By Darrel Rowland
A blur of scenes from the 2011 North American Christian Convention in Cincinnati . . .
• A pair of preachers, leaders of churches totaling about 30,000 in weekly attendance, breaking down in tears at 1 a.m. in their hotel—then taking pizza to the homeless . . .
• Two women riding one step apart on the escalator cackling when they realize they had worn identical blouses that day . . .
• Noisy protestors—including one toting a sign saying “Your Pastor Is a Liar”—occupying all four corners of the intersection just outside the main entrance to the convention center . . .
• A huge list, stretching on and on and on down a long hallway, displaying names of thousands of unreached people groups . . .
• A how-to workshop on taking your faith along on business overseas by a PhD-holder who couldn’t have his name listed in the program or the country where he worked for six years because the leaders of that nation don’t like Christians very much . . .
• The week’s best-known speaker calling himself a zombie . . .
Working with the theme “Unleashed: The Church Turning the World Upside Down,” this year’s convention put the energy in the Duke Energy Convention Center.
“People who attended and participated, they’re going back a different person,” said Dudley Rutherford, senior pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Church, Porter Ranch, California, and this year’s NACC president.
For the first time, the convention was streamed live over the web and translated into Spanish. More than 2,000 computer users logged on from across the United States as well as Mexico, Spain, the Philippines, Peru, and other countries.
“People were literally watching from all over the world,” Rutherford said. And they gave more than $3,000 online.
While paid registrations were down 9 percent from 2010, estimated overall attendance was up, topping 10,000, due to the return of Bible Bowl and visits of people from local churches, NACC officials said. Hour-long morning Bible studies with Bob Russell, retired senior pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, averaged nearly 1,000.
Key to the convention’s success was picking the right passages from Acts and matching the best speaker with those verses, Rutherford said. Each message had an intriguing single-word emphasis, from Kaleidoscope and Pandemonium to Kinetic and Unequivocal.
Even before the convention, each speaker agreed to write a chapter of an Unleashed book that was released in early June by Standard Publishing. An accompanying DVD study guide for small groups was recorded at Cane Ridge.
“The idea was that people would come to the convention and hear these nine preachers preach on these nine topics going through the book of Acts, recapturing the qualities of the church of the first century, and being able to take the book and all the life group materials back to their homes . . . and preach through those nine topics,” Rutherford said.
“Thus the convention would have a longer shelf life than just the three-and-a-half days. And I’m convinced there’ll be churches all across the country taking advantage of this material and you’ll be hearing about Unleashed the rest of this year and on into the next.”
Snapshots from each message, which ranged from about 35 to 50 minutes, in chronological order:
As president, Rutherford got the leadoff spot Tuesday night.
He called on his listeners to realize that the Holy Spirit empowers the church to touch the entire world, and they can turn that world upside down just as the early Christians were described as doing by the nonbelievers in Thessalonica.
“My prayer is that by the end of this week . . . we will all be convinced that Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about when he told Peter that even the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the power-infused church of the living God,” Rutherford said.
That sometimes requires defying the political correctness of the day, which is fine, he said, because the apostle Paul dealt directly with contemporary social and moral issues, and “Jesus might have been the most politically incorrect person who ever walked on the face of this planet.”
Rutherford noted that in just one generation homosexuality has become almost universally acceptable in America.
“There’s a moral revolution taking place in the United States, and the Christian church can no longer afford to be silent. We lost the abortion issue and we’re about to lose the biblical marriage issue,” said Rutherford, whose church was at the forefront of a successful California ballot issue defining marriage as solely between a man and woman.
Rutherford noted that the measure supported by 7 million voters was overturned as unconstitutional by a gay federal judge who said any religious belief that homosexual relations are sinful causes harm to gays and lesbians.
Launching day two, Daryl Reed, lead minister of DC Regional Christian Church in Washington, D.C., wondered why the apostles preached to a kaleidoscope of people when the church was born on Pentecost, but it took them some 10 years to spread the gospel further.
“The apostles were prejudiced,” he said. Just as Americans struggle with race, the first Christians wrestled with overcoming their Jew vs. Gentile mentality, with persecution finally forcing the gospel beyond Jerusalem.
“Sometimes God has to smack us up aside the head to get our attention,” Reed said.
He recounted how a church of Christ in Illinois, “out in middle of corn fields,” welcomed him as an 18-year-old even though he was the only black.
The lesson: If people feel loved, they will work around any differences.
Greg Nettle, senior pastor of RiverTree Christian Church in Massillon, Ohio, spoke second on Wednesday morning, but his son, Elijah, stole the show.
Many in the RiverTree congregation have adopted children, Nettle and his wife included. He called his family up on stage to illustrate the point that he won’t ask his congregation to go anyplace he’s not willing to go himself.
As the white preacher held his black child in his arms, Nettle started to say, “I love the church . . . ” when Elijah echoed, “You love the church, Daddy?”
The place broke up, and Elijah became the youngest person to receive an ovation all week.
“You want to change this country and the rest of the world? Become foster parents,” Nettle said. “It’s not (up to) the government—it’s you and me.”
He noted that he and his wife had just sold their house to move into an inner-city neighborhood where the needs and diversity are greater. He called on Christians in other churches to do the same thing to illustrate to the world God’s willingness to become “one of us.”
Nettle also said the solution to cutting the abortion rate in half is for “Christians [to] stop having abortions.”
Mike Breaux, teaching pastor for Heartland Community Church in Rockford, Illinois, drew guilty laughter from many that evening when he displayed the nonsensical Angry Birds smart phone game app on the center’s four large screens.
“God’s Word has always had apps you can download into your life,” he reminded the audience. “Are you bored with your life? There’s an app for that. Follow Jesus. . . . Following Jesus is never boring.”
Breaux said while he considers outlet malls a form of Hell, they do illustrate a spiritual point: “We are all slightly imperfect. We are all clearance rack material—every single one of us.”
Breaux said his church’s goal is to “love on the city until they ask why.”
After the earthquake hit Haiti last year, Rockford’s five public high schools helped the church prepare 1 million meals to send to the devastated island. And no one voiced concerns about separation of church and state.
In perhaps the week’s most animated message, Phil Allen, pastor of The Vine, the young adult ministry at Shepherd of the Hills, spoke about being shaken.
In the day three morning session, Allen recalled his grandmother sweeping a rug, but still instructing him to take it outside and shake it out. Mystified, he obeyed and quickly realized the rug had gotten only a surface cleaning, that the dirt within still needed to be removed.
The same is true of the church, he said: We sometimes are satisfied with only a surface cleaning, when God wants us the get rid of even the dirt that’s buried deep.
“Will you allow him to shake you?” Allen asked.
After Allen, a pair of real-life stories illustrated Dave Stone’s message on loving and giving lavishly.
In November 2010 the senior minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville received a letter asking for $250,000 to fund scholarships for Cincinnati Christian University’s Russell School of Ministry—named for Bob Russell and his family. Southeast’s leaders readily agreed to grant the request, the church’s largest gift ever to a Bible college.
When Stone informed Russell of the church’s largess, he also asked about Russell’s father, who in the early 1960s took a second job and borrowed money to repay bills run up by a minister who abruptly left their Pennsylvania town. Russell’s father did not want the church to get a bad name.
The amount of the repaid debt: $2,500—exactly 1 percent of the scholarship money.
Stone said both he and Russell got emotional as they remembered Jesus’ promise in Matthew 19:29: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
Stone also described how his brother, Jeff, bought a quilt for their mother at their grandfather’s auction after their mom dropped out of the bidding because the price had gotten too steep—even though Jeff was merely a young “dirt poor” preacher at the time.
“You have been blessed to be a blessing to others,” Stone said. “How much you have is irrelevant to lavishness.”
Jeff Vines, senior pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, east of Los Angeles, drew from his 20 years on the mission field in Zimbabwe and New Zealand for his message on the convention’s final night.
He asked whether American congregations are “distracted by our affluence,” a phrase he heard from African “bush pastors” about their U.S. counterparts. The church is advancing in places like China, Russia, India, and areas of Africa where persecution has been strong. Only in the “affluent West” has Christianity begun to retreat, he said.
“The hazards the American church ought to be most concerned with are not out there but in here,” Vines said. “We spend more time on Facebook than with our face in the Book.”
Vines also wondered: “Are we drawing people to Jesus or to our way of doing church?” and “Are we transmuting Christianity into a religion that requires nothing?”
Crazy Love author and Cornerstone Church (Simi Valley, California) founder Francis Chan is now simply billed as an author and speaker from San Francisco. Chan was the first speaker at the final session, Friday morning.
“I was just a zombie going along in my sin,” he said of his life before Christ.
After spending time recently in China, Chan said he moved to San Francisco because it’s not a hotbed of Christianity and he will have to depend fully on God.
He cited Jesus’ words in John 14:12: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” But Chan questioned how strongly Christians really believe.
He described using an inflated balloon and a BB gun with his church to demonstrate the point about belief in a way he did NOT recommend as take-home advice. While some 80 percent of his church’s audience said they believed he could shoot the balloon from across the stage, only about 10 said they would hold the balloon while he did it—and just one boy actually agreed to stand sideways and hold it in his teeth.
Chan said he figured he would frighten the boy into backing down when he raised the gun. Instead, the youth bravely stood there and Chan found himself thinking, I can hit that. And he did—much to the surprise of those present and the dismay of the church’s attorneys.
The final message—and the only one to get a full-fledged standing ovation—was delivered by Jeff Walling, senior minister with Providence Road Church of Christ in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Some of the greatest things in the world were done by people who didn’t want to do them,” he said, citing Acts 20:22-24, when the Holy Spirit compelled Paul to go to Jerusalem even though Paul knew he would run into persecution.
“We are not called to a comfortable walk. We’re called to say, God, if you’re taking me to Jerusalem I’m ready to go. I don’t have to be excited about it. . . . What’s your Jerusalem?”
Walling ticked off some possibilities: addiction, a difficult person, problematic relationship, job situation, church struggles.
“When you go to Jerusalem, when you go back to a situation that may be frustrating or difficult, you know that you’re walking with Jesus. And when you’re walking with Jesus, good stuff is bound to happen.”
But that wasn’t the capper to the convention. At the final, Friday-morning session, Rutherford took the stage with a big announcement. The night before—while acknowledging that many were still suffering from the shaky economy—he had issued a stirring plea for a “miracle offering” to pay for the NACC. Giving from the first two nights was about $19,000 each, but the convention still needed more than $80,000 just to break even.
Rutherford challenged the crowd to meet the need in a single offering. He said his church, which already had made a substantial commitment to the NACC, came up with another $15,000. He told how a leader of a struggling church, which had only $1,000 on hand to cover $4,000 in bills, decided to chip in $100 after hearing Stone’s message on lavishness, “trusting that God will provide for him.”
Rutherford and Stone were in their hotel, still awake around 1 a.m., when they got word of the final offering: more than $123,000.
“Dave Stone and I, we both started crying when we heard,” Rutherford recounted. Then they took their leftover pizza out on the street to the homeless.
Rutherford called off the formal offering at the convention’s final service, and promised to give some of the funds to the church leader who trusted God to provide. In all, people gave about $195,000 during the convention, nearly $75,000 more than in each of the past two years.
The NACC is July 10-13 in Orlando next year.
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.