Saturday, July 12, 2008

Future of the NACC

For my readers who may not read Christian Standard or attend the North American Christian Convention this entry relates to both.

I attended the recent convention held in Cincinnati. Although the convention was not well attended (there were about 4,200 in attendance), it was probably one of the better conventions of late. I did not attend every session, but those I did enjoy those I did attend. I did not hear the two morning speakers because I tried to catch up on some grading for my summer Restoration History course. With only one exception, the evening speakers were interesting, easy to listen to, and had a decent message. Cam Huxford and Ben Merold were outstanding. Jud Wilhite is a smooth speaker and kept my attention, but I really didn't get much from his message. Honestly, though, I found it hard to listen to him because I kept thinking about the fact that the church he serves no longer maintains a weekly observance of the Lord's Supper as a central focus on their morning worship. As one might expect, eighty-two-year-old Ben Merold emphasized traditional Restoration values including the important place of baptism as the means of "putting on Christ" (Galatians 3:27).

The July 6 issue of Christian Standard features an interview with former convention director Leonard Wymore. The printed interview was not the complete interview. To get the full interview, readers must access Standard's web site – I found Wymore's evaluation of the NACC insightful. He attributes some of the convention's dropping attendance to the fact that convention leadership seems to have forgotten the needs of the smaller and mid-size church.

I would add that this is inevitable given that upper echelon leadership is nearly always drawn from the larger churches. In the past, larger churches were usually those with attendances of over 300 or more. Until the rise of the mega-church, congregations of that size were considered large, especially west of the Mississippi. As congregations grew larger NACC leadership tended to come from the growing mega-churches.

Although we will continue to have growing mega-churches with us for some time, there are still hundreds of small and mid-size churches in small towns and rural areas. Their needs get ignored by the mega-church leaders. I haven't done the research, but I often wonder if that is because there is a tendency to think these smaller churches aren't significant. While many may be dying, others are hugely significant in their communities and often see many won to Christ. They do not always fail to grew because they are stagnant or insignificant. Sometimes they fail to grow simply because movement from small towns and rural areas continue to swell the cities – and the mega-churches, I might add.

As long as the NACC aims its program to the large dynamic mega-church, the leaders of smaller churches will continue to lose interest in the convention. It cannot be assumed that smaller churches always want to emulate the methodology of the mega-church. Such methods often simply do not work in smaller towns and rural areas.

In the interview, Wymore also indicated that rising registration prices make it less likely that leaders from small to mid-size churches will attend. At this year's convention, in spite of $75 for early individual registration there was a $150,000 short fall in meeting convention expenses. Convention leaders made offering pitches at four sessions with offerings totaling $132,000 by the morning of the last day. In addition, sponsors funded workshops and ancillary sessions. Frankly, I hate to think what the convention's total cost was. Although I didn't listen to Jud Wilhite all that carefully, I did pick up on one thing he said that I thought convention leaders need to heed. Wilhite said that he and his congregation – Central Christian Church in Las Vegas – discovered they didn't need more resources; they needed to be more resourceful!

When I served with First Christian Church in Canton, OH, I also participated as a board member of the Ohio Christian Education Association. This inter-denomination group put on an annual convention second to none. The OCEA convention featured hundreds of workshops, a major speaker, excellent music, and tremendous resources. Everything about the OCEA convention was first class. More than 3,000 attended the three day event held in Akron, OH. Registration was generally less than $20 per person for early registration. Earlier this year the OCEA was literally snowed out and the convention lost $30,000. Still the resourceful leadership that plans the annual convention still had an equal amount in reserve for the 2009 convention.

In addition to the large church emphasis and the financial issues, I think there is at least other factor to the drop in interest in the NACC. Many conservative leaders are convinced the NACC leadership is no longer concerned with sound doctrine, biblical preaching, and cherished principles of the Restoration Movement. That may or may not be true, but with few exceptions the workshops continue to feature authors from outside the Restoration Movement. This fact and the multitude of book signing events lead to the conviction they all they want to do is sell books. It is thought that the "big name" draws, but for those of us who hold to the movement's principles there is little interest in hearing Bill Hybels or other big name denominationalists. Where once the convention featured Bible studies and delved into theological issues, the focus is now on pragmatics.

I hate to say this, but I am convinced that the days of the NACC are numbered. I think this is true for several reasons including all of those mentioned above. First, there is a decision to hold conventions to Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis with an occasional excursion west of the Mississippi. While this region is the heartland of the Restoration Movement it conveys the idea that churches in the west are unimportant. Second, rising transportation costs will only worsen participation from great distances especially for leaders from small and mid-size churches. Third, an ever-widening gap between the needs of mega-churches and smaller churches will continue unless the mega-churches and convention leadership effectively demonstrate their faithfulness to the principles of the Restoration Movement.

As Lee Mason, editor of the Restoration Herald, has said, "We need the NACC." Ben Merold has said, "If we didn't have the NACC, we would need something just like it." It would be a shame if a convention beginning in 1927 as a gathering of individuals would continue to degenerate into an assembly of leaders who only want to congratulate themselves on their successes.