A Conversation with Matt Proctor

Meet Our Contributing Editors: This month we talk with Ozark Christian College President Matt Proctor about the impact of a convention theme, the health of the churches in our fellowship, and the genius of the Restoration Movement.

Interview By Jennifer Johnson

Well, two big things have been part of your life this past year: the North American Christian Convention and your wife’s cancer. Of course, that’s in addition to your work leading Ozark Christian College. I want to talk about all of it—let’s start with the NACC. What have you discovered about our churches this past year?

Matt Proctor preaching on opening night at the 2013 North American Christian Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.
Matt Proctor preaching on opening night at the 2013 North American Christian Convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

It’s been an honor to serve as the North American president. The travel schedule took me to some new places, and I’m really encouraged by what I see. I visited lots of churches with a strong outreach mind-set that want to touch their communities with the love of Christ. I see a strong missions heart, people who want to know what God is doing around the world and how they can be part of it. I see preachers who have really embraced preaching and teaching through books of the Bible.

I would stack the leaders in our movement with the best anywhere. We also have a ton of healthy midsize churches. They may not be the ones making the headlines, but this year I was really encouraged by the ones I got to know.

Some folks worry we’re going to compromise on baptism or try to find the lowest common denominator with the Evangelical world, and I don’t find that to be true at all. If anything, in recent years I’ve seen a stronger emphasis on baptism. Honestly, I think some of our megachurches have waved that banner better than ever.

 

I’m sure you’ve been asked this question before—what led you to choose Revelation as this year’s NACC theme?

Two reasons. First, Revelation tells us we’re part of a bigger story. I studied the book with Dr. Robert Lowery and he turned my world upside down—which I think apocalypse is supposed to do. It set my imagination on fire to reenvision the world through Christ’s eyes. Sometimes we think our lives are so ordinary, and we forget we are all playing a part in an epic story.

We had an apologetics professor at Ozark who loved Star Wars. (He liked to say he was training “apolojedi.”) Every morning he would listen to the theme music to remind him that even though he was going off to do regular professor stuff—give lectures, meet with students, grade papers—he was actually part of this grand cosmic conflict with very high stakes, the battle for immortal human souls. And that’s what Revelation is meant to do. So I wanted people who were scared of the book to read it and, even if they didn’t understand every little detail, be able to reimagine their world and their lives as part of the grand salvation drama of the ages.

Second, Revelation tells us we’re part of a hopeful story. Everybody needs a strong dose of hope. Little did I know, of course, that the message of hope for suffering people was something I would need because of situations in my own family. Looking back on it, God was working upstream and he knew I was going to need to live with the message of Revelation this year.

 

When did you get the diagnosis that Katie had cancer? 

February 15 was the day the doctor dropped the cancer word on our family. She had been sick since the beginning of the year; still, that diagnosis was a punch in the gut. But I married a woman of faith, and we held onto the constancy and goodness of God. We knew that whatever happened, he was going to take care of our family.

 

Not that there’s ever a good time to face cancer, but this was not the year.

In a lot of ways it’s turned out better than I could have planned, because we needed the North American theme in our lives. The word victorious was all over our house because I had NACC displays and literature I carried with me everywhere, so we were constantly reminded that no matter what happened, we would win in the end.

And we are already surrounded by a great church family and college family, but because of my role this year we were also surrounded by the Christian church family, and literally thousands of people and hundreds of churches mentioned my wife’s name in prayer during that time. If there was ever a reminder of why the NACC is important as a way to connect us, this was it. We were overwhelmed and humbled.

I was scheduled to speak at a big teen convention the weekend after the diagnosis and couldn’t attend. All the teens at the convention signed a huge card and sent it to our house and it just blew our kids away. My son tweeted a picture of it and wrote, “I love the church.” My kids got to see the church at its best. I’ll forever be grateful for that.

 

How is Katie doing? 

We’re celebrating that at the moment Katie is cancer-free. She’ll have to take meds for the rest of her life because this particular cancer has a fairly high recurrence rate. There are some side effects, and there’s a new normal for us. But we’re so grateful for answered prayers, and we’re just going to trust God every day to keep leading us.

 

Everything else pales in comparison to that experience, but another unpleasant moment this year must have been that Business Insider article ranking Ozark as “not worth the money.”

I’m sure they were well-intentioned, and the issue of escalating costs in higher education is certainly a legitimate one. The point of the article was to compare the cost of a school’s education to the expected salary of a school’s graduates.

I think our cost is very reasonable. I think the average cost nationally of a four-year private college education is $36,000 a year, and we’re less than half that. But because we are a Bible college, unlike other schools on the list, the vast majority of our graduates go into ministry, which isn’t exactly a ticket to riches. So they are right that our graduates aren’t going to make as much as a graduate from, say, Harvard.

But I don’t think the effectiveness of our mission is measured by the size of a paycheck. Our effectiveness is measured by things like churches planted, Bibles translated, missionaries sent, marriages mended, children taught, teenagers mentored, and lives changed by the gospel. Our graduates get to see some paychecks more important than the ones you deposit in your bank account.

 

It’s part of a larger conversation we’re hearing more and more about the rising costs of college. The debt load is a real issue, especially for people in ministry. 

And it’s an important conversation to have. We try to operate really lean and stay pretty efficient so we can keep those costs down while offering a quality experience. I think of Bob Russell’s line—“excellence without extravagance.”

It’s always a balancing act because we want to provide a quality education, which means quality people. But when health insurance costs for our staff go up by 20 or 40 percent, that either gets paid for by gift income or by a raise in tuition.

We also encourage students to work hard and not just take out their maximum loans every semester, so they can leave school with the least amount of debt possible. And we’re continually trying to raise scholarship funds. That’s one of our development office’s main goals.

 

What’s going on at Ozark that you’re especially excited about? 

I’m really excited about our partnerships, like the one with Orchard Group. For the last few years we’ve sent students to New York City to take classes, visit church plants, and explore urban church planting. Some of the kids who participate in this will become church planters and some will become leaders who have a heart for church planting. A few recent grads are planting in Japan and having amazing success—that’s a direct result of this program.

We’re in discussions with Christ In Youth and Good News Productions about partnering to train students in media and storytelling and using those tools for gospel work.

We also started a new BA in Biblical Justice this fall. The name is intentional—we’re taking a biblical approach that means caring for the whole person, body and soul. We’re partnering with some churches like Southland Christian in Lexington that are doing a great job combining evangelism and compassion ministries.

 

I love the way we work together. All of these good things for your students are happening because our churches and parachurches are working with you.

It’s the genius of the Restoration Movement. We call ourselves “independent Christian churches” but actually we’re interdependent. Even though we have more than 5,000 congregations, it just feels like a small town because everywhere I go I meet someone who knows someone I know.

I also love how nimble we are, because we can respond to needs without the bureaucracy. So many of our organizations began because someone saw the need, had the freedom to take the initiative, and worked with others to make something happen.

One of my goals this year was to really wave the banner with the younger generation, not just for the NACC but for our movement. So I tried to get into as many of our colleges as I could and share the value of staying connected, because ours is a great family to be part of. I love our tribe.

 

Jennifer Johnson, herself one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

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