Picture this: a room full of hundreds of people, praising and worshipping the Lord and praying for each other. It's warm, it's a loving atmosphere and everywhere you look, there is joy and healing. It's easy to feel the presence of God, and to experience his love and transformative power.
Now picture this instead: it's 9:30am on a Wednesday and you're only about twenty minutes into a two hour lecture on a module you don't really like. Your head hurts from a late night last night and you've got a full day of seminars ahead. Your friend sends you a funny but cruel text about the lecturer's outfit. It's a little bit harder to feel the love of God, or to stay faithful to his word and not join in with mocking your lecturer.
What I'm referring to here is sometimes referred to as Christian Conference Burnout. It's not a recognised medical condition but it's definitely pretty common! Weekends Away and conferences such as New Wine, Spring Harvest and Soul Survivor are a fantastic chance to gather together with other believers, share fellowship and experience the power and joy of corporate worship (lots of people worshipping together - nothing to do with suits and ties!). It's also a time when breakthroughs were made - some of my most significant encounters with God have happened at conferences and they have shaped the path my life has taken in a big way. But when you return from these big events and go back to your regular life, it's easy to feel deflated and actually fall backwards in your faith and relationship with God through disappointment.
Many of the students at the Belfrey just returned from a fantastic weekend away in Wydale Hall, experiencing healing, worship and God's transformative love. Lives were turned around and communities were built. It is my hope and prayer that what was grown on the weekend away will be nurtured and grown and bear lots of fruit for the Kingdom. But for that to happen, we need to hang onto those gains and not get disillusioned. I've put together a few steps to help anyone who's struggled with burnout to stay faithful.
1) Place the emphasis on the encounter, not the experience. The experience of passionate worship and being in a big community is a powerful one. People often have physical sensations, like a burning inside or a sense of peace or fulfilment. These things are fantastic gifts from God, but they're not the bedrock of a relationship with Him. Imagine if you only spent time with your friend when they made you feel amazing - the relationship would be painfully one-sided and it wouldn't last through tough times. Take these feelings as a gift, and as evidence of a loving God and look beyond them to the Father behind it. Don't get hooked on the feeling, get hooked on the God that gives them to you. God is not just felt. He is also known to believers in the brain and in the heart, which cannot be shaken by the fluctuations of our feelings.
Tom Holmes did a fantastic talk which will be available online for anyone wanting to catch up. One of his central points was that our faith must stretch beyond surface experience to a much deeper encounter, and I would thoroughly recommend anyone who is struggling with this issue to give it a listen!
2) Keep nurturing the communities that were built.Maybe you prayed with someone about an issue. Perhaps you got into a really great conversation with someone about their experience of God, or a deep theological issue. Often, time away is when home groups and small groups really click and start to act as a family. Either way, relationships like these should be nurtured and invested in afterwards, rather than being dropped. For me, the weekend away of my third year at university was a time when I met people who would go on to be hugely influential for me. One of them mentored me through my final term of university; another was a tremendous encouragement to me in seeking God more deeply. I ended up in a relationship with one of them and have experienced God's love in ways I never imagined.
Even if the people you meet don't go on to change your life, it's also important to build connections with a Christian community for encouragement when you need it in your walk with God. Take the disciples and the early Church as an example - they didn't go it alone. They encouraged each other and when one was feeling low or faltering in their faith, they had faithful friends to guide them through and pray for them.
3) Make a note of any prophecies or messages you are given.Again, it's all to easy to forget these sorts of experiences a few weeks down the line. But if God has given you a message, either through someone else or directly, treat it with respect and write it down somewhere where you can go back to it and look through it. It may have immediate significance for you, but it might also be something which gains clarity or importance months or even years down the line. Treasure these sorts of messages as a gift and look after them - they may comfort you during much more difficult circumstances.
4) Get stuck into life back in your home church. Yes, I know. It's probably far less glamorous than wherever you've just been. It may be that rather than a really attractive, mid 20s, floppy haired, funky shirt wearing, guitar playing worship leader with the voice of an angel on a big stage, you've got a pensioner on the organ singing songs with fancy words and strange tunes. Well, I'm afraid it's just as Godly. Don't fall into the trap of despising your home church - we are called upon to serve faithfully and with love and humility wherever we are.
You will be amazed by the opportunities to serve and you might find a new ministry or calling that you never knew you could do. Can't wait to serve people and show them the love of God? Great. Sign up for the Tea and Coffee rota. Volunteer to tidy up after services. Talk to the person that no one wants to talk to. If you want to show real, world shaking and sacrificial love, start where you are. Don't wait for the next conference, and don't hang onto all of your compassion and love until the next chance to go to Malawi and paint orphanages comes up (although those are both good things to do). Start living God's love. Now.
One of the best descriptions I ever heard regarding Christian conferences was given by Mike Pilavachi, leader of Soul Survivor and lover of crazy shirts. He said that they were like going to the top of a mountain. It's a good thing to do - it's healthy, it's refreshing and you get the most incredible view of God's creation. It's so easy to worship him because you are surrounded by his glory and power. But you're alone up there, and nothing grows on a mountaintop. It's OK to rest for a bit, and recharge those spiritual batteries. But if you want to grow stuff, you have to go down to the valley and get messy in the dirt. The next time you go up that mountain, maybe there'll be a whole new bed of flowers. Maybe there'll be a new town. Maybe a mighty forest.
People often say conferences and weekends away feel like a little bit of Heaven, and I can see what they mean. Gathering together to praise God can feel amazing. But God didn't settle for the mountaintop. He sent Jesus down into the valley, to get as messy as you can get. He sent Jesus down to feel sad, lonely, tired and frustrated. He sent him to plant a seed which would grow into the mightiest of forests. We, like Jesus, have some planting to do. So go out there and do it.