Over 4,000 people from 112 countries converged on Orlando last week to give God the glory for His faithfulness over 30 years of Operation Christmas Child. Everyone praised God for providing more than 200 million shoebox gifts for children in need since 1993 and for the 50 million boys and girls discipled through The Greatest Journey and The Mailbox Club.
Operation Christmas Child year-round volunteers and project leaders from as far away as Australia gathered at Rosen Shingle Creek for the 2023 Global Connect Conference to celebrate the two milestones—and get inspired to reach even more children and their families with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Jim Harrelson, vice president of Operation Christmas Child, said 45 volunteers were at the first Connect Conference that was held in Kansas City in 2007. “Now look where we are,” he said, looking out over the thousands in attendance. “The Lord certainly has been about multiplication. What an increase. It’s incredible!”
Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin Graham thanked the pastors, volunteers, and project leaders around the world who are involved with packing and handing out the shoebox gifts. But he reminded everyone that all the glory belongs to God.
“This is God’s work,” he said. “God has breathed His blessing on Operation Christmas Child because this program is about His Son. When you lift up the Son, the Father smiles. This is about lifting up the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, from one end of the earth to the other, one box at a time. We want every one of these boxes to be the hands and feet and voice of our Lord to the children of the world.”
A special time of celebration and worship was held on Saturday night and was led by Michael W. Smith, CeCe Winans, and Marcos Witt. The evening was emceed by Cissie Graham Lynch.
“We’re here to tell the story of what God has done over the past 30 years,” Lynch told the packed ballroom. “We are going to go decade by decade. We are going to celebrate what He has done through Operation Christmas Child—200 million boxes in 30 years!”
Smith then took the stage, along with Witt, and they alternated singing in English and Spanish and leading worship before Winans later appeared as a special surprise guest. Smith also recalled some of his most memorable moments accompanying Franklin Graham on outreach events and said a shoebox is “a love box.” He then offered up a prayer for those in the room and reminded everyone that “there is no plan B [in reaching the lost with the Gospel]. We’re it.”
Elizabeth Groff, who received a shoebox when she was 7 years old living in an orphanage in Ukraine, was introduced and recalled how she recently had the honor to hand out the ceremonial 200th shoebox gift to an 8-year-old orphan girl in Ukraine named Natalya. Groff explained that Natalya’s favorite item in her box was a yellow flashlight. The flashlight was important to her because she could use it as a guide to safety when air raids went off.
“We know that day that Natalya didn’t just receive a flashlight,” Groff said. “She received the light of Jesus.”
Graham closed the festive night of celebration by again thanking everyone involved in packing and presenting shoeboxes and then urged churches to increase the number of shoeboxes they pack by 20 to 30 percent this year because time is short.
“We don’t have another 30 years, I don’t think,” Graham said. “If we’re going to reach this world for Christ let’s do it while we’ve got an opportunity. Jesus said work while it’s still day because night is coming. And I believe night is coming, but we’ve still got day, so let’s work. Let’s get as many boxes as we can.”
Pastor Ravindra Sookraj traveled from Guyana to attend the conference and special celebration.
“It’s amazing to be here with thousands of brothers and sisters from many, many nations, tribes, languages, cultures, and backgrounds,” he said. “We are all here to give God thanks and praise for His goodness, His faithfulness, and His provision to reach children around the world with the Gospel. This year we are celebrating 200 million shoebox gifts. That means we were given 200 million opportunities to share the Gospel with children. Praise the Lord!”
Rizera Hipakua, a pastor in Namibia, said the twin milestones were proof of God’s favor on Operation Christmas Child.
“God is affirming that He has called us and that He is answering our prayers,” he said. “When we go back home we will continue to share the Gospel and encourage more ministry partners to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth so that everyone in the world can know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.”
During the conference, a special emphasis was placed on taking the Gospel to the 7,000 unreached people groups across the globe, which consists of 3 billion people—1 billion of which are children.
“It starts with God’s calling,” said Joe Mott, director of Global Programs for Operation Christmas Child. “He’s the one who calls these people. Operation Christmas Child is the vehicle [to reach them].” He told the attendees that in 2022 shoebox gifts were handed out in 99 unreached people groups in 38 countries.
“We have a program that opens impossible doors for the Gospel,” said Joel Hayslip, field ministry and discipleship manager. “We’ve seen that evangelism, discipleship, and multiplication among children is one of God’s preeminent tools and strategies for church planting among the unreached. For years, Operation Christmas Child has been building teams intentionally further and further away from the Christian centers of the world towards the unreached.”
The Connect Conference concluded Sunday morning with an inspiring, dynamic message from Bishop James Alexander of the Africa Inland Church in Sudan. He exhorted the attendees to return to their countries and communities and fearlessly proclaim the Gospel, even to those who hate you.
“When I came to know the Lord, I wanted to be the Billy Graham of Sudan,” he said. “The Great Commission is commanding us to move and to go and to preach the Gospel. And when I listened to Billy Graham I said that is the man I want to be like because I want to preach the Gospel with no fear.”
Rev. Don Wilton then led everyone in communion to conclude the conference.
Tiana Morel, a project leader in Seychelles, perfectly summed up the Global Connect Conference and the 200 million shoebox gift celebration.
“It’s mind-blowing,” he said. “Only God can raise up 200 million shoeboxes, and I know He’s going to do more. We celebrate Him this week and it’s wonderful. All of these nations gathered here is a taste of Heaven.”
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