By Chris Moon
When the 2023 International Conference on Missions opens its doors this week in Oklahoma City, it will do so with high hopes—and in a place ICOM hasn’t been in 50 years.
“We’re going to an area of the country that doesn’t get a lot of strokes, so they’re just pumped,” said ICOM Executive Director David Empson.
This will be ICOM’s first venture to Oklahoma City since 1973. Preconference events begin Wednesday, the exhibit hall opens at 1 p.m. Thursday, with the opening main session taking place that night at 7 p.m. The closing main session will be Saturday evening.
In the years since Oklahoma City last hosted what was then called the National Missionary Convention, the city hadn’t had a convention center big enough for the Restoration Movement’s largest annual missions conference, Empson said. But the 500,000-square-foot Oklahoma City Convention Center opened in 2021. It boasts a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall.
“It’s top-notch,” Empson said.
ICOM will run through Saturday. The theme this year is “Hope for the Nations.”
This year’s conference president is Stephanie Freed, co-founder of Rapha International.
Jordan Howerton and CCV Music will lead worship.
Andrew Peterson, a popular Christian songwriter and author—and a former Florida Christian College student—will play a concert Friday night. Peterson wrote the worship song “Is He Worthy,” as well as the children’s book series The Wingfeather Saga.
Empson said he’s had people ask to get into ICOM just to hear Peterson perform.
“That’s exciting to see something like that,” he said. “It’s nice to have a little fun for the community that comes.”
One question is how well-attended ICOM will be this year.
ICOM averaged 8,000 attendees at its conference from 2010 to 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everything—especially large gatherings. The pre-pandemic crowds still haven’t returned.
Last year in Columbus, Ohio, 6,500 people attended ICOM. That was 88 percent of the attendance from the previous time the conference had been held in Columbus eight years earlier.
Empson attributes that drop to the coronavirus, which still lingered as a health concern.
This year, “it’s just not as big of a deal,” he said.
ICOM has 2,700 room nights booked so far for this year’s conference in Oklahoma City. That number lines up well with previous conferences.
There’s typically a “slippage” of about 15 percent in booked rooms in the days leading up to the event, Empson said. This year, that drop was just 6 percent.
Empson said he thinks people are more measured about their travel plans than they’ve been in the past.
ICOM also has 625 exhibit spaces booked. There’s been almost no slippage in that area.
“That’s huge,” Empson said. “So that way, things are looking really, really good.”
Empson said ICOM’s attendance will be driven by local Oklahomans who come to the conference.
He said the state has 160 independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ but only two megachurches in the entire state.
That means the bulk of Oklahoma’s churches are smaller, and many of them are in rural areas.
Contrast that with last year’s conference in Columbus. Several megachurches and emerging megachurches dot Ohio.
“The pickings are different, but they are very thrilled that we’re coming,” Empson said. “Who knows what kind of a groundswell we’ll see?”
Empson said he knows of groups coming from California, as well as from Boise Bible College and Dallas Christian College. Meanwhile, Ozark Christian College plans to bus students to the event each day from Joplin, Mo.—about three hours away.
“There are lots of these things happening,” Empson said.
As for hitting last year’s head count of 6,500, he said it’s possible.
“The numbers look really, really good. The local attendance is going to be the key,” Empson said.
HOPE FOR THE NATIONS
ICOM’s 2023 theme, “Hope for the Nations,” is based on Jesus’ message in Luke 4:18-19, wherein he proclaimed his mission. (Read President Stephanie Freed’s vision for the 2023 ICOM which she shared with our readers from January.)
Everyone needs more hope these days, including missionaries, Empson said.
He said the current political and cultural environment is “pretty depressing.” Meanwhile, “woke culture” is questioning the appropriateness of missions because gospel-centered mission work ultimately calls people to repentance—to change their lives.
In addition to these headwinds, the church in America is struggling.
Empson said he was in one town in Oklahoma that had six churches. Four were practically closed. One didn’t have a preacher. And one had two pastors in their early 60s, looking for ways to retire.
“There are people hanging on that have no relief in sight. So, there’s just a lot of discouragement,” Empson said. “I’m thrilled our theme this year is ‘hope for the nations,’ including our nation.”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.