Stories from Hershey, Pennsylvania, or Why the Church Needs Camp

On the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, there was a light mist just gracing everything. It was probably remnants of Joaquin, the hurricane that teetered and tottered over whether or not it was really going to make landfall, but out here, in God’s country, hurricanes are not on anybody’s mind. There’s something simple to life here, and I mean that in every positive connotation the word “simple” can offer. Grass that grows the way it did when this was still a “frontier,” cows grazing like the mist was a good bath, barns and silos that are actually painted red like barns you see in paintings. The whole landscape is just that, an American painting, really. Which is, I should say, not what I was expecting out of Hershey, Pennsylvania. I think I was picturing something more industrial, like what I imagine Scranton to be. I had expected dull, white factories against a backdrop of rusted train tracks and trash blowing on the street. Instead, the factory here is a magical place where little girls turn into exploding blueberries, bubbles can make you fly, and everybody has a golden ticket. Okay, maybe it’s not that glamorous. But I won’t lie: there was a faint smell as I drove into town of smoking chocolate. Maybe I just imagined it, but I will always claim that’s what I smelled.

I got roped into (which I also use in the most positive way possible) a “transformational leadership conference” of United Methodist clergy and lay leaders from ten conferences across the Northeast Jurisdiction of the church. About 700 people in sum. There’s something about a group of church leaders coming together that makes it feel a bit like a synod or council with major decisions being made, but really, the general consensus of the gathering seemed to be this: the system is broken, the church is dying, what do we do?

Why is it dying? Why is Methodism dying? Everybody had a different, good reason! To name a few I heard while there: churches want to be nurtured rather than reach out and do good work in the world; the lack of prophetic voices (i.e. voices speaking out about injustices) renders the church irrelevant; dysfunctional conferences that make [financial] decisions that benefit the few rather than the many; an unwillingness or inability on the part of leadership (or the congregation) to be vulnerable and honest within their respective ministries; too many selfish decisions that lacked empathy or the reminder that the church is communal. I’m not sure people left the conference empowered or not? They certainly left with more clarity about how much is broken. And every once in a while, someone offered a tidbit, a “morsel” might be a better word given our location, of advice, but there was deep grieving shadowing over it.

In some ways, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I am not United Methodist, though I work for the church as a camping professional. I do not serve a dying congregation. Or any congregation. And the people I do serve are a relatively transient population (though I would argue that the impact we have on their lives is anything but transient!). In a weekend of lamentations, what I heard out of these conversations left me thinking that what everybody yearns for is that their church would be more like camp. And is that any surprise, really? All weekend, as I met people and mentioned off-hand that I worked at a camp, the response was almost always: “That’s how I got into ministry – when I was working as a camp counselor, etc.” Ah, yes, the good old days. So what went wrong?

Church Camp offers a sacred space where kids and staff, alike, are invited to be vulnerable, to be themselves, because the very basics are that God loves you for who you are. The Church encourages secrecy and shame in an environment of judgment and distrust. Church camp brings strangers to the same space and in only one short week forges them together as a trusting family. The Church brings strangers together each week and keeps them, for the most part, as strangers in what is a very Americanized, individualistic experience. Church camp calls kids and staff to be better, even in their disagreement and discord, than they might be anywhere else: to live honestly and speak truth to power if necessary – but in a way that seeks unity within the community. The Church fails to be a prophetic voice in the world, and when the church is living righteously (or thinks it is), it does so in a way that creates deep division built mostly on a false sense of moral superiority.

Of course, speaking of moral superiority, I’m not being entirely fair: church camp is the church, which should not be forgotten (and too often is by people like me). And for my very general statements that “church camp is x” or “the church is y,” I’m sure there are plenty of failing camps out there and plenty of successful churches, too. But when the United Methodist system, generally-speaking, has high hopes that our camps will produce future Methodists, it shouldn’t feel so much like “church” and “church camp” are two separate entities. And it seems backwards to me to expect our camps, many of which offer thriving experiences for unchurched youth, to prepare kids for the very mundane, awful world of a Sunday morning, dry church experience when they and we know that something better is out there. Why should they waste their time on a place where they will not be connected – to people or to God? As I said in an email to a seminary president I met this weekend, “And so it is: millennials have this amazing experience at camp, then return to their dead churches filled with fake ostentation, and they make the right decision to leave.” Who can blame them?

In the course of Christian history, you’ll find mostly campers. Jacob camping at the Ford of Jabbok and wrestling with God. The Tent of Meeting housing the Ark at Shiloh (i.e. the first “temple” where God resided, indeed, was a kind of camp). Moses and God’s people wandering in the wilderness and given manna from heaven. While they camped. Jesus, the peripatetic Jew, camping during the transfiguration or resting and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, a place apart from the city. And it wasn’t just the ancient world. Fast-forward to the dawn of Methodism and you guessed it: more camping. The Wesley brothers camped at St. Simon’s in Georgia. The circuit riders and early revivals of American Christianity: campsites. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this camping thing – this simpler way of life the way the endless stretch of grassy fields near Hershey, Pennsylvania feels simple and welcoming. Maybe, just maybe, what the church needs is not for camps to produce churchgoing Christians but for churches to produce camping Christians. Maybe, just maybe, if Christianity – or at least Methodism – is to survive beyond the next fifty or so years, things better start looking a whole lot more like camp than they do in their current state.

Driving back to New York, I left at the crack of dawn to avoid city traffic and hugged the Hudson River on the Jersey side just as the sunrise glimmered off the skyscrapers. It was like I’d figured out exactly when New York City sleeps, but it was also surreal seeing the empty street the closer I got to the George Washington Bridge. I thought about how busy this place would soon be, ghost-town though it was in this brief moment. The people from the NEJ conference would soon be returning to their cities, their charges and ministries, likely still filled with lamentations and worries and asking, “What am I going to do?” As for me, I headed back to camp, where I live and work. And I hope they’ll join me there.

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