When Iowans think of Bob Vander Plaats, they often think of politics. It's only natural: He ran for governor or lieutenant governor three times between 2002 and 2010. He led the 2010 voter effort that ousted the three activist judges who overturned the state's Defense of Marriage Act. He's arguably the most prominent and influential social conservative in the Hawkeye state.
So when a group headed by Vander Plaats—The FAMiLY LEADER, the state family policy council that's associated with Focus on the Family and CitizenLink—started hosting an annual Family Leadership Summit in 2012, with multiple actual or potential candidates for high office speaking to a thousand-plus people in a sold-out venue, it was only natural that both the press and the public saw it primarily through the lens of politics: Which current or former political figures were there. Which ones weren't. Which ones went over well with the audience. Which ones, didn't.
But people who've been at these events will tell you most of the press, and much of the public, have been missing the main story.
Yes, politics play an important part there. Not the most important, however: Prayer and biblical messages play much larger roles.
"All of our Leadership Summits are threaded primarily with biblical worldview," Vander Plaats tells Citizen. "They're about the sharing of the Gospel—God's heart, His principles, how that blesses a culture—much more than they're about, 'Hey, let's win the next election.' "
In fact, the Family Leadership Summit has given birth to a separate, fast-growing prayer movement aimed at nothing less than national spiritual revival. That movement, known as the If 7:14 Initiative, takes its name from 2 Chronicles 7:14: If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
Vander Plaats believes that. So much so that he's opted out of a promising campaign for the U.S. Senate—despite being the number-one contender in the polls—to devote more of his energies to revival.
The Big 'If'
Two years ago, no one saw this movement coming.
"We had these all-important elections coming up, and our base was not inspired by the leadership choices that we had," says Vander Plaats. "So we thought, 'Why not get them together? Let's inspire them. Let's do it with a biblical worldview, and then apply that to (political) leadership.' "
So on Aug. 11, 2012, the first Family Leadership Summit in Waukee, Iowa, brought in the big guns. Political leaders like Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Religious leaders like author Joel Rosenberg and Vision America co-chairman Laurence White. A dozen speakers in all. And an unexpected theme developed.
"No one knew ahead of time what the others were going to speak on," Vander Plaats says. "But it was like the speeches were coordinated, like they were ordained. Speaker after speaker talked about the need to turn our hearts back to God, His principles, His precepts. They kept using terms like 'revival' and 'a great awakening.' "
Rosenberg, especially, made an impression on Vander Plaats and his team.
"He was saying, 'Can we survive the current fiscal implosion? Can we survive the current moral implosion?' And his answer to that was he didn't know—except that if we would authentically apply 2 Chronicles 7:14 to our lives, our marriages, our families, our churches, that hopefully the ripple effect would save the country."
Dave Kutscher, a FAMiLY LEADER board member, says that sparked a discussion of the verse among the staff—and a shared conviction that they had to act on what they'd heard.
"Bob said, 'What's the key word?' My wife spoke up and said, 'if.' Everyone in the meeting immediately picked up on that," Kutscher tells Citizen.
"That two-letter word might be the most powerful little word in all human language," Vander Plaats adds. "It transfers weight and responsibility. If we pray. If we humble ourselves. If we turn our hearts to Him."
The team had no way of knowing if their discussion that day would be something just a few of them would be part of, something bigger, Kutscher says.
It got bigger. A lot bigger.
Spreading the Word
The FAMiLY LEADER's campaign to spark revival started with a book and a call to action.
The book, written by Vander Plaats, was If 7:14: An Urgent Call for Revival … It's Time (The FAMiLY LEADER, 2013) exploring each phrase in 2 Chronicles 7:14 and applying it to life today. The call to action, for readers and everyone else they could reach, was to pray every day at 7:14 a.m. and 7:14 p.m.— for personal revival, revival in their marriages, their families, their churches, communities, nation and world.
"We wanted people to set their clocks," Vander Plaats says, "not to be legalistic about our prayers, but to be mindful about our prayers."
Lots of people write books, and lots of people issue calls to action. Most, however, don't get the response Vander Plaats did.
When his book appeared last November, a member of the National Prayer Committee read it, loved it, and invited Vander Plaats to discuss it with the group.
One invitation led to another—Bott Radio, National Religious Broadcasters, Life Action Ministries. Then, while backstage at Huckabee's FOX News show, Vander Plaats met the popular Christian rock group the Newsboys, and found even greater opportunities to spread the message.
"They saw my segment (of the show) and said they believed their song and movie God's Not Dead and If 7:14 all needed to come together.
"That was on May 3 (2014). By July 13, they were performing at the first If 7:14 Call and packing a theater in Iowa."
That event, held at the Adler Theater in Davenport, drew more than 2,000 people to a call for revival. And the Newsboys weren't the only prominent figures joining area ministry leaders on stage.
"Chuck Norris and his wife heard about what we were doing," Vander Plaats says. "They emailed me and asked if it'd be OK if they showed up and shared their testimony—about all the fame, all the fortune Chuck had, and how there was still an emptiness in his life until he found Jesus Christ."
The next day, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad joined in, proclaiming a day of prayer, fasting and repentance based on 2 Chronicles 7:14. Such calls to prayer, Branstad noted, have a long history in this country, having been issued by the likes of George Washington, John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Abraham Lincoln.
"Our goal now is to get all the states doing this," Vander Plaats says. "It's what we did for a long time. The Founders talked about the law of nature and nature's God. That's our unifying principle."
'Nothing Else Will Do'
Today, Vander Plaats is focusing on If 7:14 as well as the ongoing policy work of The FAMiLY LEADER. But he might have chosen a different path.
Last year, Iowa's longtime liberal senator Tom Harkin announced he would not seek re-election when his current term expires in January 2015. As of early this year, polling showed Vander Plaats was a heavy favorite for the Republican nomination if he chose to run—and his own research indicated he stood a strong chance of winning the seat in November.
He thought about it. Seriously. He came, he says, "very, very close" to running.
But in February, he announced he wouldn't.
"If you would have said four years ago, 'Bob, there's an open U.S. Senate seat; you're leading the primary field of candidates in the polls; national and statewide people are coming to you to bring the resources to win,' that would have been pretty hard for me to turn down," he says.
Now, however, he thinks the work he's doing impacting the culture is his current calling.
"Who we elect to public office is of high importance, but I believe right now that's like the Dutch boy putting his finger in the dyke," he tells Citizen. "You need to have someone to put their finger in the dyke to halt the flood, but (ultimately) the dyke needs to be rebuilt.
"God has laid on my heart the whole If 7:14 Initiative, spurring God's people on to revival, bringing light into a dark world. Maybe a political run is in my future, but not at this time. God has opened up too many doors to this effort, blessing it beyond what we could ever have imagined."
Cheryl Wells, co-founder of Side by Side Ministry in Le Mars, Iowa, isn't surprised by Vander Plaats' priorities.
"I've been connected with Bob in ministry for about 10 years," she tells Citizen. "He's a man of integrity. He's very dynamic in how he leads, and people just naturally follow him."
When Wells read Vander Plaats' manuscript for If 7:14, she and her prayer network began praying not only for the book's success, but for a national spiritual rebirth.
"Bob's said it so many times: 'This is not about me. This is not about the book. We need revival. It's time.' And he's right. It's so obvious how much we need it."
Wells sees it starting to happen, both nationally and close to home.
"God is doing beautiful things in our little community of Le Mars," she says. "We feel that revival is here—that we're carrying a piece of revival here in the middle of the country. We have young people from 16 to 26 who are so on fire for the Lord. We have kids in that age group right now that will change things. They're passionate about Christ. We're experiencing that here and we pray it continues."
Vander Plaats sees the same signs, and not only in response to If 7:14. He rattles off the names of other prayer and revival efforts—Anne Graham Lotz's 777 Initiative, Life Action Ministries' OneCry Initiative—and speaks enthusiastically about the response they're getting as well.
"I see seeds of revival all around the country where the focus is on restoring our lives to God," he says. "Because we've come to the point where we can see that nothing else will do."
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Sidebar: 'There's a Better Way to Do Things'
If you'd told Bob Vander Plaats 20 years ago that he'd end up working in public policy, he'd have wondered what you were talking about.
"I never envisioned this as being part of my life plan," he says. "I was a high school teacher, a basketball coach, a principal."
Then came Lucas.
The third of Vander Plaats' four sons was born with rare, severe disabilities. Unable to speak or walk, with a compromised immune system and a susceptibility to seizures, Lucas—now 21—has had multiples brushes with death.
That began a personal and professional journey, chronicled by Vander Plaats in his 2007 book Light from Lucas: Lesson in Faith From a Fragile Life (Tyndale, 2007). He assumed leadership of a company, Opportunities Unlimited, providing rehabilitative services for young adults with brain or spinal cord injuries or other life-altering disabilities.
That, in turn, led the governor to appoint Vander Plaats to chair a council aimed at helping the disabled. His assignment was to show the state "what would be the best way to do it—what would be philosophically right and economically smart," he says.
Easier said than done.
"I found out quickly that government needed leadership from the outside, not the inside," Vander Plaats says. "There's a better way to do things, but (many public officials) were caught within paradigms that limited their thinking."
That's what got Vander Plaats interested in public policy—and, after his campaigns for office, to become president and CEO of The FAMiLY LEADER.
While he's well aware of the limits of government, he also knows its importance—and he knows it not only from his experience, but from his faith.
"Government is one of God's institutions, along with the church and the family," he says. "We can't wash our hands of it and have nothing to do with it.
"It's a high call of God. It's also a mission field. We should be raising up men and women of deep faith who are mature enough that they can stand under the bright lights and the high scrutiny and defend the faith in that realm."