Editor's note:

What happens when a boy who loves adventure discovers he’s been invited into the very life of God? Renovaré’s board chair, Jonathan Bailey, reveals some of his faith journey in this month’s issue of Christianity Today.

—Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

I grew up as a pastor’s kid, the third of four children. Or was it fourth? For years I believed I was born 30 seconds before my identical twin, Josh. But he recently challenged this 33-year-old fact, turning the Bailey family world order upside-down.

Josh and I were adventurous and independent twins who made the suburbs of North Dallas our playground. The flame of our adventurous spirit was fanned by our older brother, Jeremy. Together we wanted to take risks and experience them firsthand. I wasn’t content to just watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I had to be Indiana Jones. I needed to wade through the creeks behind my house, build rope swings, and explore sewers. And not with a flashlight, but by tying my shirt to a stick, dipping it in gasoline, and lighting it on fire.

As a boy, I listened intently to my dad recount some of the greatest adventure stories ever told: Noah and his ark, David defeating a giant, and Joshua shouting down walls. These men experienced wild adventure, and God, firsthand. My longing for intimacy with God was born from story time with my dad.

Dad pastored a nondenominational, charismatic—or, as he liked to say, Happy-Baptist—church. It was our family’s second home. BB gun shootouts commonly took place in the vacant sanctuary. Josh and I raced the petting-zoo miniature ponies around the parking lot after the fall carnival and learned how to do donuts in our youth pastor’s car before we could legally drive.

When I got a little older, I threw myself into the behind-the-scenes work of our youth group. My brother and I made announcement videos and hooked up lighting and fog machines for our Wednesday night services. I insisted on working the sound booth, because it allowed me to avoid worshiping and watch others worship instead.

As a teenager, I was pretty sure I believed God existed, but without firsthand experience of him, “Christianity,” whatever that meant, went in one ear and out the other. I knew facts and Bible verses and how to say, “Thank you, ma’am” to the old ladies who said they were praying for me.

Then there was my arch nemesis: the altar call. I had never experienced any meaningful or long-lasting change after raising my hand and repeating a prayer, so over time, I came to loathe phrases such as “walk the aisle,” “come forward,” “raise your hand,” and “repeat after me.” Each attempt at getting saved seemed to take life rather than give it. By high school, my belief system was that I didn’t want to go to hell but wasn’t too psyched about heaven, either.

As my contempt for all things Christian hardened, my church involvement actually ramped up. At age 22, I became a summer camp counselor alongside one of my best friends. We played sand volleyball, slung frogs into the lake, and pranked our youth pastor.

The final night of summer camp, the guest pastor ended his sermon with an emotional altar call. Here we go again, I thought. I started to zone out, until out of the corner of my eye I saw my friend walk forward. More shocking than him walking the aisle was the later evidence that something had happened to him that night. He stopped drinking and partying. He started studying the Bible, voraciously reading Christian books, and attending church. Further, his behavior seemed to come not from obligation but from love. He seemed to want to know God and learn from him and be like him. His countenance said it all. He had joy.

This was the opposite of what I had experienced growing up. The cycle usually went something like this: get saved in a burst of emotion, commit to Jesus for a few days or weeks, then let the devotion fade away. Everyone in our church seemed to sputter out, digressing into their old way of life until the next camp or special church event.

But not my friend. Month after month, like a flower in spring, he grew. I spent the next five months closely watching him study and pray and seek Jesus. His commitment and love for God were unwavering, and soon, a waterfall of hope washed over me. The thought seized me: “Change is possible. It’s actually possible.” It gave me hope that Christianity could effect something real in my life.

One morning, an honest prayer began to spill out of me: “God, I don’t love you. But I want to.” I wasn’t mincing words anymore. I knew what love felt like because I loved my mom, dad, brothers, and sister. I felt nothing like that for God but wanted to. I shared that prayer with my dad, and he prayed with me, never judging, accepting me where I was.

I lived with that prayer for weeks, dragging it around with me everywhere I went, my dry heart soaking it in. Then one night everything changed.

It was early and still dark outside. I was in a deep sleep, when suddenly my eyes opened. I remember feeling confused about why I was awake at 5 a.m. I lay silently in the dark for a few seconds. Then I heard something in my mind, distinct and clear. It was like no other thought I had had. It didn’t shout and it didn’t whisper. I heard these words:

“Get up, pick up your Bible, and sit down at your desk.”

My eyes widened and my pulse sped up. I lay there paralyzed, and after a few moments, the rational side of my brain convinced me I was making it up. I closed my eyes, trying to get back to sleep, but I couldn’t. The silence in the room was deafening. The thought came again:

“Get up, pick up your Bible, and sit down at your desk.”

I had heard enough Bible stories and listened to enough sermons to know it was time to pay attention. I got up, embraced the early morning chill, and found my Bible, which had been collecting dust under a lamp on my nightstand. I grabbed it and sat down at my desk. I stared at it for some time. Unsure of what to do next, it seemed clear I needed to open it, so I picked a random spot.

In this instance, Bible roulette seemed to be God’s way of getting my attention. I peeled back the pages. There I was, my heart and the Scriptures wide open. In this moment everything around me blurred, and life seemed to come to a halt. I looked down to see the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verse 37. I read:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

Like the destruction of a great dam, the flood waters of God’s love crashed into me. In that moment, my secondhand spirituality became firsthand. My knowing about God was replaced with knowing God, and like my friend’s experience, the change was permanent.

Shortly after my rendezvous with God, I developed a new routine of waking up early to drink coffee and read. I was thumbing through some of my dad’s books when I opened Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines and read a line that pinpointed the pain and disconnect I had felt growing up in church: “Spirituality wrongly understood or pursued is a major source of human misery and rebellion against God.”

Yes. I had it all wrong. Christian faith wasn’t about going to church, being a morally good person, believing the right things, or having some emotional experience. It was about God’s love filling and freeing me.

Since that day 13 years ago, I’ve read everything written by Willard (eventually becoming board chair of Renovaré, which provides practical resources for cultivating a life that makes us like Jesus from the inside out) and have dedicated my life to apprenticeship with Jesus. That doesn’t mean faith has been easy, but it has been the most thrilling adventure of my life. Battling habits of pride, anger, lust, and gluttony has become an adventure, so much so that creeks and sewers pale in comparison. I have started successful businesses with my twin brother, always the risk-takers. I have a beautiful family; I have also buried a child. Through the joy and the pain, Jesus has shared his eternal life with me, filling and freeing me.

Today I not only feel the fierce and unflinching love of God but in some small measure, I’m making my own advance into love—becoming love, drawing ever closer to that sweet society we call the Trinity. That’s it. That’s what my life is about. That’s the adventure I’m on.

Starting Soon: The 2018-19 Renovaré Book Club

How do we read for transformation, not just information? Choose books that stir the soul and have an enduring quality. Then read with God and others at an unhurried pace, attentive to what the Holy Spirit wants to teach. The Renovaré Book Club is designed for transformative reading. It runs October 2018—May 2019.

Learn more >

Originally published in Christianity Today (April 2016) and used with the author’s permission.