Thursday, March 03, 2005

festival spirituality and road trips

At the risk of upsetting a few respected friends; let me put up some ruminations about spirituality of road trips (or pilgrimage), festivals and large Christian gatherings.

But first some context. Their have been two recurring themes among Baptist youth ministry across New Zealand in the last few years. These are
a) the rise and succcess of easter camps as they grow each year
b) the rate of 20 plus’s leaving the Baptist church, either drifting to large, Pentecostal churches or totally out of church.

Could it be that these two are related; that what is happening at Easter Camps is contributing to the loss of young adults to church?

Let me explain the possible connection. Easter Camps become a high point in people’s lives. So God is found through large, worship settings, and with dynamic speakers. The larger the Easter camp grows, the more the “professionalism” of the large gatherings grows. Then kids return to ordinaryville-Baptist Church, on a high but absolutely stuffed. They have connected with God in the big tent. But the big tent is not likely to be found again at ordinaryville-Baptist Church.

But it could be found at large-city-centre-Pentecostal church. That replicates in some way the Easter Camp experience, large, professional, younger. So in the dryness of ordinaryville-Baptist Church, why not try to reconnect with God by checking out large-city-centre-Pentecostal church?

A side-effect of Easter camps for ordinaryville-Baptist Church is that their Easter becomes harder. Easter still has some connectivity with the wider, unchurched community. Not as much as Christmas, but still some. So an alert, missionary church will be wanting to make connections with the community at Easter. Yet how to do this with their young people away, thus affecting numbers, music and creative life, vitality and age range. Thus Easter becomes more impoverished at ordinaryville-Baptist Church. This is great for the sake of easter camp, but harder for our mission to wider society.

Now, I’m not necessarily calling for the loss of Easter Camp. Back at Opawa/ordinaryville-Baptist Church, I will be encouraging our kids to go.

But I wonder if we could frame an Easter Camp slightly differently. In the Old Testament, we do see a mix of large gatherings and small gathering. Groups come to Jerusalem for festivals. They enjoy the large, the big, the spectacle. It gives them a sense of being part of something bigger. What is interesting is that these gatherings are in the context of pilgrimage – hence Psalms like 120, 121, 122, 123, etc. The festival spirituality of the Old Testament includes a road trip spirituality. (There is more on this in chapter 7 of my book, The Out of Bounds Church: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change).

I wonder if Easter Camp could be framed in the context of a road trip spirituality. Easter Camp starts not on Easter Thursday, but at the start of Lent. Easter Camp partners with ordinaryville-Baptist Church to provide each year a road trip spirituality that integrates the themes of Easter camp with the ongoing life. This starts well before Easter Camp and finishes well after Easter Camp. The life of ordinaryville-Baptist Church becomes an essential building block in the road trip spirituality of Easter Camp. Easter Camp is poorer without the road trip resources, pre and post, and thus God being found is woven both into ordinary-villeBaptist and into “the Jerusalem” that is Easter Camp.

Just some thoughts. I’m not wanting to knock the value of Easter Camp, but to ruminate aloud about some potential connections and offering another perspective or metaphor for thought. I could be way off beam and if so, am happy to be drawn back into the light.

Posted by steve at 11:59 AM


  1. i’m going to think about my response and then post it.

    Comment by tash — March 3, 2005 @ 3:06 pm

  2. I think that is a very good idea, except for the fact that there are no holidays for Lent… There would be no Good Friday…

    Otherwise, I think your idea is great.

    Many people think that the problem is with the “follow up”, but sometimes I think that people feel like they have been tricked by events such as Easter Camp – e.g. they think Church is going to be like Camp, but it’s like Church. A bit like Alpha is nothing like Church.

    In saying that, Whangaparaoa Baptist Church has had amazing success with their Easter and summer camps at Peter Snell, but that is, I think, because it is very much a part of the Church and an extension of its ministry – i.e. not just an event.

    It is very big events like the Easter Camp and Summer Harvest that suffer from those sort of problems.

    Comment by Paul — March 3, 2005 @ 11:24 pm

  3. I think this is a really important issue to raise. Easter Camps (Pressy ones) had a huge and important impact on me growing up but I floundered a bit once i hit my early 20s when I was at University and no longer felt I fit into that group. I think that this age transition is as important as the ‘day after camp’ transition.

    Comment by Bronwen — March 4, 2005 @ 4:18 am

  4. Hi Steve – This is something I can definitely relate to. I went to lots of energetic camps as a young-20-something youth leader and witnessed the exact phenomena that you describe in your post

    But I always witnessed it from afar – I was never one to desire the kind of experiences these young people were having. I felt quite self conscious cos I never went forward for the ‘altar calls’ and often felt like a fish out of water – Very happy for those around me to experience these things but never really desiring it for myself. I still came away feeling “energised” and “closer to God”

    BUT: I drifted from church in my late 20’s anyway. It didn’t matter whether church matched what I got at camp or not – this was far from my mind when I made a conscious choice to not attend church anymore. I still loved God, I just wasn’t sure he wanted to be friends with me anymore or whether I was worthy of being friends with Him

    I know a lot of kids who have gone from “on fire” at camp to out-n-out atheist or at least active agnostic too. I still see some of them from time to time

    To me one of the most important things with youth (and indeed all Christians who truly desire to be disciples) is to make sure they actually know Jesus. It might sound like I’m being simplistic or reductionist but I’m not

    I went to Bible Study and Youth Group and Sunday School and church and in 30 years (minus the 6 years I didn’t go) of memorising scripture and singing songs and reading theology and discussing Jesus with my dear friends who did know Him I still didn’t get it.

    I only figured out what Justification meant for me 2 years ago. I still don’t really know why I didn’t get it earlier. It was mind blowingly weird to realise I had never gotten it.

    I might be wrong about this but IMHO: No church experience is going to effect the kind of change I needed to make.

    I haven’t entirely figured out what would have made the difference but let me offer my thoughts as they are now:

    I needed personal contact with Jesus. People who don’t pretend to be O.K. when they’re not. I didn’t need salespeople. I needed more like what Jonah did with God “What the heck were you thinking God?” I needed a swift kick occasionally. I needed an environment where I wouldn’t be scared to be wrong. I needed people to ask me what that Scripture verse I just quoted verbatim really meant to me – and to keep doing it until i could tell them. I was so numb – I needed to feel.

    I just re-read this and I hope no one thinks it’s argumentative – it’s not intended to be – I think I experienced something that a lot of people who grow up in church experience and I think a lot of very warm and wonderful Christians don’t quite pick up on it when others are experiencing it.

    I feel what you are saying Steve and I think I agree with it in Spirit – but I also think it’s a very fundamental problem – especially for young people not easily solved by merely altering the experience.

    Comment by Randall — March 4, 2005 @ 9:59 am

  5. 20+ year veteran church musician, worship leader, songwriter and author. Here I am, smack dab in the middle of an Evangelical Presbyterian church. They love Jesus. The pastor is passionate. But something is missing… I think “church” does not work anymore – at least, the way most of us “do church.” The Holy Spirit has been allowing me to stumble my way on to various blogs – and even create my own – to begin exploring the idea of how we might move “the body of Christ” in a new, refreshing direction… I will be a faithful reader! Visit my blog at

    Dan McGowan

    Comment by dan mcgowan — March 4, 2005 @ 11:50 am

  6. Really appreciate your honesty Randall. I wonder if what you’re saying actually reinforces what I’m calling for .. a road spirituality. It can be hard in large settings to do what you are talking about. So is that part of the “road trip” there and back, the deliberate planning of space for honesty etc. And not just saying “oh that’s the youth groups problem”, but a large setting owning that in the creation of their setting, the very strengths are also the very weaknesses.

    Comment by steve — March 4, 2005 @ 4:41 pm

  7. steve i’m not sure if i quite agree with you. the fault is not with the organisers of easter camp or the event itself, it’s with the culture of the churches the teenagers go to.
    my understanding is that when we interpret the hype and get under it, we will find honesty too. what is disillusioning is when we find there is nothing under the hype : at the community level. that’s where people leave, because ‘when the music fades and all is stripped away we end up singing stupid songs to try and compensate for it because it’s all about how i feel about you” eh?
    it’s the dishonesty of those around us that scares people away, not the stuff at the camps. they’re too removed, too surface, too intense as transient moments : crisis generations, where there’s just not enough time to process it all and get under the skin. the assumption is always that there is integrity up the front and people generally don’t get a chance to unravel that because it’s all over in 5 days.
    but dishonesty in a church community … there’s the key.

    isn’t this just like the ‘god is a DJ concept’ you so like? isn’t this the upbeat sample that comes into the groove and reminds us of days gone by? so really easter camp and to a lesser extent parachute (ooh it pains me to say it i admit) aren’t at fault : it’s actually the groove that’s wrong. there’s no rhythm that people dig.
    and i try to provide an environment where that rhythm flourishes. where people can add to the song with their own harmonisation of the gospel : simple or spectacular.
    i value the fact that at Easter camp, the teenagers are outside their routines and able to interact with God and other christians. they will find themselves uniquely challenged and often some very wonderful confessions of faith come during the discussions i have with teenagers at easter camp. and i know what you mean about the story/journey idea of christianity, but surely there is a point where we do say “yes this jesus is whom i will follow” don’t you think? and easter camp often sees this kind of commitment happen. and i willingly side up to them and walk with them on this journey that is really often quite tragic and disappointing.
    finally, there is also a sense where culturally hype and spectacular must have a place. we go to a rugby game and get caught up in the hype of that and then go home. does this create the problem that we need to have this hype to sustain us on a day to day basis? nope. there’s enough ‘other-than-rugby’ around us that’s been normalised into our lives for us to cope. and there i think you have a point. the danger of these events is for the teenagers to expect them to be the day to day norm : but again, it’s not the event that is at fault here, it’s the community that allows them to maintain that expectation.
    i am really looking forward to an event where some wonderful stuff is going to happen : and i especially look forward to the stuff that happens after the event in our community as we unpack from our excursion and do the washing and cleaning so we can get on with the rest of our lives till the next adventure.

    Comment by stu — March 4, 2005 @ 9:04 pm

  8. thanks stu. appreciate your insights. i do find your last paragraph interesting, that you are especially looking forward to what happens after the event. isn’t this sort of my point, that it’s the fore and after that is the key.

    not every church is blessed to be able to afford a full-time youth pastor like your church is.

    so for those that aren’t, for the many who are ordinary-ville? what then? and can’t easter camp help with this in some way.

    anyhow, off to chew some more on your comments.

    Comment by steve — March 4, 2005 @ 10:29 pm

  9. Hi Steve. This topic has really got me thinking…

    I’m going to post again – but I need time to think about it – I think you really have something here.

    Kelli and I are discussing this back and forward now – she experienced this phenomena in a different way – at 16 – making a decision at a “festival” and then being ignored – an experience that caused her to turn her back on the Church.

    Will post soon

    Comment by Randall — March 5, 2005 @ 10:36 am

  10. thanks for your reply steve. i suspect that we are talking similarly with regard to ‘long term’ though rather than a road trip idea i am thinking more that easter camp factors as more of a holiday destination — a bit like disney land if you like. where the ‘feel good’ happens and people have an excursion into another reality, a break from the hum drum, a glimpse of hope. it’s the excursion thing that i’m focussing on.
    admittedly easter camp speakers have got a reputation for saying ‘this is the moment where we can change the world’ ‘let’s carry this experience out there…’, but last year at the northern camp there was a strong emphasis on how this experience is not sustainable, it is unique and there is real hard work out there in life.
    as for easter camp being responsible for the before and after, i can’t see how that is pragmatic : they’d have to ’employ’ more volunteers for this which takes them away from their local community. full-time, part-time or no youth pastor, the responsibility for the lead up and effects has to fall on the church communities.
    i think we need to resist the programmes and conference (40 days, get smart, noise) mentalities of personal spiritual growth as churches, not as individuals. the leaders need to be explaining their concerns about this to the congregation. hold victory in tension with the muddy psalms, the lamentations, the thorns in our side, the suffering, etc which contribute so much depth to our faith.
    that’s the hard graft. that’s the time consuming commitment that only church communities can provide. a centralised organisation, like YFC has attempted in the past, cannot provide for this which is why they had pushed the teenagers who have responded back into church communities.
    and finally, with regard to being full-time…that’s only two and a half months old. most of this thought has developed in my part-time capacity of the last two years and my volunteer capacity at another church in the two years before that. i admit there are some things i can do now i’m full time, but actually, creating hype isn’t one of them.
    i’m firmly committed to the honest environment : but that’s not without it’s problems, and that’s another blog post somewhere on the ether…

    one thing i wholeheartedly agree with you on is the point that easter is that much weaker for the local community when all the teenagers are stripped away from it. as a leader who goes to easter camp, i miss out on the richness of this celebration too and that kinda sucks. one major downfall of easter camp, which is not their fault really, is that we can’t easily walk 2500 hyped up hormonal teenagers through the powerful subtleties of the story of easter. so even the teenagers miss out on the reflective/contemplative, disturbing/distressing, horrific/despairing nature of the narratives that lead up to the resurrection : which is by all accounts of the gospels anyway, a little bit dwarfed by the passion narratives (but that’s just an aside). easter camp focusses too much on the resurrection and rightly perhaps since that’s the point of hope that’s being communicated in a short space of time.
    at the northern camp though, pete and i have been asked for a second time to provide a contemplative space and to lead communion, so we’ve had lots of dialogue with the organisers about some of these issues.
    …and i’ve done it again. verbose verbose verbose. sorry mate!

    Comment by stu — March 5, 2005 @ 11:13 am

  11. stu,
    this post is obviously scratching some itches for you. at the risk of another homily from you:), when you say “i think we need to resist the programmes and conference (40 days, get smart, noise)mentalities of personal spiritual growth as churches, not as individuals. the
    leaders need to be explaining their concerns about this to the congregation.”

    my immediate question is, so why not resist Easter Camp? why are you resisting some events but applauding others? not wanting to be sneaky, but appreciating very much your good thinking going on around this post.

    my second question is (and this is a personal dilemna) when does leadership explaining actually contribute to group think. where is the balance between personal freedom and guidance from leadership.

    Comment by steve — March 6, 2005 @ 7:49 pm

  12. well that’s actually a very good question. and as i’ve pondered it i’ve been thinking that there must be some degree of prejudice there. i wonder if it has something to do with the fact that i don’t feel like Easter Camp has the expectation for us to take this conforming experience back with us, that it still celebrates a certain amount of distinctiveness. we go back to our youth groups for small group time, so they are reinforcing our identity and uniqueness. we all camp together and stay together…i’ll keep pondering on that.

    i think leadership explaining is essential for group think. that’s what the social contract is. they are free to disagree of course, and dialogue is fundamental to the process…but ultimately the group generally thinks that you as the leader know what you’re on about and have comfort in that.

    (must resist verbose…)

    Comment by stu — March 7, 2005 @ 9:56 am

  13. another question for you steve, with this aversion to excursion type of events, how do you feel about your jaunts oversees or when you’re asked to speak at different things? Converse, curtain raiser etc…what’s the difference between these and Easter Camps…
    (it’s a real question NOT a sarcastic one…it’s just something that struck me as i was thinking about your question…)

    Comment by stu — March 7, 2005 @ 7:16 pm

  14. great question stu. I’ve already emailed you asking if I can use it in a post.

    Just a minor point though. I don’t think its fair to read my initial post as against excursion types of events. I tried to stress in the initial post that I would still be part of such events, but that I was trying to use the notion of road trip spirituality to ask how “excursions” linked with “church”; and to suggest the need for a greater interface between the two.

    Comment by steve — March 7, 2005 @ 8:01 pm

  15. fair point…i confess i may have strayed into a bit of projection there…

    i’m still pondering…

    Comment by stu — March 7, 2005 @ 10:11 pm

  16. steve and stu.. now seems like a good time to interrupt your dialogue.

    a few thoughts stu, on the resurrection focus of eastercamp. we are currently in the midst of a several year experiment with how to emphasis different aspects of the easter story. this year the focus is on the human story (hence freedom) of easter. the response of the disciples, of mary magdalene. next year we will probably approach the story from the perspective of Peter’s journey. Each perspective has it’s own unique spin of hope, despair, love and loyalty, as well as countless other adjectives. It’s unrealistic to think that eastercamp could ever cover all the intricate and delicate aspects of the story in one five-day experience, so whilst it may appear that we brush over some of the more uncomfortable parts of the story.. we are endeavouring to create more and more layers to the story each year.

    In regards to the idea that eastercamp strips away local community, I think that there is a 50/50 swing here. Approximately 30% of the camp is brand new each year, and we aren’t growing fast enough to suggest that all our older campers are simply hanging around. So at some point they are returning to local community celebrations.

    Probably a different experience in a small yet intentional intergenerational church experience from what many other youth workers talk about in regards to the importance of eastercamp as an event for their young people. Issues of language, involvement, ownership, participation and missionality are some reasons why an event that is most definitely integrated, owned and celebrated by the wider Baptist community is important to youth ministries where their young people would otherwise be sitting on the sidelines.

    Surely there would be every intention of warmth and welcoming space at either church, but would your congregations respond and cherish the newcomer teenager or young adult and communicate the easter story so intentionally in their language? We all want to say yes, but there is something special about eastercamp being a place where our teenagers talk and communicate faith in their own language, as well as hearing the voices of others around them.

    Blah blah blah. Last year there were record numbers of young adults attending eastercamp the northern version. It’s important to point out the differences actually, between the northern and southern camps. Probably too much for this post. I think that ideologically Steve, you would probably be far more comfortable with the thinking and preparations behind the way ec northern regards the local and home church connections.

    By the way.. (and by no means should this be taken the wrong way :)).. I don’t know if you ever made it to a northern camp, I’m not sure if graceway attended to be honest, I can’t remember. However, every year we extend an invitation and free entry/food etc, to every pastor that wants to visit the camp. We have run prayer hotlines with BMF prayer groups, home churches, small groups of parents praying at home. We have done feedback reports for churches gathering on sunday mornings (although not for previous 2 camps).. the reason being that we consider that we are journeying the easter story with all of church, and the support and prayers of the church community at home can make all the difference.

    I’m not sure if the Southern camp extend the same invitation, but I hope you take the opportunity if you can. Otherwise you would be more than welcome to visit with us. Your observations, insights and input would be welcome, but my hope is that you would enjoy the experience as well.

    I don’t believe that eastercamp is the only way to celebrate or teach young people about easter, but I think that the numbers do say something about it’s place in the landscape. Baptism classes and services skyrocket after camp, many youth ministries focus their local community evangelism on the camp, it’s a valuable tool for building relationships and community within youth groups, and for building relationship and community between churches in the same geographic area.

    Because I’ve been involved with Summer Harvests and other such camps.. the fruit of what we do is pretty damn important to me. I couldn’t do this if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe and perceive and hear feedback from kids about how God changed their life during that time.

    SO it’s not the only way, or the most important thing, and stu knows what a big deal it is for me to say that….

    but eastercamp is different from a whole bunch of events out there. it has more integrity, it listens to the youthworkers and pastors that want to dialogue with us, it seeks to serve the local church, and not it’s own agenda. The northern camp doesn’t even run it’s own bank accounts, because it’s a ministry of the associations, for service and resource to the local church. it’s worth always reevaluating how we do it.. but it’s too important to throw away, and silly to resist something that brings vital colour and celebration to the Easter story.

    After all, i seem to recall Jesus used to hang out in big crowds occasionally too.

    I’ve enjoyed this dialogue so far.. may it continue.. (albeit my perspective is a little skewed.)

    Comment by tash — March 8, 2005 @ 10:00 am

  17. Great comments tash (and all perspectives in this dialogue are skewed!). I have been to EC here in the south, but not in the north (Graceway didn’t have teenagers).

    Your comments re easter camps uniqueness might answer my question to Stu, about why he differentiates some large events ie EC and not others.

    Do you really think ECampers are returning to ordinaryville? I wonder, as per my original post,if they just disappear.

    I am not against large, but wanting to reflect sociologically on one expression of Christianity today, and apply some metaphors so see what we can learn.

    I still think there’s a lot of mileage that could be gained from “road trip spirituality” that would help both EC and ordinaryville youth group to enhance the life of both. That’s my intention in starting this post – to enhance, not undermine.

    Comment by steve — March 8, 2005 @ 11:03 am

  18. Hi steve… thanks.
    I’m sure you have the best of intentions, but I’d still be worried about the wrong people reading this post. I had to take some serious time to consider how I would respond.

    I geniunely think and observe that people find balance and harmony between the large and small, and so spending easter at home church is jsut as much of a valid option for young adults as is going to eastercamp.

    However, I also think that both options compete with heading away for a holiday weekend with friends and family. That seems to be where most disappear too.

    I honestly don’t think that you could connect present eastercamp experiences with a departure from church.. along the lines of the non-comparable experience of ordinary-ville church. Perhaps this would be a valid argument for the height of Pentecostalism in the late 70’s/early 80’s, where such extremes are found.

    One of the most consistent pieces of feedback that we are constantly working to, is how much hype is included in the process of eastercamp meetings. So we have 15min of all inclusive tribal wars and that’s it. The rest is based on communicating the story of God. Trust me, I do the programming, i know. I think you’d actually find what we do with programming is miles and leaps ahead of where some home churches are.. and it’s not because of size. In fact, over the space of the day, there are only 3 and a 1/2 programmed hours of large group activities. Everything else is based around selfdirected participation or youth group activities.

    Mostly I hope that what I do with the eastercamp programme acually inspires other youth pastors and leaders to lift the game in terms of how they approach their communal gatherings.

    Here’s an idea for working towards a roadtrip spirituality.. (which is a pleasant, although nebulous phrase)..

    How about in 2006, all the Baptist churches (for starters) have the same focus for Lent and Eastercamp across the country. The same core theme, from multitudes of different perspectives and churches, but all focussing together along with the teenagers and young adults towards the same outcomes? How about satellite linkups between regional and local community gatherings, as well as the camps? How about a national sense of celebrating both at home, on a journey, in small and large settings?

    That’s a dream that has been percolating for a while with me, tranzsend and others.

    Comment by tash — March 8, 2005 @ 11:57 am

  19. here’s my question

    as i’ve been thinking about this post at emergent kiwi i’ve been challenged from another angle.
    if the idea of evangelism is to permeate rather than absorb, then why do we have big evangelistic meetings? surely in most contexts of new zealand these are ‘

    Comment by Stu's Musings — March 9, 2005 @ 9:50 pm

  20. has this blog kinda fizzed because of post-bloat?

    Comment by stu — March 9, 2005 @ 9:51 pm

  21. it might be going the way of most blog-posts stu – they are meant to have a 3 day shelf life – so this post has excelled itself.

    Comment by steve — March 10, 2005 @ 4:53 pm

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