This (past) summer I found myself for the second time at a Christian summer camp. Full disclosure here; summer camps are a relatively new adventure for me. During my youth I spent the majority of my summers with my great aunts in a house with no indoor plumbing and air conditioning. When I became a Student Pastor several years ago I began the task of crafting “summer mission trips” to either the beach or the mountains here in North Carolina and surrounding states. It wasn’t until my current ministry setting where I was introduced to a Christian Summer Camp. Many of my youth have attended this same camp since they were in 6th grade (most of the high school students have been 5-6 times).
For me camps, be they more retreat based or missional, provide an opportunity for me to connect with students in an entirely different way. It’s one thing to meet up with them a couple of times a week for church related events, but spending a consecutive amount of time with them in a communal setting is something else. Sharing living space breaks down walls in a way traditional Sunday School cannot. These moments are where I feel “relational and presence-centered” ministry take place.
As the week at camp began I found myself thinking; why does this type of bonding generally happen at places like this?
A word that became my mantra for the week was exposure.
When folks are together for extended amounts of time they tend to start letting their guard down. A trust begins to form almost by osmosis. When you only have one bathroom with six other guys you have to learn to be comfortable with one another!
However, the notion of exposure to one another is just one example.
As I mentioned before, I’m a bit new at this summer camp thing. Had it not been for my appointment at my current church I don’t know if I would have ever attended a Christian summer camp. What the students of my current church, and their families, have done over the past year was expose me to a sub-culture that I haven’t been privy to before. And like most instances of exposure, I had to adjust to the areas where I felt uncomfortable. Often times the word uncomfortable implies a bad connotation. Yet, when viewed through the “lens of faith” being uncomfortable is something followers of Jesus should strive towards. Most of my growth as a Christian has taken place in theses uncomfortable moments.
Allow me to elaborate. When left to my own devices, I tend to stay in a certain “camp” of thinking. In my theology surrounding God I tend to view issues through my own understanding and life experiences (I don’t consider myself an authority on much, but concerning myself no one knows more). I listen to pastors who have a similar view as me and read theologians who share my same approach. Needless to say, I enjoy nodding my head more than I do shaking it.
I’ve come to see that being in this type of continuous setting doesn’t produce a lot of growth, particularly in the spiritual maturity department. What is spiritual maturity you ask? Perhaps the simplest explanation I can give would be how one understands faith, God, the Bible etc…at the age of 10 versus when they’re 60. People grow in many different areas of their lives and an individual’s faith should be no exception.
I once heard a pastor use an expression concerning spiritual growth and how one should eat fish; Eat the meat, leave the bone. I’ve taken the expression seriously in how I approach listening to different schools of thought surrounding faith. Being exposed to something new gives me the opportunity to truly ask myself why I’m so comfortable with a certain way of thinking. It encourages me to apply critical thinking skills to subjects I only approach from my own perspective. It causes me to be pulled, stretched, and maybe acquires a few proverbial stitches.
And I know I’m better off for it. Those encounters help me realize I don’t have all the answers. Nor do I have too. That’s what those other opposing voices are for. I need their voice and they need mine and somewhere in that beautiful mess I think a tiny grain of truth is found.
My time at camp this year has been one of those encounters. My students, through a relationship of trust that is still growing, exposed me to something I couldn’t have experienced without them.
This trust is what allowed me, after discussing with my students the incidents in Charlottesville VA, to take some of them to a peace vigil being held in our city. For most of them, this was the first peace vigil they had ever attended. They were surrounded by people who didn’t look like them, who worshipped differently, and heard a message which asked them to look at the situation from another viewpoint. We are still unpacking this moment in our youth group, but I know we were able to have this uncomfortable exposing conversation because I trust them and they trust me. This should be our desired goal in ministry; to expose others to a side of the Gospel which they might not see and desire for them to return the favor.