The following was written by the Rev. Amy Howard on Encounter Weekends, a ministry run by Imago Dei Anglican Church for the benefit of the diocese and all Christians seeking healing and wholeness through Christ:
I had a terrible first Encounter. I was just 23, fresh out of college, with a six-month old nursing baby in tow. Justin, my husband of not quite two years, actually came along, remaining behind in our room during the sessions to watch the baby, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t want to be there.
Encounter God Weekends are intended to be just that: weekends where, if one comes hungry, humble, ready to be filled, one has a very real opportunity to Encounter the living God. After sixteen years of healing prayer ministry, I certainly can bear witness: the river rushes to the lowest place. Encounter Weekends are intended to help locate the low places—perhaps even create new ones— with the offer of bringing them out of the darkness and into the healing, hope-filled light of the Cross.
So there I was, a young, confused, extroverted introvert, still hormonal from the last baby and in a lot of physical pain from a condition that wouldn’t be corrected by surgery until later that year. I wasn’t a great candidate for ministry, so I’m not particularly underwhelmed by the quality of my experience that weekend. I still find it remarkable, considering my introduction to it, that this singular ministry weekend has become a mainstay in our discipleship culture at Imago Dei, some 12 years later.
The weekend follows a general pattern of teaching, testimony, opportunity to receive prayer ministry, repeat. The central truth of an Encounter is that the ministry of John the Baptist preceded the ministry of Jesus, making a way through repentance to encounter the living God. Sure, we can be saved through our personal relationship with Jesus, but as James tells us in James, chapter 5, our healing—our encounter—often comes from walking in the light with the church. We have a large team of trained prayer ministers, all of whom have been to Encounter Weekends themselves, all of whom stand vulnerably before the cross, and alongside their sisters and brothers, and all of whom know that if you can call it sin, you can get set free from it.
I went home from that first Encounter without an Earth-shattering experience. There were no lights, or angelic visitations, or great burdens lifted, but I was deeply curious. I had seen things that weekend that I had not come to associate with church. I had witnessed testimony after testimony of women who, by my 23-year-old reasoning, should definitely be rocking in a corner somewhere and who were instead filled to overflowing with life, hope, and wellness. I listened to the stories of former prostitutes, cheaters, users, liars, victims of sexual abuse and trauma—things we didn’t talk about in the churches I had attended. And these weren’t old conversion stories from the Jesus Movement; these were fresh, ongoing testimonies from the lives of new Christians, as well as those who had been walking with Christ for a half century or more. The testimonies came from lay people and church leaders, alike. And I watched something phenomenal take place amongst the participants: woman after woman took the plunge, and with the help of the prayer ministers, opened the dark, painful places in their souls to the healing light of God.
I went home without an Earth-shattering experience, but I did have a growing conviction that there was a link between the confession I saw and the freedom that followed. So I tried it out—the very next time I found myself in a sin, I went and found a pastor, and confessed, like we had done at the weekend. Fortunately, I was not burned at the stake for my confession. I actually received what I have found to be a typical response of clergy throughout the years. The pastor looked a little startled, maybe a little embarrassed, and said something to the effect of “oh, yes, don’t worry, we all do that”. And, knowing what I had learned from the past weekend, I raised my eyebrows, dug in my heels, and responded something like “No, it’s sin. It’s wrong. And I want to be set free”. I proceeded to teach her the “4 R’s” that the prayer ministers at Encounter had used to walk participants through their confession: Repent, Renounce, Release, and Receive. And then I confessed again, coaching the poor pastor all the way.
I like to live free. We have been living in a church community that now embraces a radical, hope-filled honesty, and as a result, my best friends are the ones who can hear me rant, look me lovingly in the eye, and say, “That sounds like sin. Would you like to get set free from it?” And even though I am now responsible for teaching the 4 R’s, they will offer to walk me through them, because they know that it’s a way we can manifest love one to another and that it’s equally important for everyone, leader and lay person alike.
At this last Encounter, we maxed out our facility, occupied several rooms at a nearby hotel, and slept 12 ministers on the floor. One woman called two days before our last event, and at the age of 70-something, offered to sleep on the floor herself, if she could perhaps register her friend as well. My largest problem now is how many people—skilled, amazing ministers—would like to minister each weekend; there are always way more than I can book. Many come and pay their own way, just to be a part of what God is doing. Many more spend hundreds of dollars each year “paying it forward”, sponsoring a weekend for friends, family members, and people of peace in their communities. We don’t even really advertise the weekends. This is for two reasons: a personal encounter is a difficult thing to advertise, because it varies so dramatically from person to person, and we don’t really need to; people’s faces do it for us.
If you haven’t had the occasion to attend an Encounter God Weekend, there are several great reasons to consider it. Maybe you are ready for some new freedom and healing in your life. Maybe you need a shot in the arm of Gospel, and an opportunity to be encouraged watching the river run to the lowest places, transforming and renewing, convicting and healing. Maybe you’d like to attend so that you, too, can receive training and join our amazing team. Maybe you’d like your friendships and church relationships to have the opportunity to become those that “walk in the light”, and so experience the perpetual renewal of an Encounter with Jesus. Whatever your thinking, know that you are welcome. Come ready, leave changed.
The Revs. Justin and Amy Howard lead Encounter Weekends every year for both men and women. This invitation is for all clergy, as well as all of your friends and parishioners who may want to explore more ways to go deeper with God, break through old and difficult patterns, and find greater freedom in your relationship with Him and with one another. Please consider registering and attending one of these events:
Women’s Weekend: Jan 24-26, 2020
Men’s Weekend: Feb 7-9, 2020
To register and find out more, visit here: https://www.idachurch.com/encounter