I am frequently asked by folks back east, friends in ministry young and old, attracted by the lure of sunny California beaches and all things Disney, or delusions of seeing a shirtless Matthew McConaughey, if they should come to this year’s North American Christian Convention. I usually give a long, thoughtful, and qualified answer.
But the short answer is “no.” Let me save you some money.
Earlier this year, an impressive looking invitation to a promotional kickoff arrived at my home with a sincerely handwritten note asking me to attend a free luncheon. What jumped out at me – and many other locals – was that this year’s convention, while being held at the Anaheim Convention Center, is actually being promoted with stock-photography images featuring the Santa Monica Pier – the distance between the two is planetary given L.A.’s byzantine transportation system. So if first impressions mean anything, there is, perhaps, an important metaphor here for those seeking to sum up the NACC enterprise – things are not always what they appear.
I was also dubious of anyone from the NACC front office claiming to offer me a free meal. I have quickly learned in ministry that when parachurch organizations tell you “we’re all big fans of your ministry” or “we are very excited about what you are doing,” it usually means nothing more than they are planning to sell you something. In addition, I’d been critical of the NACC’s program and presidents for some time – it was almost shtick. But I conscripted my staff into going and agreed to attend – if for no other reason than I have come to respect and hold in high personal regard the individual who extended the invitation.
Still, I was annoyed. No good would come of this. This, I was certain, was a waste of time.
Some have characterized my views concerning recent NACCs as unnecessarily harsh and critical, perhaps referring to casual comments I may or may not have made in which I might have suggested that the NACC is “a self-congratulatory goat rodeo.” The words “celebrity aristocrats” might have come up as well. It is alleged that the words “primordial cesspool of favoritism, nepotism, and political favors” might also have been used by me – in reference to some of the more notorious articles written by past NACC presidents. Right now, I have no contemporaneous recollection of those comments.
But, to be honest with myself, my unimpressive encounters with the convention in no way made me actively “hate” the event. It would be more accurate to say I was dismissive. I didn’t take it seriously. How could one? It offered little-to-nothing in the way a professional trade show might. It was exactly what everyone said, simply “a place to reconnect with old friends.” But for distant, seemingly isolated congregations like mine, even that had merit. And, despite what others say of me, I never really “disliked” Tim Harlow, or Mike Baker, as much as I found the conventions over which they presided . . . ludicrous and somehow personally embarrassing.
My genuine contempt for the NACC came recently – after the luncheon. After I realized that so many of these guys were simply pawns manipulated within an ethical quagmire of peer pressure where the lines of right and wrong are kept deliberately permeable in order to satisfy capitalistic lusts. I used to think NACC presidents and main speakers were somehow chosen based on popularity or, at least, the pretense of accomplishment. But as Dave Stone described it, his appointment was the result of a backroom deal in which his “brother and father made some phone calls and pulled a few strings.” This despite the multiple and impassioned reassurances by the NACC Communications and Programming Manager that all NACC presidents are the result of a transparent, grass-roots nominating process which gives no preferential treatment to anyone. “If you want things to be different, come and get involved,” was the constant refrain; a never-ending roundelay that “everyone has an equal voice.”
Of course, this same PR representative incredulously reassured us in advance of last years convention that, for example, “Jodi Hickerson is speaking not because she’s a female who is part of a preaching team, but because she is a gifted communicator who has a message that Mike Baker and the NACC leadership believe our attendees can benefit from.” Following Jodi’s performance, even her most ardent supporters would be hard pressed to defend this claim. This notion alone suggested that “NACC leadership” was actively misleading subordinate staff and this young man, as nice as he was, had no idea what was going on and no juice with anybody.
Sitting only a few feet from the main stage and despite our best efforts to remain positive, the meeting quickly devolved into something far beyond the usual lack of imagination – even for the NACC. It was something of an ersatz Jeff Foxworthy routine/sales pitch reinforcing redneck stereotypes as warm-hearted, web-fingered yokels, “some of whom actually wear shoes” and was, sadly, devoid of even a single reference to scripture. Kevin Holland, NACC National Prayer Chair and fellow Executive Committee member, remarked, referring to Dave’s excessive joke-telling, “way to kill a spiritual moment with humor.”
Needless to say, the post-lunch review conducted by my staff, most of whom are new to the NACC, was tepid at best. “I’ve heard a lot of past NACC presidents give their pitches – this one was one of the worst,” was one assessment. Another of my staff pointed out, “I kept waiting for him to explain or develop the theme, but it never came.” Far from the inspirational message they had expected, Dave’s mailed-in performance fell flat. Even going so far as to describe himself as the “Jeb Bush” of the NACC, Dave telegraphed to the audience that his heart just wasn’t in it.
It was now clear, and a matter of record, that despite the NACC’s protests to the contrary, the guys who select the main speakers and appoint presidents all call each other and horse trade behind the scenes. I get it. It’s good for business, it’s good for megachurch pastors with something to sell, but let’s be real, no one should take it seriously. It’s not even a popularity contest as some still believe it to be, it is a list brokered by a lot of people with common cupidinous interests. Standard publishing is about selling subscriptions and Sunday School material, CDF is about designing, building, and financing church buildings, and the NACC is about selling admissions and exhibit space. And they are all keenly aware, as with any capitalistic venture, that if you stop growing you die. An unfortunate reality for parachurch businesses in particular, because once sound doctrine ceases to be popular, it also ceases to be profitable. Therefore these quasi-religious enterprises, which at one time existed to serve the church, now fight for survival. Finding themselves at cross-purposes with the church, they begin to function like starved remoras, sucking the life blood out of their host organism. They drape themselves in the nostalgia of the past, hoping no one will notice that they have sold out the future for the expediency of the present.
It’s all very Faustian indeed.
If you look at the convention along those lines, the critical value of their theology and determinations becomes a little clearer. One might ask the question, “How many presidents and main speakers of the NACC are major clients of CDF?” Or, “How many more buildings can CDF finance and erect by using the convention to influence church leaders to water-down sound doctrine or promote popular false doctrine?” You’ll notice there aren’t any theologians employed by CDF. You may also notice that a lot of contributors published by the Christian Standard are current or past NACC presidents and main speakers.
If these institutions can add to the celebrity of these pastors, that celebrity can then be leveraged as capital to help promote revenue streams and protect theologically questionable marketing strategies. I mean, you’re being honored sure, but you are also endorsing, by association, a philosophy. Add to the notoriety of these pastor-players and you’ll never have to remind them about it later. Believe me. They’ll remember. It’s like giving a bent cop a Christmas turkey. They may not be able to help you directly – but they’ll at least make an effort to not hurt you. The NACC has become a private mutual admiration society, a high-rent industry event that – once a year – throws a lavish celebration/shakedown where Diamond Partners can honor prominent and prospective clients at what is quickly becoming an awards ceremony of a temple building cult.
Just listen to CDF sales reps chatter on witlessly about “architectural evangelism.” Which, when reduced to its essence, refers to a phenomenon whereby congregations with the largest, most comfortable, most aminity-filled venues draw the biggest crowds. Like the temple cult of Jesus day, the building has replaced the message as the central focus. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the CDF’s marketing message: “We help churches grow because we believe the church is central to transformed lives.” Really? What happened to the gospel?
All of this doctrinal stuff, what with people talkin’ about funny soundin’ greek words and maintainin’ the faith . . . doesn’t, it is readily apparent, fit their current business model.
The tail now wags the dog.
To be fair to the reader, I must admit that my low opinion of Church Development Fund actually goes back a little further in time. Back to when they were not what they are today – before they began to insinuate their influence over the NACC and the ICOM. I watched in the 90’s when moribund ICC churches in California were going under, one after another, and CDF would send out emissaries reassuring aging elder-boards all across the state that a CDF Trust would prevent Restoration Movement properties from experiencing hostile take-overs by nefarious denominations. Not wanting their hard fought resources used to spread the false doctrines they had long resisted, yet unprepared for the cultural changes and modernization required to hold on (many of them, years ago, having given their lives to a building by taking out second-mortgages to build the thing) these retired and semi-retired saints acquiesced.
Here lies both the irony and the farce of CDF acting as trustee of these assets. Today, through their Stadia subsidiary and partially through the millions of dollars of cumulative capital vouchsafed to them by these very same trusts, CDF is now responsible for sowing the very heresies they promised to protect against.
Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting that anything involving the exploitation of the elderly occurred at any level. I just find it paradoxical that these vulnerable, albeit credulous, church boards were sold such extreme forms of protection in light of the fact that, in the end, CDF couldn’t even protect itself.
Needless to say, there is no reason to believe most CDF lobbyists or even NACC presidents would recognize a theological threat if it strolled into their well-envisioned offices and plopped itself down on one of their trendy, well-cushioned bar stools. In this respect, the RM establishment is like most establishments. They were built, once upon a time, by hardy capable souls. But the successors have gone soft, and now the establishment is staffed by more pliable types, venally living off the political capital of their fore bearers, with a deeply ingrained instinct to accommodate those on the outside and to collaborate with the ill-informed, albeit entertaining, figure heads and opportunists who have established beachheads within.
Sadly, my staff and I left knowing that it was the end for us at the NACC. At least for the time being, it’s their world. Me? You? We’re just living in it.
Terry Sweany serves as Senior Minister of Playa Christian Church. He received his Bachelor’s in Christian Ministry from Cincinnati Christian University and a Master’s in Marriage, Family, & Child Counseling from Hope International University. He and his wife, Patty, reside in West Los Angeles.