History of Missions Fest

Written by Richard Dodding, the first Executive Director of the Missions Fest organization.

It all began in 1983 when a church missions committee was musing over their church’s purchase of a curling (ice) rink that would become their church home. Someone said, “With all that space, we could hold a missions conference!” A sub-committee began making plans. After three or four months of work, someone said, “Other churches must go through this same struggle when they attempt something like this. I wonder if other congregations would be interested in working with us? We would be able create a stronger conference if we planned together!”

And that is what happened. Six churches with quite diverse backgrounds decided to work together with the common goal of raising awareness of the needs around the world. They realized that world missions was getting a back seat in the church’s agenda and budget. Out of sight was definitely out of mind. Something needed to be done.

Representatives of the six churches began meeting and planning. They decided to invite four speakers so that at least one would be a winner with everyone. They also began searching for lists of international mission agencies to invite to have information exhibits. One church representative began to make international flags; someone else offered to arrange for ethnic food. Excitement grew.

The First Missions Fest

Missions Fest 1984
Missions Fest 1984

Someone heard that Don Richardson was going to be in the area close to the proposed date of the conference. He was available. Garth Hunt, a resident missionary now working with WorldServe Ministries, was also available and he suggested Larry Ward, who at that time, was with Food for the Hungry. Dennis Clarke, who had spent many years in Afghanistan, was another resident missionary living in the area. So, the speakers were set.

There were moments when one could wonder if this event was going to happen. Those contacting the mission agencies were not getting replies. Many agencies needed to be called three times before they would consent to come.

Start-up funds were scarce. The sponsoring churches provided some seed money to pay for printing and postage. The church whose facilities were booked offered to forgive the rent if the conference did not fly. The publicity department produced a bulletin insert and then someone suggested that we invite all the churches in the area to come. No admission charge was expected so that everyone would be able to attend. We would invite people to contribute what they could during the conference.

Now, one week before the event, Larry Ward called to say that he couldn’t leave Vietnam and could Garth Hunt find a substitute. Paul Kauffman was called and was ready to come. Then, just as the weekend was to begin, Garth’s parents were killed in a car accident in Ontario. He had to go but promised to return for the final day.

The doors opened for the Friday evening for the showing of Peace Child just prior to the opening plenary session. We waited to see if anyone would come. Then they began coming and coming and coming. Now the seats were filled to capacity and the hall was full. The aggregate attendance that first weekend was 3500 people. All expenses were covered and the several hundred dollars left over were given away to some mission project.

That Missions Fest held in January 1984 was intended to be the only one. But when the organizers assembled to debrief, they realized that something much greater had happened. They felt that God was pleased that this vision for the unreached around the world was being addressed in such a united effort. It was decided to hold another conference the following year.

Missions Fest conferences held in Vancouver ever since are based on the same foundational principles of local churches working together to reach out to the world. This is obviously not your typical spiritual life conference. It is completely outward focused and small staff functions to coordinate the hundreds of volunteers from the sponsoring churches. The churches are in “the drivers seat” and they invite the many denominational and independent missions agencies to work beside them in providing information exhibits and educational seminars

Free general admission still exists and the three to four speakers invited are people who work “in the trenches” and speak out of their own experiences and calling. At least one woman is part of this team, at least one non-Western and one with a strong Biblical presentation. Recently, the Vancouver conferences see an estimated three-day aggregate of over 30,000 attending. Missions Fest concludes with the registration of eager people ready to take the sixteen week Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course, of which, 160 attended the first year.

Youth rallies and seminars are a strong component of Missions Fest. In Vancouver, 2300 young people crowd into the youth rallies while others attend the plenary sessions and exhibits with similar numbers. Christian schools participate in field trips that start moving in Friday morning after which Children’s programs continue throughout the weekend. Music is important during the large gatherings with local musicians sharing in the worship, but it does not preempt the purpose of the conference.

Over the past years, other cities have picked up on the vision and now hold similar Missions Fests. They include Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax in Canada. Missions Festivals have also been held in Perth, Australia, Pretoria, South Africa, cities in the United States and other key cities in the world. Missions Fest Vancouver continues to be held on the last weekend of January at the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre, on Vancouver’s waterfront.

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