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.

Endorsing Camp: a “talk” about Lakeshore and why you should support it!

I was asked recently to speak in a local Tennessee church about my experience of Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center and thought I would publish (an edited version of) the talk here on the blog for it to be read:

Several years ago, as a high school senior, I would not have given a glowing endorsement of “church camp.” In fact, I stopped attending camp at the tender age of 11 because someone – presumably one of twelve boys in my cabin – stole my wallet. I mean, really, who steals an awesome neon-checkered wallet at church camp?! I’m still mad about it; after all, there is nothing that gets me (and most of us) more fired up than hypocrisy in the church. But if hypocrisy were a good enough reason for giving up altogether, the Christian movement probably should’ve ended before Jesus was even crucified. We stick with it because, despite the hypocrisy that’s inevitable to our brokenness, our hope in the presence of God eclipses all of that. Sometimes, it’s not even despite the hypocrisy but through it that love prevails. The question is whether we’re willing to work through it: be it our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of those we claim to love.

So, despite my inability to give a glowing recommendation for church camp as a high school senior, I nevertheless chose to start working at Lakeshore as a college freshman and continued there for four summers (despite wrecking the camp truck on the first day). And what I saw in those four summers was life-changing – for me as a young adult and for the thousands of campers who came through Lakeshore: I saw kids who came with no friends forge a family by the campfire and discover their strength of character in the woods. I saw youth from at-risk backgrounds hear the words “I love you” for the first time in a meaningful way. I heard their shock-and-awe when they woke up to the smells of home-cooked pancakes, the first home-cooked meal some of them had ever had. I saw leaps of faith from forty feet in the air on the camp ropes course and small, important steps of faith taken as youth explored and echoed an age-old story of redemption to find their place within it. I watched and joined as we canoed, hiked, creek-stomped, and hammocked through creation and were taught to care for what had been given to us. No cell phones. No glued to TV-screens or computers. And yet more connected to what mattered than we’d ever been.

And, of course, there’s plenty of stories of life-changing moments where someone knelt and prayed in the tabernacle or on the dock, where hearts were strangely warmed, but to be perfectly honest with you, while that’s important, soul-wrenching stuff, I think the power of camp has as much to do with the everyday stuff, as well. It’s kind of like this: if you achieved the incredible feat of completing (and understanding) a work by James Joyce or, say, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, you don’t pat yourself on the back for learning your ABCs in Kindergarten afterward. But by God if those ABCs weren’t really important, and camp is kind of like that for youth (or even adults retreating there): it’s the ABCs of Christian formation, of life formation, of learning how to “stick with it” in the face of hypocrisy, whether your own or somebody else’s. Of learning how to hope beyond despair and love beyond fear. I don’t know many places that care for all ages and love all people the way camp does.

So, all that said, I guess it’s interesting to me that while we have youth directors and pastors in churches, there’s no “coach” that is going to demand of your kid, “Sorry, you can’t be on this team if you don’t attend camp.” And that’s not to knock the importance of, say, cheerleading or basketball camp where that often does happen, because they are certain to build teamwork and character and healthy lifestyles. But a Christian camping and retreat center like Lakeshore does those things, too. And even more, it focuses on the one thing that we – no matter what age we are – have this strange tendency to neglect the most: our spirit. We live in a world where we are not always expected to take good care of ourselves, where we seldom have empathy or love for other people or are held accountable by them – especially those vastly different from us, and we certainly aren’t taught to draw near, to retreat, to listen for the voice of “something greater” moving in our lives. But that’s three things camp does do. And it does them really well. And while I don’t seriously think we need a church coach enforcing the expectation of attending church camp, as it would defeat the purpose of us making our own free choices, I do think it’s worth being reminded of where our priorities really are, of how centered we aim to be.

More than that, we live in a world where too many “Christians” have turned Christianity into a dirty word, where even church camp probably too often has a bad rap for being a little too much Bible-thumper, a little too much “Jesus-camp” and a little less like the love it claims to uphold. In a world where there are Christians too-often preaching bigotry, we need Christians who stand for something better to educate youth to think critically about their faith and to engage it in a loving context. If the “church” is to survive into the next century, it so desperately needs a generation of Christians raised on the kind of values that are loving to all people, to all of creation – as well as a generation of Christians who can hang on – still loving – in the face of those who don’t. I’ve seen Lakeshore Camp & Retreat Center raise those kinds of kids to be adults – something I’m proud to have been and keep being a part of. And I want to see that legacy continue.

So, if you’re a parent, I encourage you to send your kid to camp and let them see for themselves what this thing of grace is all about. If you have money, I encourage you to donate to the scholarship fund so campers of all walks of life can experience the same thing. If you’re in college or about to be, I encourage you to volunteer to work a summer or apply next year to be on staff. If you’re a young adult, I encourage you to spend a week or a weekend there, perhaps as a volunteer or maybe for an adult retreat. If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to take your church on a retreat to the camp. It is a place for all to “experience life, love, and the God of grace.” It needs you, church, and frankly, you really need it.

When Surface-Level Religion Meets a Psychology of Depth, or Why Camp (or Something Like It) Could Replace Church

Tomorrow morning, thousands of families will pack into their cars – some wearing their Sunday best, others in jeans and a t-shirt – and head once again to a church service like the one they went to last week. For some, there’ll be a choir decked in robes, lighting of the advent candle, a scripture, a message, a few hymns. For others, there’ll be a praise band, hands raised in the air, a worship leader, a projector-and-screen displaying stock images of a pretty waterfall behind the scripture message. A pastor will speak. Some of them will deliver a message that’s tough to hear, challenging perhaps, but quickly forgotten. Others will preach a message of nurturing love, of taking care of your own, a message patting the congregation on the back, and everybody will momentarily feel a tiny bit better about themselves as they walk out the door to go back into the “real world.”

In most cases, church as it works like this really does help people maintain their status quo. Had a bad week? The pastor might legitimately say something that speaks to you. There’s a good chance that a song you hear or a scripture that’s been read could bring you out of your funk or at least provide a different perspective you hadn’t considered. And this has been well-documented in the field of psychology. People who attend church, by-and-large, are healthier psychologically than those who live fully secular lives in the same culture. After all, “optimists are healthier” and religion and ritual promote reasons to lower stress, not to mention the power of a social support group that religion often provides.

But in maintaining the status quo, if that’s the unseen goal of “church,” there’s a lack of concern for any continual, real depth – that is, any confrontation that brings about self-awareness. A good movie can challenge you or bring you out of a funk, especially if you see the movie with a group of consistent, caring friends. But it won’t necessarily demand that you look within yourself to answer the question, “Who am I?” or “What about myself should I change?” And, similarly, modern American religion doesn’t either. It’s too often a system of staged complacency. After all, if church today functioned to bring people to true repentance and forgiveness (of themselves and others), to self-actualization, there would never have been a need for the field of psychology to develop in the first place.

But think about it: It seems more and more that modern psychology can and does succeed where religion has failed on an epic scale. The honesty required of, say, an AA meeting or of any form of therapy does what church never could quite get right – but only for those with the courage to admit they needed or wanted the help to begin with, only for those who were ready to ask the tough questions. Otherwise, therapy is just as useless an endeavor as religion. No one overcomes an addiction, as an example, without surrendering their will and truly wanting the help to overcome it, but those who do surrender and overcome their addiction are able to do so because they were able to confront the worst of themselves. They find the courage to confront their own suffering and self-destruction.

All of us, at the core of our depths, will find – if we go looking – similar suffering and attempts at self-destruction. We need not be addicts to know there are things about ourselves we do not want known, things we do not talk about, usually. But isn’t it kind of absurd that exploring those ugly depths is precisely, in the field of psychology, what brings people to healing, but it’s as if we are conditioned to fear that exploration instead. And church has not historically been a place that fosters or encourages us to delve into the worst of ourselves with any sense of honesty, largely because of our fear of shame and judgment. Instead, we just sing a song or read a paragraph from a Gospel and expect that to do it justice. Theologian Paul Tillich writes about this when he says,

We are always moving forward, although usually in a circle, which finally brings us back to the place from which we first moved. We are in constant motion and never stop to plunge into the depth. We talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. Like hit-and-run drivers, we injure our souls by the speed with which we move on the surface; and then we rush away, leaving our bleeding souls alone. We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life. And it is only when the picture that we have of ourselves breaks down completely, only when we find ourselves acting against all the expectations we had derived from that picture, and only when an earthquake shakes and disrupts the surface of our self-knowledge, that we are willing to look into a deeper level of our being.”

Tillich calls this deeper level, depth itself, “the Ground of Being,” or God. And I’m moved to agree, but the glimpses I’ve gotten of that depth have not been easily, nor painlessly, uncovered. And perhaps more importantly, I can’t claim to have a solution for the way we miss this in religion, for the way the modern church is overcome with fear of this self-honesty. I don’t think it works exactly for pastors to become shrinks, or merely to send their parishioners to them (though I think the latter should happen more often). I don’t think that it’s helpful for us to simply and suddenly expect people to start being honest with themselves or with others, or to demand as much like an intervention. But the status quo will be what does religion off, if religion is to die… the way it appears to be slowly dying.

So what must change? If I had to guess, too often in the church, the reason people seem to fear plunging into that depth (and, Tillich would say, finding God there) is because they don’t know each other. In therapy, the relationship between the therapist and the patient is built on trust. In church, especially larger ones, small groups, Bible studies, Sunday schools, etc. help build that trust, but the nature of why people attend creates large gaps in it. When you see someone once a week, not always consistently, and you don’t know why they’re there, the likelihood that you’re going to feel comfortable opening up – and finding resolution for – your deepest, darkest issues is pretty nil. That’s not to say it never happens. I think summer camps and retreats work to build more authentic relationship. I’ve seen firsthand a group of kids who didn’t know each other at all on a Monday really love one another openly and honestly and learn to love themselves by Saturday. It’s simple, really. Put people under the same roof for any length of time and, after they’ve endured the trials of that experience, you’ll eventually create trust – that is, an authenticity that will allow people the safe space to delve deeper into who they are. In other words, if religion is to learn to do what psychology is already besting it at, it’s going to have to start to look a whole lot more like camp. I don’t mean in saying that to suggest that things will just get better, that people will delve into their inner core, if a church just starts building a fire outside and singing “Kumbaya” on a Sunday morning. But I do think that if religion is to survive well into the 21st century, church has to learn how to aspire to more authenticity, to create a culture where one of the first goals is to get people to know each other, to trust each other, and finally, to listen with that knowledge and trust. If we can’t do that, we’ll just keep packing into our cars, schlepping ourselves off to another mundane, if not staged, experience every Sunday, an experience that helps keep us going but without ever asking us to wonder who we are or to seek our real depth in the Ground of Being.

From Stolen Wallets to Trusting Experience

When I was in the third grade, I had this black-and-white checkered wallet that was neon green on the fringes. It was the epitome of 1990s cool. Like, I’m pretty sure that wallet should’ve been featured on Full House. And the fact that no one else had such a cool wallet made me feel pretty special (that’s a lie: I’m sure everybody was sporting wallets like these).

But then it was stolen. At church camp. And that one experience so left a sour taste in my mouth that I didn’t return to that church camp until I started working there ten years later.

During that time, though, I carried with me – even from that one experience – a lot of anger with church hypocrisy. By high school, I considered myself atheist, not really knowing what that term even meant, and it wasn’t until another experience, my sophomore year of college, that I did an about-face on my lack of faith.

At Wabash, there was a professor I deeply admired, Bill Placher, who taught me that truth was less about fact and more about trust. I remember at one point sitting in his office and saying something like, “I don’t understand how you can know so much about the Bible, about how so much of it isn’t what we were taught in Sunday school, but still believe in it.” He took his time to respond. The next day, he handed me something he’d written at Princeton and encouraged me to continue the conversation with him. I don’t remember the details of that conversation, yet that experience changed not only how I handled and understood religion but also how I confronted any kind of pursuit for truth. Dr. Placher made metaphors matter in a way no one ever had before. It was like discovering that Santa was real again, and anyone who thought they knew the “truth” about Santa was missing the bigger picture. Or they were just a killjoy.

Dare I say that I think experience, more than logic and reasoning, more than tradition, more than anything, carves out what it is we believe. It’s almost like it’s a scale or something where, if the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones, you can just about predict where a person ends up. If a non-believer were to say that logic and reasoning were what brought her to a skeptical place, I’d say that it wasn’t logic or skepticism but the whole experience of applying logic to a previously unquestioned faith. After all, there’s plenty of deeply religious folks out there who are keenly logical thinkers, and by the same token, there’s plenty of atheists who are pretty irrational, too.

But it comes as no surprise that when people grow skeptical, they often say that they no longer trust scripture or trust God or trust the church. And I’m alright with that, because that’s part of the journey. In fact, I think it’s an important step. I think doubt breeds humility, and asking questions is so very crucial to get to the bottom of who we are and why we believe what we believe. Or why we don’t.

But I think we have a tendency to question ideas and texts and institutions without ever really questioning our experiences of those things. And that’s because our experiences often carry with them an emotive power that we’re not able or willing to easily deny or even confront. I mean, some snot-nosed kid stole my wallet, and I know why I was angry about that, and it would’ve been easy to let that experience go unengaged. So, too, I’ve seen people get caught up in a kind of spiritual frenzy where they think they’ve seen a “light,” but when they find that light, it sometimes seems like something dark turns on instead, because they start using that “light” to justify all kinds of stupid or hurtful behavior that had nothing to do with that spiritual experience in the first place.

None of that, of course, is to say that we shouldn’t trust our experiences, only that we should understand how our experiences sometimes limit or hinder us. And, for me at least, that’s not an in-passing glance at a one-time experience and how it shaped me or continues to. It’s a lifetime, difficult effort, a need and yearning to constantly refocus, to engage the past so as not to repeat the undesired or, if that’s unavoidable, to at least repeat it with more understanding the second time around.

But, as we’re making this journey on the road of life, I think if we were more comfortable with ourselves, more capable of honestly confronting those emotional, powerful experiences we have that determine what we call “truth,” the whole world might be a little better off. And that’s important, because we live in a world today where the information we’re fed is a kind of fast-paced experience itself. We’re bombarded by Buzzfeed quizzes that tell us which Muppet we are; our news sources allow us to dive into our own little bubbles that stop us from critically engaging our surroundings; we place ourselves primarily only around the people who will agree with us, not the people who might make us better, because we usually seek easy and congenial relationships. But when one experience, like a stolen wallet, can carve out our next ten years, we’d be doing ourselves a big favor if we’re willing to slam on the brakes and pay a little more attention to where we’re headed and how we’re getting there. Especially when there’s so much crap to drive through.