This week I should probably be writing about the horrific massacres of Christians in Iraq, or the horrors of Gaza, or the big Independence debate. But instead I want to write about a 139 year old Christian conference in a beautiful country town – the Keswick Convention.
I have a confession to make. Several times I have been asked if I would consider going to Keswick during the 'convention' weeks for a holiday and to get some Bible teaching, praise and fellowship. Each time I said no. Its not because I have anything against either a holiday in the Lake District, or great Bible teaching, praise and fellowship. It's just that I didn't want to combine the two. As someone involved in ministry 48 weeks in the year, I quite like my holidays to be a complete break. But leaving those personal reasons aside there was another factor. What I would call the Keswick image.
I knew that Keswick had a honourable history and that it had produced some quite remarkable fruit (Amy Carmichael being called to the mission field, the Japan Evangelistic Band and the Faith Mission in Scotland being just a few examples). I knew that ever since John Stott in the 1960s it had experienced a sea change in its emphasis on the 'Higher Life' movement, and that the Bible teaching was probably the best you could get in the UK, if not the world. And yet there was the vague impression that somehow Keswick was a bit dated, the kind of convention that my parents and those representing a bygone era of British evangelicalism would be comfortable with. I knew it was good but I wondered if Keswick was a dying institution that would just gradually fade away in the midst of an increasingly secular society and confused Christianity. I was wrong.
This year I went to Keswick for the first time. I was asked to give the Keswick lecture in the first week. I am not a 'name' (and don't want to be!) and as a Presbyterian minister from a relatively small church in Scotland, I genuinely did not feel worthy to follow the likes of Ravi Zacharias, but it was too good an opportunity to miss. So I ended my summer holiday by staying in Keswick for a few days, giving the lecture, attending some of the sessions and enjoying the beautiful scenery and hospitality. I came away with a very favourable impression and a conviction that Keswick could be a key part of the renewal and revitalisation of the British church.
1) Keswick is growing and developing. It is not dead or dying. In 2001 such was demand that it added a third week. Furthermore it is growing and developing, not by dumbing down, or seeking to compete with other 'weeks' but by doing what it does best. Quality praise, good youth and children's work and above all excellent Bible teaching.
2) Keswick is radical. It's free! You pay for your own accommodation and food but the actual convention is free and non-ticketed. This works in many different ways. Not least it means that people feel freer to pick and choose particular events. Most will try to go to the morning Bible readings and the evening celebrations but there is sufficient variety to allow a diverse approach for individuals and families. I was somewhat stunned to find several hundred people coming to a Bible talk I gave on Job at 3pm on a glorious sunny afternoon. I told them they were mad coming to listen to me talk about the beauty of God's creation when they could be out experiencing it!
3) Keswick is much more varied than many suppose. It really is about being 'One in Christ Jesus'. Admittedly the week I was there, there was a predominance of grey hairs and those of a more 'mature' disposition, but that was partly because the English school holidays had not started. Keswick has however clearly realised the need to reach out to a younger demographic and a more varied constituency and they seem to be succeeding. It is a more diverse group than many of the Christian conferences I have been to. There has been considerable development over the past years, but this will have to continue. Just as a reformed church is always reforming, so a renewal movement must always be renewing.
In that sense one of the most significant developments was the decision of the Keswick Council in 2013 to create a new post of Chief Executive Officer, who would have the responsibility for developing Keswick ministries throughout the world. In May of this year Jonathan Lamb took up the post. He is a key person for what could become a far more significant movement that many suspect. He is not there to maintain the traditions of an institution that is long past its sell by date. He is there to ensure that what goes on in Keswick each summer is something that lasts all year and is spread worldwide.
And that is why Keswick is so important. What do the situations in Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria, Ukraine, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland need most? The Gospel of Christ, the presence of his church and Spirit and those good old-fashioned words – salvation and holiness. Keswick is developing by playing to its strengths – unity around Christ, his Word and Spirit. So next year if you are thinking of going to Keswick, don't think of it primarily as a holiday, but rather as a holy week, where in God's grace you will receive renewal, stimulation and fellowship with the Triune God and His people, which will permeate way beyond your own personal life and circumstances. "Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard" (Malachi 3:16(a). As we 'convene' together may it be that the Lord will listen and hear, and pour out His Spirit on our dry and weary land.