By Darrel Rowland
It’s hard to say which was the more unusual sight at this year’s North American Christian Convention: the heavy-metal guitarist with waist-length dreadlocks and arms covered by tattoos as a featured speaker or the video of venerable Ben Merold, now 88, playing the Godfather.
Or was it the appearance of a beardless Duck Dynasty star?
Perhaps the oversized beach balls and foam flying discs tossed into the crowd before several of the services?
Or possibly even the NACC president admitting that his primary prayer to God was “not to screw up the work of his Holy Spirit” during the four days in Indianapolis?
Yes, this year’s NACC was decidedly different—in a good way.
The NACC theme, ReMission, centered on how we need to do things differently if we want to achieve more for God than what has generated often-tepid results—thus the need for a remissioning of individual Christians and churches to be faithful to what Jesus wants from us.
“What we’re going to do this week is to get the church back on its mission,” NACC President Tim Harlow of Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois, said on opening night.
One of Harlow’s goals was to make this NACC fun. He sees preachers and church leaders come to the convention who are beaten down from the past year. They need a place to have fun, relax, and unload some of their burdens so they are better able to hear the ReMission message.
From the beginning, this NACC was planned as a departure from those of years past; it was designed to be more attuned to a faster-paced multimedia world, and to Harlow’s admitted ADHD.
The sermons were shorter—styled after the popular online “Ted Talks”—but there were more of them. Live drama was occasionally added, including a haunting opening-night solo by a young woman who kept wondering, Do you see me?
Video was employed frequently—with four screens this year instead of just two—whether it was slapstick of Harlow and company lip-synching kids’ sometimes-accurate versions of Bible stories or moving testimonies of lives changed by Christ from sex trafficking, substance abuse . . . you name it.
The band fronted by Parkview’s team was heavy on bass and scattered a few hymns among the mostly contemporary offerings. Between them and the video, the audience experienced everything from a cappella to ZZ Top, including banjo, hip-hop, and the Mission: Impossible theme.
This year’s NACC experience cannot be shared without mentioning the huge LED backdrop, funded by Parkview, behind the stage. The “video jockey” chose ever-changing high-resolution scenes to make it appear as if the stage were located in a forest, along a country lane leading to a church building, amid falling rain, in front of stained-glass windows, at a seashore, even in outer space before a multitude of stars and galaxies.
Part of Harlow’s talk involved the choice of whether to go through a door, so during that portion of his message the backdrop depicted a large set of doors. (To those who saw the LED backdrop and thought, We’ve got to get one of those for our church! Harlow warns that they are not cheap. Be prepared to give up a youth minister, at least.)
‘Fire in My Soul for Evangelism’
Harlow said the theme to “remission” Christians came because he was “born with fire in my soul for evangelism and missions—to a fault, maybe, if that is possible.”
Harlow shared his frustrations with an “openly dysfunctional” Parkview that had only a modest number of baptisms until 1998, the low point of his discouragement after laboring for eight years with the church. But following its own difficult remissioning, Parkview has seen 6,000 baptisms since.
During his opening message, Harlow was blunt, noting that God says in the parable of the great banquet that he wants his house full.
“How’s that going?” he wondered.
With 195 million unchurched, America is now the fourth-largest mission field in the world. Much attention has been given to polls showing that the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. can be classified as “nones.”
“Our compassion must be greater than our comfort,” he said to applause. “We don’t see these people the way God does because they’re his lost children and we don’t get that.”
After the convention, Harlow noted he had received criticism for the varied lineup of speakers, including people like Brian “Head” Welch, lead guitarist of the metal band Korn, whose songs would not be classified as Christian. That’s one reason Welch’s appearance was scheduled the same night as that of Cal Jernigan, senior pastor of Central Christian Church in Arizona.
The pattern held throughout the week, pairing a Christian church minister with someone who’s not. So the talk from Merold, now minister-at-large with Harvester Christian Church in Missouri, came the same evening as the one from Craig Groeschel, founder and senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv. Vince Antonucci, senior pastor of Verve Church in Las Vegas, appeared before popular author Liz Curtis Higgs.
‘Encountering God’s Love’
The takeaways from each speaker were varied as well.
Welch, whose book I Am Second tells his unlikely conversion story, was interviewed by Harlow, who observed, “You are the weirdest looking dude we have ever had on the stage of the North American Christian Convention.”
Welch, recounting the 17 vicodins a day, then methamphetamines, he consumed as he lived the stereotypical narcissistic life of a rock star, said, “I was really hating the person I had become.” A guy who built monster trucks invited him to church services.
“I had an encounter with God’s love,” Welch recalled. “Eternity filled the room. . . . I felt like I was home for the first time in my life.”
Now that Korn has reunited and tours with other groups, Welch said he is finding that many of the others have cleaned up their lives too—so many, in fact, that they use one of the tour buses to hold Bible studies.
Alan Robertson’s family is seen by millions each week in Duck Dynasty. What many don’t realize is the Robertsons’ strong church of Christ background, despite some notable stumbles.
Robertson recounted when the family was approached about doing a reality TV series. His father, Phil, sitting in a chair, held up a Bible and asked, “I got one question boys, is this in?”
He was assured it would be, since that’s part of the family.
“If this is in, then I’m in,” Robertson says his father replied.
Robertson said his family is a little like John the Baptist: They eat strange things, wear weird clothes, and point people to Jesus.
“We will not compromise the truth to do that . . . because the Bible is still the Word of God,” he said. “If a crazy TV show points people to that, then I say more power to it.”
‘Putting Up with Things I Don’t Like’
Merold, who appeared as surprised as anyone by his video transformation into the Godfather, had one of the shortest but most pointed messages of the week. He urged young people not to give up on the church, and for his fellow seniors to be patient and continue serving.
“I don’t much like the new music, either. In fact, I haven’t liked it longer than you haven’t liked it,” he quipped. “I will be willing to put up with things I don’t like in order to reach people who are not like me.”
Groeschel took issue with the “failure is not an option” mentality pervading American churches.
“Too many Christian leaders think that failing means missing God,” he said. “What they don’t realize is that failure is often the first step toward success.”
Groeschel recounted several failures on the road to building LifeChurch.tv, regarded as one of the world’s largest churches.
“Fear of failure drives you to stop taking faith risks,” he said. “Fear of failure drives you to lead without faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God. . . .
If you blame yourself for the decline, one day you will take credit for the increase.”
‘Wow, Did They Love Me!’
Higgs briefly recounted a past of petty crime, drug use, and anti-God writings, saying her turnaround into a popular Christian author is proof “God can use anyone.” At least 50 people waited in line later in the convention when she appeared to sign her books.
She credited new Christians who “loved me into the kingdom.”
“They didn’t judge me, but wow did they love me,” she said. “Only God could do such a thing with such unpromising material.”
Love also was the centerpiece of Antonucci’s talk, during which he described encounters with many in Las Vegas who had given up hope. He pointed out that Jesus was a magnet to sinners even though he was perfect.
“He didn’t make them feel worse, he made them feel loved,” Antonucci said. “It’s love that turns a life around.”
Antonucci said he hopes Christians today earn the same “friend of sinners” moniker as their Lord.
“He gave people the truth, but he always led with love,” Antonucci said. “No one is beyond God’s grace, and no one is beyond repentance if they are shown God’s love.”
Kevin Holland, senior minister of Turning Point Church in Burbank, California, said many Christians have compassion in their heart for others, but that doesn’t lead to action, which makes them depressed. He stressed the importance in this day and age of simply talking to people.
“Expressing compassion starts with a conversation,” said Holland, who keeps a “conversation starter” journal. “Every conversion starts with a conversation.”
The convention’s vice president, Daryl Reed, lead minister of DC Regional Christian Church near Washington, D.C., said God’s love means he will correct us at times because it is in our best interests
“Being called to repentance is a blessing,” he said. “The main benefit of repentance is a closer, more intimate relationship with God.”
‘How Many Should Be Left Behind?’
Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church near Los Angeles, said, “If you want God’s blessing, you must care about what God cares about the most.”
And that is lost people. How much does God care about them? Look at the cross, said Warren, appearing via video because he could not make the convention due to family matters.
The well-known author and speaker said Saddleback has 40,000 meeting in 8,200 small groups. But the question isn’t how big the church should grow, it’s how many should be left behind.
“The church that doesn’t want to grow is saying to its community you can go to Hell,” Warren said.
Jernigan also stressed the value God places on each life, noting the compassion displayed by Jesus in lamenting the sheep without a shepherd.
“It ripped Jesus up inside; it tore up his guts,” Jernigan said.
He described how his son once almost drowned before Jernigan pulled him from underneath a boat—and the joy he felt when his son was saved.
“God’s missing some of his kids, and it’s ripping him up,” Jernigan said.
Lee Strobel said he loved the convention’s theme because “that is where my heart beats.” In fact, he said, the night before he was to deliver the closing message, God moved him to change it from his previous six-point presentation to one he scrawled on the back of an envelope.
“You will never regret at the end of your life, looking back, that you loved what Jesus loved,” Strobel said.
The former journalist who became a Christian after his wife’s conversion caused him to investigate the claims of Jesus, remarked, “It would’ve taken more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian.” He remembers his daughter, who used to automatically shrink back to her room when her father came home, noticing the difference and saying, “I want God to do for me what he’s done for daddy.”
“As you sit here, you have no idea how God has used you,” Strobel said.
But when you see the people in Heaven who are there at least in part due to your influence, “You will know at that moment that it was all worth it.”
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.
“NEVER SET ABOUT to build a big church. If you do, you will probably fail. Set about to win people to Jesus Christ, and if you win people to Jesus Christ, a big church may be a very delightful side effect.”
—Ben Merold, minister-at-large, Harvester Christian Church, Missouri
“DON’T YOU LOVE brand-new Christians? They’re just like puppies. They’re so enthusiastic, they’re just looking for someone to piddle on.”
—Liz Curtis Higgs, Christian author
“IF YOU’RE NOT being called a cult now and then, you’re not doing squat.”
—Craig Groeschel, founder and senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv
“DO WE LOVE our traditions more than our children?”
—David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group
“WHEN WE GET on mission, Satan is going to try to stop us.”
—Tim Harlow, 2014 NACC president
9,183* — Total estimated attendance
5,317 — Highest single-session attendance (Wednesday night)
100,000-plus — Livestream web “hits”
9 — Countries represented at peak of online viewership
699 — Attendance at Ladies’ Luncheon
102/403 — Teams, players in National Bible Bowl
261 — Organizations with exhibits
$98,000 — Total offering from main sessions
4 — College or older high school students who will be selected to preach at next year’s NACC in Cincinnati through nextgenpreachersearch.com
*Includes “comps” and an estimate for those who attended but didn’t register
Source: NACC staff