Why the Church Needs a High Camp-ology (Part II)


A few months ago I published a little post on why I love Episcopal Summer Camps. The post took off quickly as people identified with the need for a high “camp-ology” and began to share it through their various circles.

This summer I am working at Shrine Mont Summer Camp in the Diocese of Virginia as the Chaplain to the Staff. My primary task is the spiritual formation and care of the ~75 college-aged counselors who have chosen to spend their summer here on the mountain. I participate in camp meals, games, activities, and worship. I get to spend time talking about the struggles of daily life, the ups and downs of faith, and the realities of following Christ in 2014 – all in a safe and uplifting community.

We have just passed the half-way point for the summer, which seems like as good a time as any to reflect on my previous post and see how it plays out in the real world of camp. Theology (and camp-ology) is pointless unless it is lived out. Here are my thoughts from the road, using my previous four criteria:

4. Camp is the only place in the church where older folks, young adults, and youth all willingly sign-up to be together. I was scheduled to preach at All-Camp Worship (a weekly Eucharist featuring every camp currently on the mountain) a few weeks ago. As I was preparing my notes I thought of the folks in the “congregation”. Who would I be talking to? What ages would be present? After some thought I realized that most of the campers would be from ages 8-13.

Easy enough, right?

Then I realized that the “Boomer Camp” would also be there, with campers from ages 22-70. There would also be the counselors: a wonderful and wildly smart group of college-aged folks.

On top of all of that, Bishop Ted Gulick (Assistant Bishop of Virginia) would be serving as the Chaplain for St. George’s camp and would also be present.

In one service there were children, young adults, “middle” adults, “upper” adults, and an Episcopal authority figure, all eager and willing to be there. They all sang together, prayed together, and participated in the Eucharist together. All of the inter-camp differences (age, activities, etc.) dissipated for one hour on a Sunday evening. And best of all…it was downright fun!

3. Benefits to staff. The amazing staff that I have the honor of working with this summer have proven this point over and over again. There have already been several blog posts on the Shrine Mont Camp blog about individual staff members going above and beyond in their roles as leaders, guides, and mentors to campers. Even though they are working for very little and giving up their entire summer, these staff members are proving that summer camp counselor is not always the easiest job in the world – but it is the best job in the world.

2. There is a lot of peer pressure… to be yourself. During the first sessions of MAD (Music and Drama) Camp and St. Sebastian’s (Sports) Camp, I found myself observing a joint-camp dance party. Held in the HAPPY Pavilion, the camps came together in goofy costumes and danced to loud pop music for what seemed like hours. At one point in the evening, a young camper came up to me where I was standing on the side of the dance floor.

“Come dance!”, she said enthusiastically.

“I’m not sure if I have any moves.”, I explained.

“It doesn’t matter! It’s not like anyone is going to judge you!”, she said (as if this was the most common sense idea in the world).

A camper who did not know me, except that I was not fully included in the fun, invited me to participate in the party. She took a chance because she wanted me to be a part of the group – no matter how silly my dancing was.

At the same dance, one of the session chaplains came up to me dressed in a long, blue dress and blonde wig. We talked for a few moments before he insisted on getting back on the dance floor. As he walked away, dress and wig swaying to the music, I realized how utterly different and absolutely beautiful this crazy dance was.

That dance was just a small sign of the culture of summer camps – where it is okay to be different as long as you are being you.

1. Camp is a rehearsal for the Kingdom of God. My job as Chaplain to the Staff means that I get to have a foot in each camp on the mountain. I get to eat breakfast with St. George’s camp, spend the morning with Sports Camp, eat lunch with MAD Camp, and worship in the evening with SHYC (Senior High Youth Conference). I get to see the joy and laughter and excitement that comes with each camp. I get to see the struggles and pain that some campers (and staff) overcome while at camp. In short, I get to see the Kingdom of God played out in real time, everyday.

Last night we had All-Camp Worship with Explorer’s Camp, St. George’s Camp, and SHYC. As I stood at the front of the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration and gave each camper and staff member the Bread that is the Body of Christ, I saw the hands of God.

Let me explain:

Some hands were very dirty, covered in the colorful residue of a day of fun at camp.

Some hands were experienced and had seen many summers on this mountain.

Some hands were connected to bodies that were wearing funny costumes.

Some hands were connected to bodies that carried a new, growing life inside of it.

Some hands were small.

Some hands were big.

Some hands were young.

Some hands were old(er).

Some hands had carried heavy burdens to this mountain.

Some hands had found freedom from those burdens in this place.

Some hands were carrying others.

Some hands were being carried.

All of the hands were holy.

All of the hands were sacred.

And as I placed the Bread of Life into each of the hands, I saw the hands of God in front of me.

I still have a high camp-ology and I will forever be changed by what I’ve experienced in my time at summer camps.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, all I can say is “Come and see.” Come to this place or a summer camp like it. Experience the love and joy and peace that comes with a community that knows who it is and whose it is.

As Jacob said in the Lectionary readings from Sunday, “Surely God is in this place!”


The Episcopal Church is doing just fine (sort-of)

Short Reads

Despite what the title of this post may imply, I am not a fact-denier and I do not have my head buried in the sand. I know all of the talk and blogs and tweets that are circulating about the decline of the Episcopal Church and the decline of the “mainline” denominations across the board. I do not deny that the numbers show a steady decline. I do not deny that the numbers are alarming for people who judge the church by attendance numbers. I do not deny any of this.

Did you catch what I did there?

The decline in attendance numbers are alarming for people who judge the church by attendance numbers. That’s it.

When did church become about how many people show up?

My reading of the New Testament tells me that church is much more about a group of people (two-two billion, the numbers are not whats important) that come together to share a meal, praise God, and then go out into the world, take care of the folks that can’t take care of themselves, and spread the Good News that death and the slavery of sin have been defeated.

Instead, for some reason, we only understand church as a building in which, for a healthy church, 100-500 people gather on Sunday mornings to do “the service”. If this truly is the meaning of the church then the Chicken Little’s throughout the church are right: the sky if falling!

But what if we let that image of the church die?

What if we let go of our need to be “successful” in the eyes of church growth experts and ecclesiological  abacus movers?

What if we found our success in the strength of the relationships formed within our church communities? What if the sign of a healthy church was the service that happened apart from Sunday mornings?

My last post was on the “Doomsday Preppers” of the church. With this new post it seems that I am holding the bludger and preparing to beat the poor, deceased horse.

I’m sorry if you are tired of hearing about church decline.

I am going to keep writing on it until we finally stop looking at the declining numbers and then immediately to our navels for the solution. There is no secret fix or ten step blog post that is going to “save” the church. (*Full disclosure: my last post contained a list. So did the one before that. I am not averse to blog lists in general, only when the list proposes a solution to an imaginary or misconstrued problem.)

The church has never been about success or numbers or strategic growth.

Unless I have greatly misunderstood my professors in my time so far in seminary it would appear that the church is all about failures, small numbers, and inefficient growth. If we really want the church to stop shrinking and to grow we should start living like the church. We should join people who are radically different from ourselves to worship, share, and serve. We should get out of our cells of individual convenience and into the untidy, complicated mess of community.

For all of the talk of decline, there are so many wonderful Episcopal churches that are doing amazing things. Big churches, small churches, urban, rural, “missional” (whatever that word means) ministries of all shapes and sizes.

The Episcopal Church has got it all. If we showed off what we have and refused to add another voice to the never ending waterfall of pessimism and cynicism about church numbers, maybe we would see our churches grow.

The Episcopal Church is doing just fine, as long as you judge the success of a church based on lives changed and good work done in the name of Christ.

For those still hung up on attendance numbers, I pray that God would so enlarge your heart that you would see the people in front of you. If there is no one in your church on a Sunday I have good news for you – there are a ton of folks out in the world who could use your help (yes you), so lets get to work.