Interview with Tim Harlow
By Paul Boatman
Tim Harlow, the senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois, is president of the 2014 North American Christian Convention.
Tell us about your work with the North American Christian Convention.
My mother carried me in her womb to my first NACC. In the 52 years since then, I have attended 46 of the conventions. It really has always been a part of my life. In 1990, when I began a difficult ministry with this church, the convention was a lifeline for me. I got the empowering messages, the pats on the back, the “juice” I needed to keep going. I know others who show up at the convention who doubt they can keep going.
I accepted the presidency because I want to help the people who need encouragement in ministry. Most ministers are serving churches headed the wrong way, getting smaller and grayer. I want the convention to do for those preachers what it did for me.
On a larger scale, what is the NACC’s role for our church movement?
As more than one person has said, “If this convention did not exist, we would need to be doing something else like it.” If we are going to have a movement, we need a place for people of the movement to gather. The independent Christian churches are drawing attention. When Outreach magazine published its most recent lists of the 100 largest churches and the 100 fastest-growing churches, only the Southern Baptists had more churches listed. There are people who want to come alongside and join with us. They say, “I did not know your group, but I know this person, this church, this college, this church planting organization. I love what you are doing. How can we connect?”
The NACC is the place where we can meet together, talk together, and dream together. The convention really is a “connecting place” like nothing else.
Selecting a president who “pushes the boundaries” may reflect a transition in the convention’s identity.
It both reflects and empowers who we are. We really are a movement—not a denomination. If we had denominational structure, our convention might try to control us, but, as a movement, we don’t have to agree with everything said. We just need to be able to talk—if we’re all working together for Jesus, let’s get together and hang out.
You know, when I first came on the continuation committee I sat back with other younger members as we wondered if we wanted to participate in a stodgy old convention. Well, it is a much different convention now . . . more forward-looking, creative, and inclusive.
This gathering is not about “us,” it’s about reaching the people right outside our doors, paying attention to people the church may have “stiffed.”
You’ve had an extraordinary ministry at Parkview. What’s going on there?
Parkview is a turnaround church. Twenty-four years ago we had a congregation of 150 that was divided over a bunch of issues. It was on life support from the church planting organization and had no functioning eldership. For the first 8 or 10 years, we were striving for traction. It was really hard, but it began to happen. Over the past 12 years we have averaged 25 percent growth per year, growing from 600 to 7,000. Essentially we are reaching the “prodigals,” people who are outside of Christ.
That is extraordinary! What drives you?
We think we are doing Christ’s mission. I love the 99 in the sheepfold, but I’m into looking for the lost sheep. Jesus said that’s what the Shepherd would do. Parkview is in an 80 percent Catholic area in the south suburbs of Chicago. There is very little other Evangelical activity in our area, yet we have 4 million people within a 30-minute drive of one of our two campuses.
The south suburbs are not seen as an open door for the church. It’s like the old preacher’s story of two shoe salesmen who went to Africa. The first said, “Forget it. Nobody here wears shoes!” The other said, “Send all the shoes available. Everybody here needs shoes.”
We are trying to reach the 30-year-old male with a Catholic history, but no active relationship with Christ. Parkview is in the right place to do that, but we are not unique. There are 125 million unchurched Americans. We need to focus on reaching them.
Have you always had this missional focus?
Yes. Even as a teenager I experienced what Bill Hybels called “holy discontent.” I knew my friends needed Jesus, but the churches I knew were places my friends would never go.
My family has deep ministry roots. Uncle Roy Wheeler was a maverick who went to extremes to reach the lost. My in-laws, the Vernons, were using TV to reach into people’s homes. My teachers at Ozark helped me clarify Christ’s missional emphasis. My internship with Ben Merold solidified it.
The more I concentrate on reaching the lost, the more God seems to open the doors. I feel linked with God in pursuing this kind of ministry. C.T. Studd said it for me, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell.”
Is your preaching evangelistic?
Not directly. My current series on the seven deadly sins is not evangelistic, but the sermon on lust drew a record attendance. It was pretty heavy stuff with a lot of Scripture. I believe preaching the Word of God will have its own evangelistic impact. However, my style of preaching reaches prodigals well. It fits my ADHD style, bouncing around, using humor, and communicating the gospel in ways common people relate to.
Do you worry mature Christians will not be fed by your preaching?
Good question, but I don’t worry about it. Older Christians sometimes ask me to settle down and “feed us the heavy stuff.” Trust me, I sometimes do. But my usual reaction is to say, “You should not be relying on my sermons to feed you.”
Bob Russell said, “If you only get fed once a week, even a banquet meal, you’re not going to grow.” We have a lot of other options to help people grow. We have as many people in small groups as in weekend services. We make teaching DVDs available.
But to the mature Christian we say, “If you want church to be all about feeding you, we are not the church for you. We are about reaching the prodigal, and God keeps affirming us in that.” The older brother never got excited about the prodigal’s return. People who have no joy in conversions need another church. We understand people sense different needs in their spiritual life cycle, but to the older Christian, I say, “If your son or daughter came home with an unbelieving spouse, you know this is the kind of church you would want to have available to them.”
We hear about weekends at Parkview with hundreds of baptisms? What’s going on with that?
When Moody Radio interviewed me about this, they thought it was bizarre. They wondered how we knew what these people really believe. I asked if they really thought there were catechism discussions with the 3,000 people baptized on Pentecost. It seemed OK with God to baptize the Philippian jailer without a series of lessons. When the Holy Spirit is working, baptism seems to be the right first obedience, and they just keep coming.
But what builds the momentum?
It’s not in a vacuum. We regularly preach on baptism. The last time we had more than 500 baptized on one weekend was right after a sermon on baptism. When many people are responding, that empowers others to take the step. When a guy with tats and a Bud Light T-shirt wades into the pool saying, “I want to follow Jesus,” we have no reason to say, “Wait! First you have to take a class.” God is at work. We won’t stand in his way.
Paul Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.