By Brad Dupray
Dudley Rutherford is a third-generation minister who has attended the North American Christian Convention for more than 40 years. He is in a family that produces ministers: both brothers, both brothers-in-law, both uncles, and his cousins are also ministers. His ministry of 24 years at Shepherd of the Hills Church in suburban Los Angeles has challenged him to think creatively and diversely. The church has benefited, having grown from 300 to more than 8,000 during his tenure with an ethnic mix that goes beyond just reflecting his community. Dudley earned his undergraduate degree at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, and a master’s degree at Hope International University, Fullerton, California. He and his wife, Renee, have been married 26 years and have three children.
What did it mean to you to grow up in the Christian church?
The Christian church is all I have ever known. I tell folks I was born on a Saturday night and my mom had me in church on Sunday morning. The thing I love about it is not just the doctrinal aspect, but my dad used to have a fall revival and a spring revival at our church, and he would always have outside speakers. We had the Leon Appels and the Russ Martins of the world, and the Lytle Brothers and Ronnie Epps, and Ben Merold and Don DeWelt. Growing up, I got to listen to all these great preachers.
You’ve been pretty steeped in the movement all along.
From the church I grew up in, we had about a three-hour drive to Ozark Bible College. We had a dynamic youth group. When I went to Bible college we had about 30 students from our church there, so it was like going to church camp on a full-time basis—the entire youth group went! It was at Ozark that I started to hear preachers like Ken Idleman, David Bycroft, Tom Moll, Ron Carter, Roy Wheeler, and Wayne Smith. So besides the theology and doctrinal stance, what I have enjoyed most is growing up in a Christian church and attending a Christian college and meeting all these amazing pastors and leaders.
What is your earliest recollection of the North American Christian Convention?
It was when Russ Martin was president in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1965. I remember back in those days, the convention was packed! It was a massive auditorium filled with people. In that day there weren’t a lot of megachurches, so you never really saw large crowds until you attended the NACC. I remember being overwhelmed by the numbers of people who had gathered to sing and worship and listen to powerful preaching.
What was it like to preach at the NACC for the first time?
I would not wish it on my worst enemy! It’s the most difficult crowd to preach to because you have the lay person sitting out there, but you also have preachers and professors from around the country, and you know they’re all critiquing your message. As a communicator, you have to put that out of your mind and boldly proclaim what God has put on your heart.
When you preach at the North American you’re preaching to a Christian crowd, so what do you want to say?
I think anytime you speak at the North American, it has to center around an aspect of fulfilling the Great Commission. Encouragement, with some motivation for us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. I also think there’s an element of encouraging struggling churches. I love that aspect, because we really can help each other by meeting together, sharing with each other, and developing plans and strategies that work. I always come back from the convention with some good ideas.
How does the NACC capture its history while looking to the future? Is it necessary to capture the history?
I don’t know about recapturing the history of our convention; however, I think it’s important to remember our roots and to recapture the church of the first century. The convention always speaks to our foundation and the core of who we are. We’ve always claimed to be like the church in the New Testament, and I believe the churches that attend the NACC are more accurate in reflecting the New Testament church than any other churches out there. I think that’s one of the reasons God has blessed our churches the way he has, because of our commitment to being like the church in Acts.
How do you think the NACC has been presenting itself lately?
I feel like the last few years there has been a real synergy, a real sense of excitement, especially with the theme or focus that has driven the direction of each convention—starting with David Faust in 2006, when the Christian churches and churches of Christ joined together. Then you had Alan Ahlgrim with a bent towards church planting, and Cam Huxford and Jeff Stone, two champions of the faith who led life-changing conventions, and Ben Cachiaras last year with his phenomenal theme of “Beyond.” The attendance and participation has been good, and the offerings have been good.
I just hope this year with my leadership, and next year with Rick Rusaw, that we continue that trend of putting together a convention that leaves people feeling better-equipped to face the challenges of ministry when they leave on Friday afternoon. I think there’s been a sense of excitement with the young people in recent years, the large number of exhibitors that are showing up, and churches large and small that are engaged. I love that so many women are involved and excited about the parts of the convention that minister to them. It seems like it just keeps getting better and better.
How does the vision of a strong NACC get passed on from president to president and generation to generation?
The president used to have only one year to prepare and plan the convention, and now he has two. The first year you actually shadow the president before you. So for the first 12 months I attended all the meetings and listened to Ben Cachiaras as he led his executive team with the decisions he made, and I caught some of excitement of his convention. I watched. I listened. I was mentored.
For the past 12 months, I have been planning the convention in Cincinnati and Rick Rusaw is attending and watching our meetings. So having two years to plan, as opposed to one, enables you to have more continuity. Looking back, I don’t know how those guys planned it in just 12 months without all the modern technology we have today.
Does the NACC define who we are as a movement?
I think it does. It’s the only chance we have as a tribe to join together as a whole, celebrate our past, and at the same time chart our future with our “eye on the prize” of sharing Christ with the world. I love the fact that we come together for fellowship and networking. Fellowship, of course, was a critical component of the early church, and networking is where we sharpen one another to help change the world. As the convention has blessed those who attend each year, I believe it will continue to be a blessing for generations to come.
What is our future as a movement?
I think we’re just scratching the surface. When you look at groups like the Orchard Group, Stadia, and the Exponential Conference, we have some of our best church planting organizations going on at this very moment. Some of our greatest churches of the next 10 to 15 years are just now being birthed by these organizations! I remember when I was a boy we had a few great churches. One was the First Christian Church of Canton, Ohio. For a while it was Eastside Christian [Fullerton, California] with Ben Merold. Then it was Southland Christian [Lexington, Kentucky] with Wayne Smith. Today you don’t have just a handful; you have hundreds of great churches!
When you look at what Jud Wilhite is doing in Las Vegas, what Dave Stone is doing in Louisville, and Ben Cachiaras on the East Coast. When you think of Don Wilson in Phoenix and Cam Huxford in Georgia or David Bycroft in Tyro, Kansas—when you look across the country, in almost every state you have high-impact churches. There’s not enough time to name them all, but I think in the future we’re going to have thousands and thousands of these high-impact churches, and they, in turn, will help develop and strengthen the churches of smaller size.
You see, it’s not the size of the church that matters, but the working together of all churches that will have the most impact. It’s in our unity of small, medium, and large churches working together that we have our greatest impact—and we get a glimpse of that each year at the North American Christian Convention when we all join and worship together.
Our churches have learned how to grow and evangelize, and God has blessed us with some great churches and great leaders who will help shape our future.
As a unity movement, how do we fit within the context of the Christian world?
Many of our churches are becoming leaders in their own communities, and in some instances we are raising up leaders for the nation. We are setting the standard for planting churches. We are working together to fund missionary work. Whether it’s starting churches in Poland, or giving aid to Haiti, or supporting work in India, or starting and supporting a Bible college, I’ve seen our churches working in unity to further kingdom causes throughout the world. In California, to get Proposition 8 passed, to define marriage in our Constitution as a union between a man and a woman, we had thousands of churches working together from all denominational backgrounds to get it approved. We are in a period where so many corners of the globe are being influenced by our churches working in unison.
Take your last shot, why should people attend the NACC this year?
If you’ve never attended a North American Christian Convention, or if you haven’t attended in recent years, this is the one to attend. Our main speakers are going to preach through the book of Acts. They’ve been assigned a specific text, and we will all be challenged as we see once again how God’s Spirit was Unleashed upon the church in the first century.
For the first time, the convention will be available for viewing [on the Internet] through live stream technology. We will have folks who will develop a Web site for your church for free. We have Bible Bowl coming back to the convention, so there will be a lot more young people than in years past. Additionally, this will go down as one of the most racially diverse conventions we have ever had, and we’re promoting the convention in ways that have never been done before. I’m doing my absolute best to make sure that we just have songs that are singable. Can someone say “Amen”?
We’re going to have small group materials that will be available to use in conjunction with the messages of the main speakers, so you can take your church through the same theme and study of the convention.
It’s going to be like a revival; it’s going to have the feeling of a revival! I can hardly wait for July 5-8. I will see you in Cincinnati!
Brad Dupray is president of Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.