For the previous three years, my Januaries have followed a neat pattern. After re-excavating the 9:38 paraphernalia from its cupboard in my office, I head south to High Leigh. Three busy and encouraging days follow. Three days of catching up with old friends and making new ones – three days full of teaching which prompts me to lift my eyes heavenwards, and to recognise, once again, the enormous need for our world to hear about the Lord Jesus.
This year… well, I didn’t leave Manchester (and the paraphernalia didn’t exit its cupboard); instead, like many of you, I engaged with Maximise from our kitchen table. It had its advantages – it was lovely for my husband (not to mention our puppy) to be able to watch all the sessions with me, for instance – but I missed the way things normally were. Not the packing and not the driving, but rather the luxury of setting aside my day-to-day responsibilities in order to spend three days absorbing Christ-saturated teaching. I missed being able to meet Christians from lots of different churches and hear what God’s doing in their part of the country. And, I admit, I missed seeing a year’s work come together in the shape of 140 people learning and worshipping together in one room. Virtual isn’t quite the same.
But (and even as I remember all the things the conference wasn’t) I can’t get over the key thing Maximise was. Which is this: Maximise 2021 was a blessing. Not the one we expected, nor the one we might have chosen, but neverthless, the conference was – in God’s kindness – a blessing.
Partly through Maximise’s many encouragements – which I’ll come to in a minute. And partly (and perhaps primarily) because these encouragements reminded me that the Lord Jesus continues to build and to bless his church, even during tough times. The gates of hell can’t prevail against him – and nor will the trials and tragedies of 2020 and 2021. And that’s a lesson I definitely needed to relearn this January.
Here are some of my encouragements from Maximise:
- The stories. They might have been presented in a different medium, but Maximise 2021 still featured an abundance of stories of God’s work in different people from different places with different backgrounds. I was really struck by Rachel Chard, drawing on her experience serving the Lord Jesus in Tanzania, and especially by her reflection that cross-cultural ministry begins with a life of love embedded in that culture. And I loved watching the Q&A, with Dai and Gabby and Richard sharing their wisdom on faith and ministry – what a joy to hear a dialogue between gospel workers from central and suburban London and inner-city Cardiff.
- The reach. Between 4–6 January, 336 people from 11 countries engaged with Maximise 2021. In the weeks following, the total went up to 673 people from 25 countries. That’s over four times as many attendees as were present for Maximise 2020. And – not surprisingly – usually our trainees, delegates and trainers are almost exclusively from the UK. We might have representatives from two countries, but I don’t think we’ve ever made it to 3, let alone 11 or 25! And whilst numbers aren’t, of course, everything, it’s been wonderful to watch the Lord engaging more people through this very different kind of conference.
- The help. Maximise (and before it, the Ministry Trainee Conference) has always been a team effort. But that was even more the case this year. Andy and I had long conversations with staff at Co-Mission, Proclamation Trust, Oak Hill and Keswick Ministries to benefit from their experience in running online conferences and events. These organisations are all considerably larger than we are, and yet they gave up their staff’s time in order to bless our ministry. And why? Keswick’s James Robson put it best – when I thanked him for his help, he cheerfully reminded me that we’re all working for the same thing. He’s right. And it’s so encouraging to think that, in a year in which many of us feel increasingly isolated, Maximise was built on the back of moments when God brought Christians together to accomplish what we certainly couldn’t have managed alone.
- The teaching. There was Richard’s urgent call to do whatever we can, with the gifts, experiences and opportunities we have, to maximise our gospel ministry. There was the reminder from Jonti that we want our life’s work to be exonerated by a heavenly court, rather than an earthly one. And there was Nigel’s warning about the incredible damage and blessing that we, as current or potential Bible teachers, can deliver with our words. But the part that has, in the weeks since Maximise, resonated the most with me is this: were a neighbour’s house to catch fire, Richard challenged us, wouldn’t you stop at nothing to get them out? And if we care so much for their lives, how much more should we be concerned for their eternities? That’s a challenge I’m taking with me as I wander our streets. And you can pray with me that, as my puppy tugs me in the direction of the next person she wants to befriend, my words honour our new friend’s eternal needs as well as their earthly hopes.
So yes, Maximise, like so many things, was very different this year. And I certainly hope that next year will see us back at High Leigh – a privilege I won’t take quite so much for granted from now on! But Maximise 2021 has been a helpful reminder that different isn’t always dreadful. It’s been a reminder that different can, in the Lord’s hands, be wonderfully good.