Influence Conference Hits Home
The opening session of the Influence Conference struck a chord with ministers and other guests as speakers made themselves vulnerable to communicate heartfelt messages.COLUMBUS, Ohio — Six segments, six riveting messages. The opening session of the Influence Conference, held at the Greater Columbus Convention Center as part of General Council 2023 on Tuesday afternoon, left the more than 3,400 attendees responding with applause and voicing verbal affirmations as speakers were often vulnerable while being nothing short of inspiring.
However, perhaps no minister shared a more vulnerable message than Linda Seiler, a Chi Alpha missionary and executive director of ReStory Ministries.
Seiler’s message dealt with one of the most challenging topics ministers and believers are facing in today’s society — transgenderism.
“From my earliest memory, I wanted to be little boy instead of a little girl,” she began. “My parents thought I was just a tomboy . . ., but I knew it wasn’t a phase, masculinity was my destiny.”
Seiler described the challenges she faced, including contemplating suicide, and how she was stunned when upon accepting Christ as a junior in high school her thoughts and desires didn’t automatically change.
Yet, as a college student, she confided in a Christian leader, sharing her struggles with him and his loving response led her on a 11-year journey to total transformation. The journey to transformation is messy, she said, as God revealed to her wounds, bitterness, and unforgiveness that had to be peeled away to transform her from the inside out.
“It’s because of God’s response and the body of Christ coming around me that I’m here before you, content with my female body . . . and in my 30s, I began having attraction to men,” Seiler said with a smile and laugh. “So, don’t believe the lie that the LGBTQ lifestyle is immune to the gospel and the transforming power of Jesus.”
As she concluded she pointed ministers to free resources available from ReStory, noting that “when the church is equipped new stories of transformation are told.”
“All the speakers were very inspirational,” stated Lynn McCain, pastor of The Assembly in Saline, Michigan. “There was something for everyone. I particularly appreciated Linda Seiler’s vulnerability as she described her journey through her gender dysphoria and same-sex attraction to being redeemed and renewed in Christ. As a parent with an adult child on this same journey, I found it particularly relevant.”
Angelo Austria, lead pastor of Vertical Church in Reno, Nevada, shared a testimony and message that were, by his own admission, Job-like.
Austria shared that over the last four years, he, as other pastors had, dealt with COVID shutting down his church, along with he being quarantined three different times. On top of that, his wife was diagnosed with a highly aggressive and deadly brain cancer, his dad was diagnosed with severe dementia and was dying, his mother-in-law learned she was dying, a close pastor friend was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and a board member confided that he had just learned he had stage 4 cancer.
“Then my mother-in-law died, a month later my dad died, and then my wife died,” Austria said quietly. “Two months later my brother-in-law goes into the hospital and that afternoon, he died. That was the last straw.”
Admitting that he contemplated taking his own life to take away the pain, Austria said he was angry with God. “I didn't want to meet with God, and that’s when He met with me.”
Austria shared several things God revealed to him through this journey, including:
• There are things that he will never understand, but no matter what, God is sovereign, good, faithful, and loving.
• Life is like a mist — treat every day, moment by moment, as a gift.
• Don’t live in your past, live in the life of Jesus Christ.
The lead pastor of Emmanuel church in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nate Ruch, spoke directly to pastors about preparing successors for their ministry and other ministries. He noted how often the younger generation don’t hear about it, and the older generations don’t want to talk about it — even at times standing in the way of those who would succeed them.
Using the example of how Samuel, who was the last judge in Israel, obeyed God to anoint Saul king, followed by David.
“Samuel could have been, ‘What about me?’ but he didn’t do that,” Ruch noted. “He did what God called him what to do . . . don’t see yourself as David, see yourself as Samuel, the one who saw a king in a shepherd boy. Samuel had the security in God enough to see the king in someone else and he remained a mentor for the rest of David’s life.”
He then challenged leaders to chase the voice of God, not a position; yield to God’s process for themselves and others; normalize development, reproduction, and succession; and invest in what will outlive them.
Pastors Andy Kaup and Walter Hooker took the stage and were interviewed by Peter Reeves, a minister at Faith Assembly in Orlando, Florida.
Kaup and Hooker have a unique relationship. Kaup is the lead pastor of Bellevue Christian Center in Nebraska and Hooker is the associate pastor.
The challenge that quickly became obvious was that Kaup and Hooker were both on staff when the senior pastor retired in 2019. Everyone thought that Hooker, who is black and had served the church for 25 years, would be named the new lead pastor, as Kaup had grown up in the church, but only been on staff for two years. Yet Kaup was chosen. The men were and continue to be close friends.
Hooker said when the announcement was made, he cried; not because he wasn’t selected, but because of how Satan used the decision to cause division and disruption in the church.
“Hearing what was going on and recognizing as a church we weren’t as healthy as we thought we were was painful and (as a new pastor) terrifying,” Kaup admits.
“2020 was a rough year for us,” Hooker said of the church. “And then in December, I contracted COVID. It attacked my kidneys and they were destroyed.”
Although Hooker recovered from COVID, he now needed a kidney. A search began, starting with blood type. Kaup had O-positive, just like Hooker.
“I filled out the link, but I didn’t know if I could help, because it’s not just blood, but tissue match, kidney size, and a lot of other boxes that needed to be checked,” Kaup said.
In April 2022, Kaup learned he was a 100% match and a few months later, the surgery took place.
“What stood out to me is . . . God can write the story far beyond whatever I can dream or imagine,” Kaup said. “Let God write the story.”
Hooker closed with the observation that, “we show God and the world how we love by how we love on another.”
“What is the good of theology?” asked Allen Tennison, an AG minister and professor of theology at North Central University in Minneapolis. “Let me turn that around, is your theology good?”
Tennison then clarified how theology is a collection of convictions of beliefs that are held to so strongly that if it were to change, it would change who we are as a person. He noted the problem is, too many Christians have beliefs that have not become convictions.
He stated good theology is gospel-centered — “God saves us” is the definition of the gospel, noting that just to explain the gospel requires doing theology; it has to be spiritually healthy — loving things in the right order in the right way; it has to be biblically based — when Scripture is used as the authority our theology is leading us to the right love; and communally lived — Christians are called to do life together passing theology onto people to shape their lives and actions.
John Easter, director of Partnership Development for AG World Missions, was the final speaker of the evening, as he presented the Sentness of God, which requires both sending and being sent.
He explained the necessity and importance of the New Testament model of modalities (those entities that support and send) and sodalities (those commissioned by and takes mandates from the modalities).
“We are in continuity with the New Testament model (of the Church),” Easter said, referring AG missions. “. . . But the task is unfinished, 42% of the 8 billion people in the world have never heard the gospel in a meaningful way.”
Easter also provided two principles for ministers to keep in the forefront of their thoughts concerning missions: Only in God’s economy can you plant seed in someone else’s field and reap a harvest of your own, asking “how generous are you with that seed and what seed are you planting;” and When you release workers to sow in another field trust God to multiply new workers in your own.