Years ago when I was working with college students through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, I began to feel dissonance in what I was preaching at evangelistic outreaches and what I was feeling in my soul. Because the Gospel felt dry to me it was easy to reduce what God was doing to the number of decisions made, attendance at events or small groups launched after events. All good things! But things that didn’t seem to bring me as much joy as they once had.
I knew Jesus’ power to save was real–I was seeing it transform people’s lives before my eyes. But even as I said the words to individuals or crowds of people they felt hollow. It seemed I was making canned presentation, again and again. Intellectually I knew the Gospel is an unchanging truth–that God came to earth through Jesus to bring life out of our death from sin and that through Jesus we can have a restored relationship with God.
As evangelists, it’s exhilarating to help people take those first steps from death to life, to help people who have wandered away from Jesus, to recommit their lives to following him. But one can only last so long on an exhilarating high. As I grew older I begin to wonder, “Is there more? What does this mean for my own life?” These questions began a quest to understand the connection between spiritual formation and witness in the life of an evangelist.
My pastor had talked about taking silent retreats at a local retreat center. I had been to lots of conferences, but to sit in silence by myself seemed crazy to this outspoken extrovert! After all, if I was an evangelist, didn’t it mean I needed to be “out there?” With the guidance of a spiritual director at the retreat center, she invited me to stop, listen to Jesus and to listen to my body. It felt strange to sit in the quiet room with just my Bible and journal and in the silence, I quickly became aware of how tired my body was. Though it felt like a waste of time to sleep, I took the advice of the spiritual director and listened to my body- I needed rest. I had been going hard for months without slowing down and my body was worn out. In his book, The Great Omission, Dallas Willard writes, “The body is the place of our direct power. It is the little ‘power pack’ that God has assigned to us as the field of our freedom and development” (p. 89). Dealing with being worn-out and tired was the first place Jesus needed to help me experience freedom. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Our bodies often give us flashing red lights to help us realize that Jesus needs to give us body and soul rest.
Later that day, I took a hike around the acres of property at the retreat center. As someone who likes to be on the go, moving and praying was helpful as I processed what I had read in scripture earlier in the day. While my body was moving I could take in the sights of birds flitting through trees, blackberries ripe on the bramble of bushes next to the trails, and sunlight gracing the tall grasses blowing in the breeze. Jesus was teaching me that slowing down didn’t mean not moving; it meant doing things that would help my soul and my body find rest. I began to feel deeply grateful for the beauty the Lord was inviting me to experience. I could notice how wonderful it was to experience his presence in nature. This type of movement was different than the frantic activity I found myself in most days- scrambling to put together details of local outreaches, preparing to preach, coaching students in effective follow up. This type of movement felt like walking with Jesus instead of sprinting to make sure things were successful. During the walk that day, and over the next 15 years monthly silent retreats became a spiritual discipline where I learned to listen to Jesus and invite him to make the Gospel real in my own life. Like the 72 sent out to proclaim the Gospel in Luke 10, Jesus reminded me, “ I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Learning to die to my own agenda, I recognized the deep need to know the power and freedom of the Gospel in my own life. During these silent retreats, I saw the power of the Gospel blossom in my own life, and it gave me new strength to extend it to others. As Paul says in Philippians 3:10 “ I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Silent retreat days have become wrestling and restoring places for the Holy Spirit to make the Gospel true for me. The places that feel dead, painful and irreconcilable- Jesus reminds me that he is the God who can resurrect dead things. In the places where I am so hard on myself and feel like a failure, Jesus gently speaks to me and reminds me that he loves me. When I am afraid to move forward in places in life and ministry that feel insurmountable the Lord reminds me that his Holy Spirit fills me with power to follow him into new things. There are many things crucial to the work of an evangelist. But perhaps most important is for Jesus to continue to renew our strength as he makes the Gospel true in our own lives as we extend it to others.
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