’t yet look exactly like you want them to look. Where do you want us to go from here?”
How will this year’s NACC be different from previous years?
The format will be similar to what we’ve done in recent years, but we are aiming for the content to feel different. Last year Jeff Stone and his team did an amazing job leading us to reflect on God’s grace. I found it so encouraging. We need that! This year it will be less about “comfort the afflicted” and more about “afflict the comfortable.” If people leave disturbed, kind of amped up about some new area they sense God leading, we will have succeeded.
What will it take for the church to go beyond where we are now?
I think it will take humility to really listen to what God is saying and realize we may not have it all figured out. Nobody goes beyond where he is right now if he doesn’t think he needs to, if there is no sense he needs growth or movement or learning. Going beyond is not something people with a haughty spirit or arrogance are willing to do, because God finds their spirit not very malleable. And it takes bravery to step out of comfort zones and well-worn paths. It takes courage and faith to go beyond, because you have to ask hard questions and then follow through and take some steps.
The disciples had just enough of this kind of humility and courage that when Jesus asked them to drop their nets and follow him, they did. That’s discipleship.
How will this play out in the NACC program?
We’ve identified several critical areas where we think the church (and its leaders) needs to go beyond. Where God is calling us to go beyond, to have the humility and then the courage to go there. There are some critical areas that can be blind spots for us. They’re so essential to what the gospel is, but we’ve taken cues from places other than the witness of Scripture and we don’t even recognize holes in our gospel.
What do you mean by “holes in our gospel?”
Well, I think we can look around and follow other churches or leaders or ministries more than we follow Christ. The church in Acts didn’t have conferences to go to or books for ideas on what they should be doing next, but they were constantly hearing from the Spirit who led them past barriers and into new territory. Without this kind of followership, we begin to perpetuate our machinery and version of church without really asking, “What would God want us to do?”
One example is the Great Commission. Jesus’ commission tells us to make more and better disciples—baptize them and then teach them. There are two halves to the commission, but it seems like we tend to emphasize one half and omit the other. Some churches talk a lot about church growth and reaching people, but maybe they’ve been unwilling to ask hard questions: Are we actually producing mature disciples? Are we growing people deeply in Christ?
By the same token, there are some who talk a lot about going deep or being “more biblical,” but they need to be asked this hard question: Are you really reaching anyone?
This is a kind of hole, or blind spot—emphasizing one half of the Great Commission over the other. This convention will challenge us to do both. That’s following Jesus beyond and it is one of the areas we’ll look at this summer.
Why should a church pay for its minister to attend the NACC?
The short answer is the North American Christian Convention program is excellent. Its quality is as high as any conference in the country. And their minister’s presence is important—whether it’s a small church’s minister or a larger church’s staff person—they need what this program is going to provide and this convention needs their presence.
So you believe each individual’s presence is important?
Yes, I do, because we’re a movement of churches. If you look at the Old Testament you see God laying out this very detailed calendar that brings his people together with regularity. There is this feast and that festival. The idea is, stop what you’re doing and get down to the festival. There were built-in times to come together.
God knew what he was doing. People gathered and worshiped and they drew strength from each other. The North American provides that. It’s not an anonymous conference you attend. It’s a gathering with those of the same clan. We need to get together with others who share this mission. We don’t function as fully as we could if we don’t have times to connect with the wider body.
Do you get frustrated that some won’t bother with the NACC?
I do become concerned by those who feel no reason to connect or associate beyond their own local congregations. If someone walked into one of our churches and said, “I’m a Christian but I follow Christ on my own. I’m a spiritual person, but I just don’t need the church. I love Christ, just not his wife!” I think we would quickly correct that person and say, “Wait a second, you really can’t follow Christ all by yourself. According to Scripture you need a real church family to share the journey. That’s God’s design.”
I feel the same way for a church that wants to function as a “Lone Ranger” congregation. We need real ties to other churches. Again, I see the NACC providing that for those who invest by attending.
In that sense, the North American is a way for the church at large to feed individual congregations.
I’m not sure you can function as the church did in the New Testament without tangible, relational, and missional connection to other congregations. The beauty of our nondenominational identity is that it allows autonomy and freedom as each congregation serves under Christ. But the downside is a spirit that is sometimes too independent—to our own detriment. Every church needs a home base, and the NACC is one of the primary bases for that connection to happen. It’s also a place for a church to identify with the principles and values of the Restoration Movement.
I am not just pushing the NACC because of some kind of “brand loyalty.” It’s about a larger vision of the church that says, “We’re part of something bigger and we can’t do it by ourselves.” You need it and it needs you.
As a minister, what have you personally taken away from the NACC?
I met a cute girl there once and I got her to marry me! (laughs)
That is very practical! How about from a perspective that might apply to a little wider audience?
I always find ideas that inspire. I hear sermons that make me want to preach better. I’ve found friends who make me want to be better. I’ve heard thoughts that make me want to think deeper. There is a spiritual charge that comes from the example of faithfulness I see in those at the North American.
Let me use an analogy. We have staff meetings at our church. The people from children’s ministry attend, and we have some who work with high school students, some from worship ministry, and some in other areas. When we have staff meetings, I see what’s happening in all the areas and I see we’re one team. I’m not in a silo. We come together and we celebrate what’s happening in all different corners, get a broader perspective, learn to appreciate others, have our news celebrated, share our burdens, and then return to our post a little bigger and a little better. That’s also very much like what happens at the North American.
What did you learn about being president from past NACC presidents?
I have learned a great deal from past presidents, all of whom have been very gracious. They have confirmed that we are a broad and diverse fellowship, with different ideas for what makes a great convention. I’ve learned that it’s a boatload of work, a great responsibility, a high privilege, and very much worth the effort.
How has the North American Christian Convention changed since you were attending as a young person?
I love the North American and I grew up going there—probably been to it 30 times. As a kid who played Bible Bowl, and even now, I don’t really evaluate whether I am going to go. I just do. But I also realize that’s not a good enough reason for most people to go to this or any convention.
I think the North American is facing some real challenges. Some are internal, some are external. Internally, our attendance has been struggling. After Phoenix and the experiment with regional conventions, we have not recovered in our attendance or finances. There are other factors. There is a proliferation of other high-quality conferences. There are economic challenges for churches. We’ve got more conference and training choices and fewer dollars to underwrite them. Add to that a cultural sense that there is less “brand loyalty” to anything and you’ve got the makings for a convention with an identity crisis.
How do you answer the issues?
We determined to create a convention that would do two things: really bless people who never miss a convention, and earn our way back into the schedule of a lot of our leaders who are no longer attending the North American. We need to show that as they carefully weigh what they choose to invest in, the NACC is worthy of their precious time and money.
Our program has improved so much and is so strong. A lot of our people don’t know what they’re missing! I think we’ve got a branding problem. Too many of our leaders have concluded that it’s not worth their investment. What I’m most excited about for this year is that we’ve got a convention put together that will bless those who come every year, but we have the caliber of program that stands out as one of the premier conferences anywhere for those who need to come back.
How did the “branding problem” play into your planning?
I think it was Ben Merold who said if we didn’t have the North American we’d need something like it. I really believe that. So when we planned this year’s convention we started with that idea. What if we didn’t have a North American? What would we wish we did have? What would we need? Let’s plan that convention.
Could our stream of the Restoration Movement continue to thrive without the NACC?
Yes. But we would quickly recognize that we have a hole we need to fill and we would be looking for some creative ways to hold this diverse movement together. So if it’s not the North American, call it whatever you want, but we need something. We already have the North American. I think we have two options: blow it up and start something else or make something great out of what we already have. That second option is what I’m giving my energy to this year.