Interview with David Empson

By Brad Dupray

While serving as director of the Teen Convention of the National Missionary Convention for 13 years, David Empson got a front-row seat to growth of the NMC under the leadership of Walter Birney. As Walter was experiencing the onset of Parkinson’s disease, he began to transition the practical functions of the executive director role to David as early as 2008. With that experience, David has “hit the ground running” as the convention’s new executive director and looks forward to the continued growth of the National Missionary Convention, beginning with the convention scheduled for this coming November in Lexington, Kentucky.

How did you become connected with the National Missionary Convention?

In 1996, Doug Lucas was president of the convention (Doug and I go way back to church camp days in the mid-’70s) and he asked our church to bring a group down. It fed right into where we were going with our youth program mission trips. Mission trips were one of the major impacting weeks in youth ministry and we were looking for other places to go, so we thought, let’s go down, and we brought 46 teenagers.

How was that first experience?

It was great being there, but I really wanted my kids to rub elbows with missionaries. The teen program was off-site so we didn’t go off-site—we stayed with the adult program and went to workshops, the exhibit hall, and the main sessions. After the convention, I wrote Walter Birney and asked, “Why not mix the teens and missionaries more in the teen program?” He wrote me back and said, “Why don’t you show us what you mean? Lead the teen program for the 1998 convention in Cincinnati.”

Did that work?

Oh yeah. It worked like a dream. It was all about creating ways for the teens and missionaries to mix. I think the missionaries were thrilled to have the teens at the convention. We created the “Windows of the World” because we wanted to create an event that youth ministers could bring their kids to that was hands-on and interactive.

How does “Windows of the World” differ from a missionary coming to visit a local church?

Teenagers don’t get to mix with many missionaries. It used to happen in Vacation Bible School and church camp, but nowadays kids often don’t get that experience. Those firsthand experiences are so important in youth ministry. I want to build positive experiences between teens and missionaries. When missionaries come to church, their time mostly is spent talking to decision makers and leaders, so I think there’s this lack of opportunity for teens and missionaries to understand and impact each other in normal church life.

How do teens get connected with missionaries at the National Missionary Convention?

Teen groups are paired with a missionary for an hour—we call it a prayer encounter—and pray for the missionary after he has learned about the missionary’s passion and purpose for what he or she does. Walls of time, distance, culture, generation, and just not knowing the truth about missionaries come crumbling down after just one hour and some prayer.

So your youth ministry experience really prepared you for the role as the convention’s executive director.

I think youth ministry did that, honestly, because in youth ministry I systematically planned conventions, weeks of camp, lesson series, VBS for 15 years, musicals, cantatas, and “Bethlehem Revisited” for four years, etc. . . . The National Missionary Convention, even though it’s a huge convention, is really a big retreat. In youth ministry, you learn programming and you learn brainstorming and you do it for so long; stepping into a role like this, you break it down to what you’ve always done. On top of all that, you get a lot of help. There is a large volunteer base that makes this convention work.

What is the practical process of creating a successful convention?

We work through three waves: number one is through the staff and leadership of the convention. The second wave is the president and the professional mission workers who are intricately involved in different aspects of the convention. Third is the local arrangements committee that puts hands and feet to a large volunteer base of the convention. A key thing is choosing the right president—a godly person. David Linn is our president for 2010 and he is a deeply devoted man of God. When you have such a great group of people who support the convention, it makes the office staff’s job a little bit easier too.

How do you feel about the challenge of leading the convention into its future?

I’m greatly humbled to find myself in this position. It is my greatest honor to have worked with Walter and Iva Lou Birney for 12 years, and I maintain a relationship with them even today. I feel like I’ve been entrusted with a huge undertaking, but realize there are many people who make the convention what it is. I’m very excited to be associated with the National Missionary Convention as we try to program and work toward the needs of the churches to reach the lost.

What is the condition of the Missionary Convention?

The condition is very, very good. The convention enjoys a great wave of momentum. We ended Tulsa [the 2008 convention] well. Peoria [2009] was my first shot out of the gate, so to speak, and the convention went well. We got lots of positive comments from those who attended Peoria. The Lexington convention is going to be a great convention too.

To what do you credit the convention’s positive momentum?

First of all, Walter Birney. Second, we have some great leaders in the Missionary Convention. Due to the work of the transition team—Curt Nordhelm, Ziden Nutt, John Fuller, Dean Davis, and Charles Ferguson—the transfer of leadership went really well. We had met for three years and had done a lot of work, talking through things and then also bringing in new staff to do Iva Lou’s role [and] to take over my former role. So we were ready here in Indiana when Walter’s health started failing. Third, we are focused on our task.

What keeps the convention on a good course?

It’s the focus of the convention—it’s always going to be about world evangelism. Most people who attend have a genuine interest in doing something with their life or with their faith. We are very focused on our purpose, and that really helps us.

How can the local church support that goal?

First, Christians need to understand that they are commissioned to world evangelism as much as a missionary is. Every Christian is either a “goer” or a “sender.” When we stop going or sending, the progress of the church slows down. Second, every church needs to learn about and plug into “Restoration Revolution.” This is a 10-year movement being birthed this fall at the NMC in Lexington. But it’s not about us, it’s about collaboration—every church, every college ministry, every mission organization doing all we can to pray, plant churches, and develop tools and translations to share the gospel. Last, but not least, we need to recruit 10,000 new full-time Christian servants. You can learn more about this by going to www.RestorationRevolution.com.

Is the National Missionary Convention primarily for missionaries?

That’s one of the problems with the name National Missionary Convention. A lot of people think only missionaries come to it, when in reality less than 10 percent of those who attend are actually missionaries. Of the 6,300 people who came to Peoria, 5,700 are lay people in our churches.

So it’s not the missionaries that make the Missionary Convention what it is?

They are a huge part, maybe not numerically. They share with us what God is doing around the world. The stories and experiences they share draw the churches, the mission committees, colleges, and campus ministries to go to the mission field. It’s the hunger for being part of something world-changing and feeling like you are a part of it that makes the NMC what it is.

Why would a nonmissionary go to a missionary convention?

Many come to see how God is moving. They want to play a role in the process. I think some people are challenged deep down about whether or not they could go themselves. Part of it is being devoted to God and being challenged by other’s accomplishments. Some are looking for a way to plug in.

What does a nonmissionary get out of the convention?

Inspiration. Realizing they’re part of the process on whatever level of personal commitment they have. I think there’s an exposure to an opportunity of service, whether it be supporting a certain missionary, going to a mission field for a short-term trip, or going back to their home church to encourage the church to get involved in some way.

What is the church’s most important role in missions?

It is in bringing the world and its needs to the attention of its members. That happens in different ways. For example, Joy Hoff was a girl in my youth ministry. She’s a missionary wife in Honduras now. When Charles Littell came home and spoke to Hazelwood Christian Church [Clayton, Indiana], Joy thought it would be great to be a missionary. So the seed was planted when Charles came home and talked to the church. Joy’s parents watered the seed. The mission trips we took in the youth program fertilized the seed to the point where she knew what she wanted to do. So she went to college to train for it. She met her husband in college and went to Honduras to serve. That’s the most normal track. There are other ways people get to the mission field—second career, for example.

What was the best part of this past year’s convention?

I think it was the theme: “God’s Gift, My Response,” which is embodied in the life story of Rick Jett. He received a life-saving donation of a kidney from another preacher that allowed him to live. Rick made the promise, “Lord I’m going to do it differently if I get a chance to live longer.” He did a great job with that—you couldn’t help but know the reason he does what he does. He raises the banner, he leads the charge, and it’s just a great charge.

Other highlights?

There were a lot of people who wanted to honor Walter and Iva Lou Birney, and that was a highlight. So many people wanted to see Walter one more time. Another highlight was the Zimbabwe exhibit. Ziden Nutt organized it, and there were 160 past and present missionaries who attended the convention to be at that reunion. This is one thing our young people often don’t know. We don’t herald enough what has been done in the past so they can see there have been pioneers all along, all of them with incredible stories to tell.

What are you looking forward to in 2010?

Once again, we have chosen the right man to serve as our president, and he has a great plan. David Linn is a 20-year veteran missionary in Caracas, Venezuela. His passion and preparation through prayer for this convention is moving. I’m also excited about the birth of the “Restoration Revolution”—the 10-year collaborative effort to join our churches, our colleges, and our parachurch organizations to work together to reach the lost. And another thing that’s going to be special about this next convention is we’re going to highlight the ministry of the Morse family in China and Southeast Asia—almost 90 years from when J. Russell Morse went to China in 1921.

What will it take to move the Missionary Convention to a higher level?

We are on the threshold of birthing the Restoration Revolution this fall in Lexington.  We would like for the NMC to serve as a networking ministry for all of our churches, college ministries, and parachurch or mission agencies, like the mortar that holds a brick wall together. It is our hope that Restoration Revolution will move us forward together, providing strategic possibilities of using prayer, planting churches, and developing and gathering any tool needed for evangelism, while recruiting 10,000 new full-time Christian servants to reach the unreached. Wherever we share the ideas and purposes of Restoration Revolution, we find church and ministry leaders very eager and excited about our goals and principles. We see exciting days ahead for us in these next 10 years.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, ministry development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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