It’s now been 25 years since my wife and I, along with my brother Jon and three friends from college, started Community Christian Church. During that time we’ve had the privilege of seeing thousands of people find their way back to God. Over the years we began to notice some patterns. When people come to faith, they seem to pass through a set of similar experiences. Where people start and what motivates them to begin this journey are often different, but the stages they go through are remarkably similar.
We never took the time to label these experiences until recently when Jon and I started researching for our latest book. We did an in-depth study with a diverse group of 25 people. We listened closely to each of their stories and studied their experiences. In time, we were able to name the parallel events that nearly everyone seems to experience on their journey to God. We call them the “5 Awakenings.”
At the same time, we found ourselves drawn to the story of the Prodigal Son. We began to understand Jesus’ famous parable as a narrative for how people find their way to God. And we glimpsed the familiar five awakenings in the younger son’s journey. So, combining 25 years of ministry experience, along with our findings from the focus group, and our study of Scripture, we’ve sketched out how these awakenings look. Here is a brief overview.
Awakening to Longing. This is the universal feeling people have that “there’s got to be more” to life. We all feel the longing for love, purpose, and meaning. And it is the quest to satisfy these basic longings that sends us on a journey. The common experience: initially we may not understand that God gave us these longings, so we try to satisfy those longings by running away from God rather than toward him.
Awakening to Regret. We tend to pursue those primitive longings without God. When we do we find ourselves alone, directionless, and confused. Eventually we will say, “I wish I could start over.” Many people get stuck repeating the first two awakenings over and over again. We call repeating the first two steps the “sorry cycle” – pursuing God-given longings outside of a relationship with God, which leads to decisions and actions that just cause more regret. Many people get stuck in the “sorry cycle” for years and still others never escape it.
Awakening to Help. After repeating the “sorry cycle” of trying to fulfill these longings without God, and ending up with regret over and over again, we finally acknowledge something has to change. We come to the end of ourselves and say, “I can’t do this on my own.” We hit bottom. We come to our senses. We realize we need help.
Awakening to Love. In this stage, we come to the realization that Jesus is the one who leads us back to God. As we come back to God, we are ambushed by grace. We discover “God, loves me deeply after all!” However, often there is a shadow of shame and guilt that follows us home and we struggle to believe we are loved and accepted just as we are.
Awakening to Life. This is where we discover that through following Jesus we have “life and have it to the full.” The New Testament uses two words for life: bios and zoe. Bios refers to chronological life: days, months, and years. But zoe carries a deeper meaning. It refers to life as it was truly meant to be lived. Zoe is eternal life. When Jesus says he came so we would have “life and have it to the full” he uses the word zoe. As we experience this final awakening we realize, “Now, this is living!”
The “5 Awakenings” have been incredibly helpful for me. Like Alcoholic Anonymous members follow a 12-step program to get sober and to stay sober, understanding the five awakenings has helped me make sense of the journey toward God. My hope is that they will equip and inspire you to more effectively guide those to whom you minster into the arms of a heavenly Father who longs for their return.
Dave Ferguson is the pastor of Community Christian Church, a multi-site church in the Chicago area. To learn more about his most recent book, Finding Your Way Back To God go to http://www.yourwayback.org/.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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