At some point, most of us have attended some kind of spiritual conference, camp, or retreat. These experiences can propel our spiritual lives forward. Spending an entire day or weekend focused on God’s Word and on our spiritual lives gives us a unique opportunity to reevaluate our priorities, away from the distractions of everyday life.
Helpful as these spiritually focused times are, though, I’ve noticed a pattern throughout my years of attending conferences and retreats: while I’m at the conference, I learn a lot about God and about the Bible. I become aware of the different areas where I need spiritual growth. But, once I leave I find myself sliding back into regular life and failing to put into practice all the things I learned.
Over the last few years, I’ve learned a couple of techniques that have helped me be not just a hearer of God’s Word at conferences, but also a doer (James 1:22). Here are four tips for getting the most out of a conference, camp, or retreat:
1. Set an intention
This tip came from an older Christian man I know who has been serving the Lord full-time for over sixty years. Several years ago, he encouraged me to develop a purpose statement before I attended a conference. He recommended phrasing it something like this: “With God’s help, during this conference, I will…”
When you’re setting an intention like this, the goal is not to try to force the conference to fit what you want to hear. Pray about your intention ahead of time, and be open to what the Holy Spirit guides you to focus on. My intentions in past years have often centered around something the Lord has been teaching me through Scripture in the weeks and months before the conference, an area in which I already know God wants me to grow spiritually.
Since I implemented this practice, I have noticed a dramatic increase in how much I “get from” a conference. Going into an event with a prayerful intention in mind prepares my heart to be challenged and convicted. I become more aware of how different sermons or topics connect with areas in which the Lord is already working in my life. Most importantly, when I begin the conference by praying about what the Lord wants me to focus on, I tend to continue to talk to the Lord about what I’m hearing and thinking throughout the day or weekend, deepening my relationship with Him.
2. Take notes
Any student knows how important note-taking is in the learning process. Taking notes allows you to actively process information as you’re hearing it, making it easier to remember what you’ve learned.
Don’t try to take notes verbatim; your goal is not to get a word-by-word transcript of the message you’re hearing. Instead, try to identify the speaker’s main points and write them down, perhaps in a rough outline. Jot down anything that touches your heart, convicts you, or connects to your intention for the event you’re attending (see tip 1). I often put a small asterisk or checkbox next to a verse, quote, or concept I want to revisit later.
Remember, the purpose of taking notes is not to end with an aesthetic, colour-coded set of notes. The purpose is to help jog your memory in the future so you can reflect on what you’ve learned and put it into practice. Don’t let perfectionism in your notetaking distract you from paying attention to the message itself!
This is the hardest part to actually follow through on. We block out time on our calendars to attend a conference or retreat, but once the event is over, we usually get back to our usual busy schedules pretty quickly. When you first decide to attend a conference or retreat, I would encourage you to take a look at your calendar and consider when you might set aside some time after the event to think and pray about what you’ve learned.
The most important question I ask myself during this reflection time is, “What in my life needs to be adjusted as a result of what I’ve heard?” The Bible specifically cautions us against hearing God’s Word and doing nothing about it, instructing us to be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. // James 1:22
As believers, obedience to God’s Word is of paramount importance to us because it demonstrates that we genuinely love the Lord who saved us. Jesus made it clear that the person who loves Him is one who obeys Him when He told His disciples, If you love me, you will keep my commandments. // John 14:15
As you consider what steps of obedience you may need to take after a conference or event, remember that overhauling your entire life is usually not the answer. Instead, ask yourself, “What’s the very next step I can take to be obedient?” After you’ve obeyed with whatever’s right in front of you, obey with the very next thing. And repeat.
4. Stay in God’s Word
Although obedience is essential, remember that the Christian life isn’t a checklist we must hustle to complete. It’s a relationship with the living God through His Son, Jesus Christ. It’s a relationship in which we become more like Christ the more we get to know Him—a relationship that is obviously not limited to our times of reflection and obedience immediately after a special event.
We aren’t meant to get all our spiritual direction once or twice a year. A conference or retreat may make you aware of the first step or two you need to take to grow in obedience to the Lord, but it is during your personal, regular time in His presence that God Himself, through His Word, will show you what He wants your next step to be.
True sanctification—the process by which we become more holy, more like Christ—happens through small, repeated acts of obedience in response to His Word. But to obey His Word, you have to be in the Word enough to know what it says.
As you return home from a conference or retreat, I strongly encourage you to make Bible study and prayer a regular part of your routine—even if you only have a few minutes each day to devote to it. God has revealed so much of Himself and so much of His will for us in His Word. When we read it thoughtfully and prayerfully, we come to know Him more deeply and grow in our understanding of how He wants us to live.
It is that daily communication with the Lord that fuels our spiritual growth more than anything else. Conferences, camps, and retreats are wonderful, but they are not meant to be the focal point of your Christian experience. Don’t expect the emotional high you feel after a conference or retreat to sustain you for the long-term; it won’t, because it can’t. Instead, let these special events redirect your focus back toward the Lord and to what matters eternally. Let them be the spark that reignites your love for the Lord and your commitment to live a life that honours Him.
To read more from Amy, visit her website.