By Darrel Rowland
The woman who can never stand up got a standing ovation simply for guiding her wheelchair onto the stage.
Why did the entire hall of thousands of Christians rise to applaud Joni Eareckson Tada—an honor given to no other speaker during this year’s North American Christian Convention in Louisville, Kentucky—even before she uttered a syllable?
Perhaps because her life embodies the theme of the 2013 gathering: “Victorious.”
Convention President Matt Proctor’s decision to spend July 9-12 plowing through the book of Revelation may have generated skepticism beforehand, but the reaction afterward was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think this is one of the best I’ve ever attended,” said Patsy Wilson, who went to her first NACC as a child in 1946. “This is the best in memory.”
“I loved the emphasis on Revelation,” said Paul Friskney, whose father wrote a text on the book as a professor at what is now Cincinnati Christian University.
His wife, Anna “Sev” Friskney, said she especially enjoyed the closing day: singing the final verses to several hymns echoing Revelation themes, having the long line of past NACC presidents on stage to commission a long line of 2013 Bible college graduates, and Proctor literally passing the baton to next year’s NACC leader, Tim Harlow, senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.
Those attending the convention backed up the positive sentiments by purchasing a host of CDs and DVDs of the sessions. Sales were “through the roof” this year, said Wilbur Hutchinson, president of Christian Audio Tapes (who died three days after the convention).
The 6,300 who registered—not counting about 1,200 involved with Bible Bowl—was 10 percent higher than last year’s NACC in Orlando, Florida. That doesn’t include an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 unregistered attendees this year. And the number of exhibitors’ booths were up 24 percent from 2012.
Also increasing dramatically this year was the number of “views” of a live Internet feed of NACC main sessions; that figure more than tripled to 47,000 and represented people from 33 countries.
The preaching was insightful and at times provocative, but there were no controversies over views on the millennium, identity of the beast, or timing of the second coming.
The main sessions were spiced by personal accounts from Christians working in international settings, from the Ukraine and India to Brazil, Uganda, and China—plus Amani Mustafa, a former Egyptian woman who hosts the first Christian television program specifically for Muslim women in the Middle East and surrounding areas.
A talented team of mostly students from Ozark Christian College enthusiastically led the music, and the sound and video were impeccable. Exhibits were on two floors this year, including the “wall” listing the world’s unreached people groups. The energetic African Children’s Choir performed at the same time a new movie featuring former Southeast Christian Church senior pastor Bob Russell was being screened. And, of course, the week included the usual smorgasbord of programs for women, seniors, youth, preacher’s wives, and Bible Bowl competitors.
Proctor, president of Ozark Christian College, said as a child of the 1980s his list of tough guys included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. T, Clint Eastwood, and Sylvester Stallone—but not Jesus.
However, the Christ depicted in the opening chapter of Revelation, which caused the apostle John to fall at his feet as though dead, shows that “Jesus just might be a little more dangerous than we think.”
Many Christians have “put him through a theological dryer and shrunk him down to an itinerant therapist,” Proctor said. “More Joel Osteen than John Wayne—nice guy, not much help in a fight.”
Such a diminished view of Christ always leads to a diminished church, Proctor said. “The message of the book of Revelation is this: That a day is coming when Jesus will cry out, ‘Enough!’
“Jesus is tired of the sin in this world. Jesus is tired of murder and he is tired of abortion. Jesus is tired of famine. . . . He is tired of EF-5 tornados like the one that swept through my community (Joplin, Missouri). . . . He is tired of 12-year-old Cambodian girls sold into sex slavery. He is tired of weeping widows in lonely graveyards, and he is tired of child-sized caskets. He is tired of little 13-year-old boys in the Congo who are being brainwashed as child soldiers.
“And he is tired of false religions and he is tired of godless government, and he is tired of his people being arrested, being harassed, beaten, and killed because they believe in him. He is tired of Satan, the bully of this world, messing with the people he loves.
“Hear me church: The message of Revelation is that a day is coming when Jesus Christ, in all of his righteous anger, is coming riding back to do something about that.”
Aaron Brockett, lead pastor of Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, pointed out that Revelation was written to churches persecuted and seduced by the world, especially the seven churches of chapters 2 and 3. Since Jesus is the owner, he is the only one entitled to speak so directly to his church.
“Don’t trash the church. When you trash the church you trash Jesus,” Brockett said. “Jesus is the only one qualified to admonish his church.”
Brockett noted that Jesus’ harshest criticism was reserved for the largest church (Sardis) and the wealthiest (Laodicea), because both had become stagnant.
“Jesus desires that his church is on the move,” Brockett said. “Stagnation is something I think gets under his skin when it comes to the local church.”
Randy Harris preached from Revelation 4, 5 and spoke about worship.
“You don’t improve worship much by talking about worship; you talk about God and the lamb that was slain,” said the spiritual director for the College of Bible at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Jesus was preparing his church to do hard things “and the key to doing hard things is worship. . . . What’s in worship is real, what’s in the world is phony.”
Jon Weece’s assignment was Revelation 6–9, “Endure Suffering Patiently.”
“Suffering was the language of the first church. They were fluent in it. It was their first tongue,” said the senior minister of Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.
Weece, a former missionary in Haiti, described a blind beggar sifting through the flow of open sewage with his bare hands, seeking anything of value.
Weece said he gave him the sacks of rice and fruit he was carrying, as well as all the money he had on him. The beggar pulled him close, forehead to forehead, and said, “Thank you, thank you.”
“What do you say in response to suffering like that, other than how long (Revelation 6:10) and who can stand it?” Weece wondered.
“God doesn’t explain suffering. God surrounds it,” said Weece, quoting Eugene Peterson. “Because of my sin, I deserve to suffer . . . on my best day, I deserve Hell.”
Years later Weece saw the Haitian beggar again. He was playing “Jesus Loves Me” on a PVC pipe.
After Weece gave him money, the beggar asked if he could pray for Weece.
“Help my brother see you the way that I see you,” were the words of the blind man.
Frank Smith, founding senior pastor of Christ’s Church for Our Community in Louisville, said many Christians come down with “believers’ laryngitis” when they have an opportunity to talk to others about Jesus. (His sermon, “Bear Witness Boldly,” was based on Revelation 10, 11.)
“Sometimes our testimony is intimidated because we are entangled with the temporary,” he said. “The church cannot afford to be silent.”
In an animated message, he encouraged his listeners to “move from sanctuary to society. . . . God won’t send you into the darkness without assurance your power source will last.”
Kyle Idleman, teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, pointed out (from Revelation 12–18) that the dragon is defeated in Revelation but noted, “Turns out dragons aren’t real gracious losers.”
When the evil one goes off to make war against God’s children, “that’s us,” Idleman said. “Our interpretative differences seem quite insignificant when it becomes clear we are all being hunted by a ferocious dragon.”
Still, Christians sometimes misplace their hope.
“I grow weary of churches and of Christians who put their hope in government and by definition make it their god. I grow weary of Christians and churches whose hope seems to rise and fall with every election that comes and goes and with every law that is passed or not passed. I grow weary of churches who can pack out a sanctuary for a night of tribute to our nation but then they go down to the basement for worship and prayer because only a handful of people can come out for that.”
Just before the 2012 election, Idleman said he got a letter saying, “We have an opportunity to save Christianity and America on November 6.” He paused and added, “That is idolatry.
“Are you kidding? You think God needs our votes in order to accomplish his purpose and to advance his kingdom in this world? . . . Our hope is not in politicians legislating morality, our hope is in Jesus changing hearts. Our hope is not in the latest poll, our hope is in God’s Word. As Christians, our hope is not in government reform, our hope is in repentance.”
Revelation 20, perhaps the book’s most controversial chapter for it contains the only explicit reference to the millennium of Christ’s rule, fell to Rick Atchley, preaching minister for The Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas. He joked that the millennium is “1,000 years of peace that Christians like to fight over.”
After outlining the three main interpretations, Atchley said, “Sincere, Bible-believing people in our churches hold all these views.” Later, he added, “It’s OK to disagree, it’s a sin to divide.”
He said if the very best scholars of the day missed the first coming of Jesus, we need to show a little humility with our opinions on details of the second coming.
“We believe the future belongs to God, and God wins,” Atchley said. “However it goes down in the end, we’re gonna like it.”
Who better to close four days of messages on Revelation with a look ahead to Heaven than Tada, openly reveling in the prospect of the lame being able to “leap like deer” after 46 years as a quadriplegic and more recently battling breast cancer?
“I am going to stand up with a glorified, resurrected body, and I’m going to jump up, dance, kick, do aerobics—oh, it’s gonna be such fun.”
Yet it was not just the prospect of being freed from an earthly disability that makes her gush with joy.
“Don’t be thinking that I am mostly looking forward to Heaven in order to get a new body. No. I am looking forward to the new heart, a heart that is free of sin,” said Tada, who literally burst into song several times during her talk even while describing how “pain has become my dark and constant companion.”
“I won’t be in Heaven to get back what I lost and then some. It’s not going to be the day of Joni, it’s going to be the day of Christ. . . .
“And somewhere in the midst of half-remembered thoughts of Earth, we’ll stop, and we’ll look in the rear-view mirror, and we will see how suffering and our fight against sin served us and prepared us for such a glorious place as this.”
Darrel Rowland is public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch and an adult Bible fellowship teacher with Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church.