“Weren’t you going to go to that thing at Christchurch?”
It was twenty years ago today, but I remember it vividly. I’d just ensconced myself in front of the television for some prime-time Saturday viewing, when my mother gave me that reminder. I’d recently started going to a vibrant Christian youth group called Youth Challenge, run by the Hitchin Church of God (now Hitchin Christian Centre: HCC [now Zeo Church]), and they were holding a special youth service at a local Methodist church. So I left Noel’s House Party behind (or whatever I was watching), and tootled down the hill.
I was 15 at the time, and something of a superficial Christian. I had been in church services most weeks for all of my life, but by the time I was ten years old I was a firm atheist and boldly maintained that this religious stuff was a load of nonsense. But I kept going to church, mainly because I really enjoyed singing in the choir. As time went on, part of me wanted to believe: I thought it would be nice to have some sense of purpose in my life, and I wanted to carry on in church music, which is (perhaps) easier if you have some sympathy for Christianity… So I tried to believe, and even got confirmed when I was 13. But, on the inside, I don’t think I was any different.
A friend took me along to a lunchtime club that a minister from HCC ran in my school. That friend soon abandoned me, but I kept attending. After a while I realised that lots of my friends went to HCC’s midweek youth group — friends both from my own church, and from my school. So I asked that minister if I could come along, and he seemed open to the idea!
So, a month or so later, I found myself at that youth service on 2 March 1996. There seemed to be lots of people there, and the singing was more exuberant than I had experienced before. (I recall the songs including ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord’, ‘We want to see Jesus lifted high’, and other old classics that weren’t so old back then!) The preacher was one of the Youth Challenge leaders, Matt Summerfield, and his text was Luke 9:23: ‘Then he [Jesus] said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”’ He encouraged us to commit our lives to God, and I did so, out of a real sense of God drawing me to himself.
And so it began! When I was a baby, my parents and godparents declared, on my behalf, that I wanted to follow Jesus. Then, when I was confirmed, I declared that with my own lips. But it had to wait a couple more years for my heart to catch up.
So now, two decades later, by the grace of God, I’m still excited to be following Jesus. Lots of things have changed (though I still feel that I haven’t mastered the basics), and it’s been a deeply rewarding journey so far. As I leave my spiritual ‘teens’ behind, I want to look back on that day, to give thanks to God for what he did then, and what he has done since, and to look forward to the next decade, and all that may lie ahead… but that’s the subject of a future post!