By Keith Wood
When Mr. and Mrs. John Chase of Los Angeles, California opened their home for a small but special gathering in 1948, I wonder if they could have foreseen the impact that meeting would have. Joining the Chases that day were J. Russell Morse, Eugene Morse, and Miss Marian Schaefer. They had gathered to help plan a missionary rally that would precede the North American Christian Convention held that year in Springfield, Illinois at the West Side Church of Christ (now West Side Christian Church).
From Rally to Convention
That missionary rally was the genesis of what would later be known as the National Missionary Convention (NMC) and more recently the International Conference on Missions (ICOM). Last November ICOM hosted more than 11,000 registered attendees at the beautiful downtown convention center in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The second convention was held at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. By the time of the third National Missionary Convention, the steering committee had decided to plan the program separately from the North American Christian Convention. The event was held in Webster City, Iowa November 14-17, 1950. Harry Schaefer served as the chairman for that convention with the theme, “Lord, What Wilt Thou Have Me to Do?”
A New Leader
John Chase remained a key part of the leadership for the NMC in those early years. Robert “Bob” Lillie, a church planter from Colorado Springs, Colorado, would join the effort in 1950 and become a key leader for many years. In 1966 the NMC had grown significantly and it became necessary to hire a part-time convention coordinator. Walter Birney was selected to fill that position.
Walter had been preaching in the small town of Copeland, Kansas. A few years earlier, in the summer of 1963, Walter had decided that he had done about all he could do for the struggling congregation and it was time to resign and move on. It looked like he would be moving by the first of the year; however, in October a string of events changed his mind and the course of his ministry. The events included a generous response by the Copeland church to a mission appeal from their “homegrown” missionary to Hawaii, Carolyn Hart, Walter’s reading of the little book Triumphant Missionary Ministry in the Local Church, and a newsletter from a young missionary to Rhodesia, Ziden Nutt (who would later start Good News Productions International.)
Ziden’s newsletter called attention to an opportunity for the ministry to expand its work into a new area. If it didn’t make this move, then other religious groups would seize the opportunity. Even though it didn’t have the finances to do so, Ziden announced the ministry was stepping out in faith and trusting that God would provide the resources. This inspired Walter. He sent out a letter to his mailing list announcing his intention to stay in Copeland, and in addition to his local work, to do all he could for the sake of world evangelism.
Walter began by making a personal, sacrificial gift of $100 a month to the mission in Rhodesia. He then led a very successful faith-promise missionary rally in Copeland the following year where Ziden served as one of the keynote speakers. Walter then become involved with the National Missionary Convention and was asked to serve as its first coordinator in 1966.
A Change in Leadership
Walter and Iva Lou, his faithful wife and ministry partner, would serve the NMC for the next 42 years from a small office in Copeland. The position changed from part-time to full-time in 1985. In 1998, a teen conference was added to the convention and David Empson, youth minister at the Hazelwood (Indiana) Christian Church, was tasked with leading it. In 2001, David became the full-time teen director.
Health issues led Walter and Iva Lou to retire in 2008. The executive committee of the NMC decided David Empson was the natural choice to become the new convention director. It was also decided to move NMC’s offices to Clayton, Indiana, as the Hazelwood Christian Church had offered a building on some surrounding property it had purchased to serve as a new office complex—a tremendous blessing!
A Change in Name
At the convention in Atlanta in 2011, after months of marketing research and prayer, it was announced that the National Missionary Convention would change its name to the International Conference on Missions. The change more accurately reflects the growth and scope of what the conference has become. From its humble beginnings as a missionary gathering, ICOM now hosts thousands every year who are interested in advancing the cause of the global gospel of Jesus Christ. The name has been changed but the purpose remains the same—to continue to encourage, equip, and recruit workers for the harvest. With the average age of an ICOM attendee being 22, the future looks exciting!
A Profound Impact
Hundreds of stories could be told about the impact this conference has had on world missions through the years. Every year we hear testimonies of how God is using ICOM as a tool to help impact world missions in a remarkable way. Allow me to share one of those
Bryan Kaiser was a successful optician in the greater Atlanta area. In 2005 his wife, Jennifer, came to him one evening and explained that she had been searching the web for medical mission opportunities. She felt led by God to e-mail several missions and tell them her husband was an optician and that they would like to help provide glasses to the poor. He exclaimed, “Honey! What did you do that for? Do you know how much that will cost?” Her response was simply, “When you feel God is telling you to do something, you should do it!”
About a month later they received an e-mail from Dr. Valerie Colby, a missionary in Honduras, expressing interest in Jennifer’s plan. Bryan responded and asked how he might ship glasses to her. She explained that she was stationed in a remote area and didn’t have a good shipping address. He concluded the conversation by saying he would see what he could do.
Not long after that, their preacher commented after a morning sermon that the National Missionary Convention would be in Atlanta that week and he encouraged the congregation to attend. Bryan felt God telling him he needed to go.
When Bryan arrived and walked into the exhibit hall he was surprised at the hundreds of mission works represented from around the world and the thousands of people attending the conference. He began to walk down every aisle to see if there was a mission that could help him send glasses to the poor. As he came to the last row, a lady stepped up and asked if she could help him. He mentioned the kind of mission he was looking for and she said, “You need to see FAME (Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism). I believe they can help you.” That was the only name he had written down as he toured the exhibit hall.
When he arrived at the FAME exhibit, Bryan was greeted by one of their representatives. He explained that he wanted to help provide glasses for the poor but didn’t know how—or even whom to help. The representative said, “I think you need to help Dr. Valerie Colby in Honduras.” Bryan’s jaw dropped to the floor. He couldn’t believe the representative had just mentioned the doctor who had initially contacted him.
Bryan explained the shipping problem he and his wife were facing. The representative said it would be no problem. FAME had a medical team visiting Dr. Colby later that year, and if Bryan would ship the glasses to FAME, the agency would take care of getting them to Dr. Colby. Bryan walked out of the exhibit hall, looked up to Heaven, and said, “God, you really want me to do this, don’t you?” And on that day, God’s Eyes Ministry was born.
That is what ICOM is all about. Helping people find where they can join God in his mission around the world. What story might be written this November 14-17 when ICOM meets in the wonderful downtown Kansas City Convention Center? It could be your story! Our first Hispanic president, Jair Castillo, has planned a celebrative conference centered on the theme “Glorifying God Globally.” Join us for what will be an inspiring, life-changing conference. See you in Kansas City!
Keith Wood is associate director of ICOM in Clayton, Indiana.
According to a Barna Group study, only 11 percent of churchgoers have been on a service or mission trip.
Thirty-three percent of the mission trips were to locations in the U.S. Only 1 percent of Americans have ever taken a mission trip as a family. Ten percent of adults under 25 are interested in taking a short-term mission trip in the next three years.
The most commonly cited benefits of having taken a short-term mission trip are “becoming more aware of other people’s struggles (25 percent), learning more about poverty, justice, or the world (16 percent), increasing compassion (11 percent), deepening or enriching their faith (9 percent), broadening their spiritual understanding (9 percent), and boosting their financial generosity (5 percent).”