By Rick Jett
I used to feel sorry for the away team.
When I ministered in Marion, Indiana, in the mid-1980s, the Marion Giants were the dominant high school basketball team in the state. They were state champions three years in a row. On game day, everyone in town wore purple and gold to support the home team. Nearly 7,000 fans would fill the high school athletic arena.
The ceremony before each home game was designed to intimidate the away team. After everyone stood for the national anthem, the announcer would introduce the starting lineup for the visitors. The cheerleaders and the few hundred fans of the away team would clap and cheer.
Then, the house lights were turned off. A couple of spotlights would begin to dance around on the playing surface. With his booming voice, the announcer would invite the crowd to stand to cheer as the spotlights focused on the championship banners hanging from the arena’s ceiling. The crowd would cheer for each player from the home team as he ran out to center court. The pep band would play the fight song, the lights would come back up, and it was game on.
The first time I experienced this spectacle, I felt really sorry for the away team. The large crowd, the hype, and Marion’s history of success caused many of them to lose heart and surrender to defeat.
Yet, there were a few well-disciplined, well-coached, and single-minded teams who were not intimidated by their surroundings. They were able to overcome the challenges and win the contest . . . or at least earn the respect of the Giants and their fans.
Our Team, the Away Team
I thought about those days this year at the International Conference of Missions (ICOM), whose well-publicized theme was “The Away Team.” President Jim Tune introduced it this way: “The away team is a sports metaphor that illustrates how times have changed. There was a time when the church had home-field advantage in the U.S., Canada, and other parts of the world. Christians were the majority, influenced culture, and enjoyed political privilege. In other words, we had the equivalent of home-field advantage. But times have changed. To be victorious today we need to adopt strategies that reflect our position as visitors to our own culture. ICOM 2015 will be practical and uplifting.”
This year’s ICOM was indeed practical and uplifting. The Virginia churches paved the way by providing adequate funding and plentiful, competent volunteers. The partnerships between ICOM, Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship (now Waypoint Church Partners), the Eastern Christian Convention, and more than 200 congregations in Virginia were exemplary of what a united and committed team can accomplish for the Lord’s glory.
The question I pondered on my journey home was, Will this year’s conference make an eternal difference? I believe it can, if we will diligently implement and build on the following strategies shared at the gathering.
On opening night, Gary Johnson, senior minister with Indian Creek Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana, used the love story of the book of Ruth to explain the one thing we must do as followers of Jesus Christ to impact the lives of nonbelievers around us. He began by describing the conditions of the culture in which Naomi and Ruth lived. They were morally dark, economically difficult, and marked by disease, death, and destitution. Naomi was broken and bitter toward God, as are many people today. Ruth was aware of Naomi’s struggles and disappointments in life. The sacrificial commitment and persistent care Ruth gave Naomi changed her life.
Jesus was moved with compassion for the broken and lost. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. His sacrificial love is the game changer. As his followers, we must follow his example by opening our eyes to the needs of others and being moved with compassion to demonstrate his love for all mankind. Doing so will make all the difference.
Handle Truth Correctly
We live with the tension between grace and truth. We are called to teach and preach the truth in season and out of season. We are also commanded to love others as God loves us. Caleb Kaltenbach, who spoke Saturday morning, illustrated this tension with a rubber band. On one side is truth. On the other side is grace. Neither side is convincing on its own, but when stretched, the rubber band creates power. Caleb defined that power as love. Loving people effectively involves a tension between grace and truth. We need to trust the Holy Spirit to enable us to manage that tension correctly.
Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.”* Jennifer Johnson quoted the verse when she also spoke Saturday morning. She said she saw the importance of handling sharp things when she cut her thumb while hurrying too fast to chop some fruit. Likewise, we are to handle the sword of Spirit with humility and respect.
Revelation tells us Jesus is the keeper of the sword of truth. He is coming back. He will judge the world. Our purpose is not to filet our enemies, but to embody the Word of God as we live among them. As the Word of God transforms us, its power will be seen by a skeptical world and will hopefully draw others to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Evangelism is a team effort. First Peter 4:10 says, “God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.” Most championships are not won because of the talents of one superstar, but because each player contributes her best in cooperation with her teammates for the common goal.
At the Friday evening main session, Team Expansion President Doug Lucas gave a living example of this concept as he introduced Bridgett, a native of Cameroon attending ICOM with a desire to serve an “unreached people group.” After Lucas told her story, he called to the stage Doug Priest, president of Christian Missionary Fellowship International, and Greg Pruett, president of Pioneer Bible Translators, to introduce them to Bridgett. Lucas explained that his organization did not have a contact in the area where Bridgett wants to serve, but CMF and Pioneer do. He said CMF, Team Expansion, and Pioneer are not in competition with each other, but are teammates, working together for the common goal of reaching lost people. The task before us is way beyond any one person, organization, or congregation. It will take a wholehearted team effort.
It’s inspiring to walk through the exhibit hall at ICOM. You see hundreds of teammates coordinating and adjusting the game plan to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those held captive by sin, and produce worship of the true and living God among all the nations on the earth. What a privilege it is to be a part of such a dedicated team!
ICOM’s purpose is to encourage, equip, and enlist. This year, I was definitely encouraged by the corporate worship, led by the worship team from Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland, and by the preaching of God’s Word. I know many were equipped by the workshop leaders and speakers.
The thing that brings me back to ICOM each year is the emphasis on enlisting more workers for God’s fields. It’s reassuring to see college students walking the aisles of the exhibit hall, interacting with missionaries, participating in worship, and listening for God’s call. What a blessing to experience the surge of excitement and energy created by the invasion of junior and senior high students. They have fun, but they are also willing to serve by building storage shed walls to be given to flood survivors in South Carolina.
We feel the burden of older missionaries who have invested their lives in kingdom work, but now face limitations of aging bodies. Yet, we rejoice in the enthusiasm of young lives that are seeking God’s direction and finding their place on the team. From my observation, the team’s future is bright. We just need to continue to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send more workers into his fields.
God’s people have always been “the Away Team.” This world is not our home. We are just passing through. From a secular perspective, the odds seem to be against us, but let us not lose heart. Instead, “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. . . . Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Remember, “Overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us” (Romans 8:37)!
*Scriptures taken from the New Living Translation of the Bible.
Rick Jett serves as executive director of International Disaster Emergency Services (IDES), Noblesville, Indiana.
The Executive Director Reflects
We asked David Empson, ICOM executive director, for some facts and feelings about this year’s conference. Some excerpts from his responses:
Attendance: “6,400-plus . . . we’re saying 6,500! We are very happy with this attendance, especially considering that the conference was on the East Coast, farther from the center of our fellowship’s strength. Halloween affected us too. Whole churches had outreach events that kept them from attending.”
Offerings: $96,000. “Highest ever!”
Highlights: The Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship announced its name change to Waypoint Church Planters at ICOM. Working together with ICOM and Virginia churches, VEF planted seven new churches on six continents. Although there are only about 240 Christian churches and churches of Christ in Virginia (compared with thousands close to other ICOM host sites), the Virginia churches worked together to promote great attendance for the conference. “Their level of organization, competency, cooperation, and dedication to the Great Commission is the highest of any state I have seen in 18 years working with this convention.”
There was also a good turnout of students and others from Mid-Atlantic Christian University, and 78 students flew to the conference from Boise (Idaho) Bible College.
Also, the Eastern Christian Conference changed its dates to coincide with ICOM and brought “maybe a few hundred people. It was great to have them!”