Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why can't worship be more like camp?

For starters, I don't know that I have an answer to the question.  I don't know if there's even an answer that's right, wrong, or in-between.  But I do know that this question comes up in my congregation, and is also the topic of a forum being held at Luther Seminary in late November.  The promotional email I received reads thus:
Why can't my church be more like camp? That's what kids ask all the time when they come back from camp. Great question, isn't it? We wonder the same thing, don't we? Why have we given up on asking? [...]

We've asked YouthFront's Mike King, a lifelong camp director who has moved his camper's experiences in profoundly new directions; and Paul Hill, head of Lutheran Outdoor Ministries and a great student of all things CAMP, to start the dialogue. But we're not staying at camp. The goal is to help you help your church be "more like camp."
The question I would raise in response to that last sentence would be, "Why?"  Why is it important for church to be "more like camp?"

I once had a related discussion with a former youth director at my congregation.  Our youth had recently come back from the ELCA youth gathering and we were discussing to what extent worship should be like it is at the youth gathering--bands, dramatic lighting, skits and dramas, and lots of contemporary music.  I don't remember what I answered then, but I remember wrestling with the question afterward and arriving at this conclusion: our congregation's worship shouldn't be modeled on the youth gathering because our congregation is not composed solely of youth.

The problem, as I see it, is trying to take things that work for a specific context and then pasting them into our own.  I've been to a few Willow Creek arts conferences in my day and, like any conference, I've left inspired and motivated to return to my church and jump-start its worship. But there are limits to modeling a rural, small town congregation on a mega-church in a Chicago suburb.  Asking the question, "Why can't our church be more like <whatever>?" is like asking, "Why can't Wal-Mart be more like Macy's?"  Even if it were possible, why would you want it to be?  People shop at Macy's for a variety of reasons, but some of those reasons are precisely because Macy's is not Wal-Mart; of course, the same can be said for people shopping at Wal-Mart precisely because it is not Macy's.

The point of all this is that context is important. Churches are not youth gatherings, and youth gatherings are not churches. What works at a youth gathering is not necessarily appropriate for Sunday morning worship in a congregation, nor does what works in a congregation make it appropriate for a national youth gathering. Likewise, camp is not church, church is not camp.  This is not to say that there aren't similarities, or that worship doesn't happen in both settings, or even that there can't be or shouldn't be or isn't any crossover between elements of camp worship and elements of congregational worship.  But it must be recognized that the social, political, cultural, emotional, theological, and liturgical dynamics (along with many others) are fundamentally different between a camp context and a congregational context.

"Why can't our worship be more like camp?"  Well, it can be, but we're not a camp. How about these questions:  Why can't camp be more like Sunday morning worship? Why don't camps have pipe organs?  Why don't they (at least in my experience) have choirs? Why are the songs generally "fluffier" than what's in our hymnals?  Because of context.  Camps probably don't have (or maybe even want) access to the resources to fund an organ, maintain it, and get someone who knows how to play it.  Choirs require rehearsal time, which can't be easily squeezed in among the other activities at a camp.  And the songs are "fluffier" because camps spend limited time with camp participants, unlike congregations which spend time together week after week for months and years and can learn more complicated songs over the long haul.

So whether it's camp songs or small group ministry or the next "big thing" you picked up at a conference, it's important to know the context, what's appropriate, what will work and what won't, and whether your purpose is really to turn your congregation into a carbon copy of some other place.  Whose need are we meeting--our need as leaders for the congregation to be more like "that" (whatever "that" may be), or the congregation's need to be more like that?  How can we help the congregation to develop its own identity rather than being a sort of congregational Frankenstein's monster, made up of the parts of a hundred other places?  These and related questions will help us address far deeper issues than simply whether or not our churches should feel more like camp.


Maria said...

Yes, this and similar questions bug me to no end, as though our own church is inferior to camp, or a specific large church that many have attended and continue to compare, when they really aren't equal things to compare.

Camp is designed to be a unique and short experience, and many people have emotionally intense experiences during that time. Of course, some then think they can replicate it at home, which doesn't really work because of the very nature of the uniqueness of that experience. (I'm not given to chasing transient emotional experiences in the first place, so I'm naturally skeptical and wary of this!)

It's indeed true; a church needs to be the best "self" it can be, just like a person does. It doesn't turn out well when it's trying to be something it isn't, or think it's pandering to a narrow demographic (they see through it); it doesn't ring true. And that's a good way to alienate a portion of the congregation.

Post a Comment