Holy Land Experience: Orchestrated by God
On February 4, 800 believers from all over America gathered in The Plaza of the Nations at Zion's Hope to dedicate The Holy Land Experience to our heavenly Father. It was a spiritual occasion no one present will ever forget. A sense of God's presence permeated the evening. The next morning, February 5, The Holy Land Experience opened to the public.
It was the fruition of years of planning, working, and praying. But would anyone come? Would they enjoy the experience? Would the Lord be exalted? Would lives be touched for eternity? Would believers who visited find a brief respite and haven of rest? Would they understand our heart and what we were doing?
We knew that with the development of The Holy Land Experience, we had "pushed the envelope," that we were going where few have gone before. But we were convinced that it was a concept whose time had come, and that we had the mind of the Lord. We were walking a tightrope - involved in a balancing act. On the one hand, we desired to be uncompromisingly faithful to the Word of God; and on the other, we were attempting to use modern technology and theming to communicate that Word. We believe the Word of God is fixed, but the methods of communicating it are flexible. And our passion is to graciously share the gospel with Jews and Gentiles and to minister to believers.
The ten days leading up to the opening of The Holy Land Experience and the month that followed were almost unbelievable. Over the years I have done hundreds of radio, television, and newspaper interviews, but I was not fully prepared for what God had orchestrated.
The Orlando Sentinel broke the first story on the opening of The Holy Land Experience. It mentioned that two local rabbis were greatly disturbed by the project. Here was controversy - what the media loves and thrives upon. They made a number of totally fallacious objections, but their real objection was that we would share the gospel with Jewish people. It was a direct attack on freedom of speech.
By the end of that day, five of Central Florida's leading TV stations had crews at The Holy Land Experience, and that night we were the feature story throughout Central Florida.
Both the Associated Press and Knight-Ridder wrote stories, and they were picked up and run by hundreds of newspapers and publications throughout North America. Within a few days, radio, television, and newspaper reporters from across the land were at our doorstep asking for interviews.
Almost every big city newspaper wrote significant articles. I appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and a host of other stations. I was interviewed by Good Morning America, Fox News, and The O'Reilly Factor. Even The Tonight Show got into the action, making mention of The Holy Land Experience in its typical, irreverent fashion.
Magazines and newspapers like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal also got into the act and wrote significant articles - to say nothing of a host of Christian magazines and periodicals.
I thought by then the news-feeding frenzy was over, but I was wrong. In the days that followed, photographers, journalists, and reporters from places as far away as Russia, Germany, France, England, Australia, Brazil, Switzerland, and Israel contacted our advertising agency to set up interviews. Some of the largest magazines in Europe ran eight- and twelve-page pictorial spreads. And almost all aired The Holy Land Experience on national TV. I was repeatedly interviewed by BBC radio and did a live TV broadcast on BBC via satellite throughout the country of England.
The media frenzy did not stop after our initial opening, and many revisited us after our first month of operation.
Those who study these things have told us that no museum, theme park, or attraction in Orlando, apart from Disney, had as much worldwide media coverage. In every interview, I attempted, by God's grace, to give a clear, uncompromising presentation of the gospel.
It was conservatively estimated that I had the privilege of sharing the gospel with more than two hundred million people during the first six weeks of operation.
And what of The Holy Land Experience? Attendance was more than three times larger than what we had projected - literally tens of thousands of people visited The Holy Land Experience during our first four weeks of operation. And we received between a 1,000 and 1,500 calls each day. We now require a staff of over 210 ministry team members to care for the guests. And the response to The Holy Land Experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Still, the unexpected crowds caused major problems that we had to work through. I kept telling our Mission staff that all problems are carefully disguised opportunities.
Controversy continues in the media. In part, it is because The Holy Land Experience is highly visible, located in Orlando, directed by a man from a Jewish background who believes in Jesus and who believes that all men, including Jews, need to trust Christ, and because we are not committed to being "politically correct" but biblically faithful. One criticism we received was directed toward our hiring practices. As a Christ-centered ministry committed to the inspiration, authority, and infallibility of the Scriptures, we, as with most biblical ministries, have a doctrinal statement and require all Mission staff to adhere to it. All of our staff have frequent occasion to interact with our guests, and we believe it critical that their convictions reflect the strongly held biblical views of Zion's Hope.
When The Holy Land Experience opened, I was sixty-five and had been thinking of retiring in a year or two and giving myself time for writing. However, I determined, under God, to eat better and exercise more (something my beloved wife had been after me to do for some time). I believe that The Holy Land Experience is going to impact multitudes for Christ. And because of that fact it, along with other significant ministries, will be at the forefront of the spiritual conflict that will intensify as we move toward the end of the age. For that reason, with the board of directors' blessing, I determined to stay on board.
I am reminded of the three friends of Daniel who, in the heathen court of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, while under life-threatening pressure to worship a heathen deity, refused to bend - would not bow - and did not burn. We have not the slightest inclination toward compromising our biblical conviction, whether, in the words of the apostle Paul, the pressures come from "without" or from "within" (2 Cor. 7:5). In the Lord's strength and for His glory, we fully intend to press on.