It was May 2000 and I was in my sophomore year of high school.
I had begun working at the local Giant and had several years of hustling for cash under my belt. My version of hustling: mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, and delivering newspapers. After I retired from newspaper delivery (yes, I hung up my flourescent orange delivery bag and rubber bands), I began working at Giant. I was saving money for my first car. I had many friends and we enjoyed the simple things in life: spending time together, endless amounts of pizza and soda, playing sports until the streetlights came on, and trying to get girls’ phone numbers.
But I was missing something.
I knew there had to be more than just acquiring stuff. Whether it was money, popularity, or thinking we were cool, I knew there had to be more than what most of us teenagers were chasing. In May 2000, I was invited to a weekend retreat that several of my friends and classmates were attending. Here is how the conversation went:
Friend: “You should really check out this retreat I am going to in 2 weeks”. (hands me flier)
Me: “Ummmmm, yeah”. (sounding like the boss from the movie “Office Space”)
Friend: “It will be really cool. We spend time doing games, laughing, shaving cream wars, and last year’s retreat was epic. A lot of lives were changed at last year’s retreat”.
Me: “Lives were changed?”
Friend: “Yes, a lot of people began journeying with Jesus then”.
Me: “Ugh, you church folks and your Jesus. I don’t know. I work a lot at Giant and I doubt my boss will let me take off an entire weekend.”
Friend: “Just ask. You will not regret it”.
So here I am. Invited to a youth group weekend retreat. However, let me provide you with a precursor here before we go into the retreat experience. I attended church as a child. I was infant baptized in the United Methodist Church. We attended church often but then fell away from attending church. My parents worked a lot. I was not into church as a child. Maybe it was because we had the same snack every Sunday in Sunday School? Maybe it was because all of the pictures of Jesus I saw in church were Jesus looking more fly and GQ than Fabio? Regardless, as a child, I did not have a love of attending church. I was a little heathen, I suppose.
Fast forward to middle school and high school. Several of my Christian friends (I called them the church-attending people) invited me to various events at their churches. We had some fun times. I remember attending church dodgeball that was very competitive. I swear that it resembled what dodgeball would look like if Jesus’ disciples played the Pharisees in Jerusalem during a feast. Hardcore. And of course there was pizza. Other events I attended were a medieval times competition, laser tag, and some Bible studies. Although I attended a bunch of events, I still was not sold on attending church regularly.
But the seed was planted.
Salvation is a process.
The decision to accept salvation happens in a moment of time. But salvation overall is a process. No one “gets saved” and then they are done their journey. People will hear about the Gospel many times before they accept it. I had heard the Gospel many times….but how the Gospel was presented at the Retreat was different.
The Friday we left for the retreat, I had no idea what to expect. I knew some of the kids who were attending the retreat but not many. I packed what was on the checklist provided by my friend. After arriving at the retreat center, everyone unpacked their bags and established which bunk bed was theirs. We ate dinner and then headed into the main conference room of the retreat center. This room would serve as our worship area for the weekend.
The evening started off with music led by the youth and some of the youth leaders. Then we came to the message. Pastor Doug Smith (one of the best men I have ever met) talked about Jesus and how so many teens changed their lives in the last year. Several teens shared stories of God working in their lives. There is power in story! The way Pastor Doug presented the message of hope in Jesus was so simple, so unchurchy, so beautifully disruptive to my soul. This is what I was missing in my life. I had things in my life that were temporary. Money. Sports. Jesus’s promise was that His love for me would never change despite where I have been or what I have done currently.
I surrendered. “Jesus, I need you. I want more out of this life than what the world offers.”
I cried. A lot. I remember multiple people praying with me. It was a life changing weekend for me. I made a lot of new friends and started on my spiritual journey. BAM!
The concept of “getting saved” is a tricky one. We must remember that just because someone makes a decision does not mean they are done. People make marriage vows at their wedding; they are not done growing as a couple just because they said “yes”. The same goes with being a parent, an employee, etc. Salvation is a process. Someone says “yes” and then they need to find opportunities and places to grow and also help others grow. Christianity is a process and there is power in the process. We are refined, renewed, and refreshed in the process of being less like ourselves (and the world) and more like Jesus.
Anything that involves a big “yes” will be met with resistance. Let’s be honest here, friends. We live in a world of good versus evil. If you begin your journey with Jesus, you will have haters. Because you will be a changed person. You will be seeking true transformation for yourself and for others. The world offers temporary peace and quick fix answers. Jesus offers peace that is out of this world and calls us to a journey.