Gathering with other believers for long periods of time is an essential (and forgotten) discipline for the growing Christian life.
You can see more spiritual growth and change in your walk with Christ on a week-long Christian conference than you might possibly see in a whole year of regular church attendance and participation in Bible studies. A concentrated, multi-day experience of great Christian teaching, worship, prayer, confession, alone-time with God and celebration has an impact that is hard to describe. This reality is not just true in your spiritual life but in other parts of your life as well. Many language programs have extended “immersion” programs to see rapid improvement in language acquisition and skills. Athletic teams have week-long and sometimes summer-long intensive training programs to dramatically move students forward in their athletic abilities. What’s true of your mind and true of your physical body is also true of your soul and spirit. You were designed to have these multiple-day Christian conferences for your spiritual well-being but many Christians are unaware of this. But, this has been true from the beginning.
As you may know, the ancient Israelites were told to keep three feasts per year: the Feast of Unleavened Bread for one week, the Feast of Pentecost which was a weekend, and the Feast of Tabernacles which was a week long. During these times there was celebration, public reading of the Bible, teaching, praise and worship and confession of sin (see: Exodus 23:14-19; Nehemiah 8; and 2 Chronicles 30). All families as part of the nation of Israel were required to keep these three annual feasts so that they would be strengthened in their love for God, ready and able to serve Him and walk with Him all year long. Unfortunately, the Israelites did not always keep these feasts and their hearts strayed away from the Lord. But, periodically during the years they would repent, return to God and hold these feasts with spectacular results. As examples, read Nehemiah 8 and 2 Chronicles 30 to notice the extraordinary joy and zeal for God that would develop during these feasts.
What was true for the Israelites is also true for all seekers after God through the ages. Church history is littered with accounts of powerful moves of God coming out of extended Christian conferences. The Scots had events called “Holy Fairs” which were extended Christian conferences with powerful spiritual impact. In the United States, the Methodists, Baptists and other denominations were famous for their “camp meetings” which were week-long Christian festivals or conferences. As a matter of fact, the second great awakening was launched in 1801 in Cane Ridge Kentucky at such an event. Over 20,000 people gathered in the countryside to worship, pray and preach for a week. All around the camp various denominational ministers (Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and others) stood on various wooden platforms, preaching the word of God. The Spirit fell so powerfully that historians often place the date of the origins of the second great awakening at that event.
Most Americans are unaware of the origins of the concept of vacations in the United States. Cindy Aron, author of Working At Play: A History of Vacations in the United States explains how our current conception evolved from week-long Christian conferences put on by the Methodists and Baptists. An interview of Ms. Arnon by Robert Siegel on “All Things Considered” from June 17, 2009 can be found on the NPR website for more information. Christians would gather for extended times of praise and worship, preaching, Bible teaching and recreation. Over the years, the spiritual part of vacation got left out and now even Christians think of vacation in a secular fashion. Few Christians think of using their vacation time as a God-given opportunity to revitalize their love for Christ, but nothing is more relaxing and refreshing than getting renewed in Christ. And, no wonder so many Christians find it hard to be motivated to read the Bible and to pray on a regular basis. The most potent opportunities to reignite their devotion to God are unfortunately the most secular times of the year. Many if not most Christians devote even less time to seeking God during vacation than the rest of the year. The results are lukewarm Christians with little love for God.
It’s extraordinary how strengthening it is for Christians who practice regularly gathering together at Christian conferences. It’s definitely true that there will be more growth in a person’s life in one week at a Christian conference than a whole year of attending church and Bible study. Many alumni look back to their time as students and think that zeal for God was present in their lives because of their life-stage, i.e. characteristic of being 20 years old. However, that’s not it. As students, many would go to week-long or weekend conferences or even six weeks in the summer on missions trips and their walks with Christ would be enormously strengthened. Yet, as adults they would fail to make time for these activities – either their church does not offer any extended times or it’s done in such a half-hearted way that the experience isn’t nearly what it should be.
In light of the priority to stay strong in Christ and the example of the Scriptures and church history, every Christian should commit himself or herself to attending multi-day Christian conferences at least three times per year. Many may object that this leaves them no time for vacation, but this is vacation for the Christian. It’s physically relaxing, a lot of fun, and extraordinarily spiritually energizing and refreshing. Patterning our lives after the Scriptures and the example of Christians through the ages will have an enormous impact for good in our own lives and communities as well.