My boys love the idea of camping. Occasionally we’ll set up the tent behind our house -one of the benefits of living where we do is that the woods and the creek behind our house feel like being in the middle of nowhere to someone under the age of 7. Usually we’ll get a small campfire going with great plans to make smores, roast hotdogs and have untold adventures.
Then we end up going back in the house to sleep in our own beds…
I had high hopes of going camping with the boys several times this summer: Conner and I have camped at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose before and I thought Micah could join us. I like to hike the trails at Cleburne State Park, that could be another option. My parents live on a large ranch outside of College Station – I’ve camped out there MANY times and thought it was time to take the boys out. Camping in the summer can be miserable if you aren’t geared up for it, but with no school to worry about, we wouldn’t have to cram these trips into our short weekends.
Unfortunately I spent the entire summer in Oklahoma City (kinda like camping, only instead of a tent I was in an apartment…not as nice as my tent, but slightly fewer bugs.)
I am not happy that I missed so much this summer, but it was really hot and chances are good that our trips to the woods would have been cut short by sweaty little boys missing the AC.
Now school has started, the heat is finally dipping below the hundred degree mark (it was 94 today) AND Conner has started Cub Scouts. This has greatly increased Conner and Micah’s love of the idea of camping. So, this weekend was going to be different. We decided to camp out at Rachel’s parents’ house – they live out in the country as well. Tents, smores, hotdogs, headlamps, glowsticks, campfire…and two little boys who quickly decided that the ground wasn’t comfortable and they wanted to sleep inside. In Conner’s words, “Dad, I’m not comfortable, it feels like I’m laying down on grass.”
So now its eleven o’clock and I’m in my in-laws’ living room writing a blog post. The tent is still set up outside with no one to keep it company – I like camping and all, but its a back yard…I’m not passing up a bed in this situation – and I can’t help but think about how my boys’ camping experience is similar to many people’s church experience.
I am often reminded of the truth in Bonhoeffer’s statement that most people like the idea of community more than the thing itself. Like Conner’s realization in the tent, it seems cool, and there is an undeniable appeal, but it isn’t always the most comfortable place to lay down.
I could have insisted that Conner and Micah stick it out in the tent (I never even considered that Josiah would make it all night). I could have used this as an opportunity to teach them that we follow through with the things we decide to do…but I had to ask myself, “Do I want them camping or do I want them to love camping with me?”
If the goal is simply for them to spend the night in a tent, then I should go wake them up and take them back out there. But that isn’t really my goal. Certainly I want them to go camping with me, and I often think about the possibilities ahead for the four of us guys. But I want them to love it as I do. I want their memories of times spent outdoors to be good ones so that after hurricane puberty hits maybe they’ll still want to do this stuff with their old man.
I have a couple friends right now who are ministers in established churches and really seem to be frustrated with this type of start and stop commitment to community, shared life and missional engagement in their churches. People say they want to be a part of something meaningful and transformative; they want to join God in the amazing work of transforming lives and all of creation…but it isn’t comfortable so they start asking to go back inside.
To those friends – and to anyone else who finds themselves in such a place – I urge you to remember that our goal is not just to get people to participate in a certain way. The goal is for our friends and fellow disciples to get a taste of the amazing life that God has prepared for those who will join in the journey of reconciling all things. Our goal is not just to reach out to our community, but to realize that joining God in this ministry helps us to tap into the essence of what it means to be truly human.
To help people on this path, sometimes we may have to be willing to let them go back inside for a while, knowing that we’ll try it again soon. Allow the memories of the campfire, the marshmallows and the stories told to sink in and call them back. Trust that this experience is captivating and doesn’t need coercion in order to take root.
I know that this is true when it comes to walking with our non-Christian friends and I suspect that it is equally true for our overly-churched friends as well.
Perhaps there comes a time when a stronger approach is needed. If the boys and I end up camping on the side of Mt. Elbert and one of them decides they’d rather be back home, packing up and leaving wouldn’t seem like a profitable decision…of course I don’t plan to be on a mountain in Colorado with a 1st grader and two preschoolers. So maybe the question regarding your church is, “Are we dealing with preschoolers, teenagers or adults?” This question runs the risk of condescension and arrogance, so beware, but it can also shed some light on how to proceed. Maybe the question becomes not only about how to get your church engaged in God’s mission, but how to help the church move out of a pre-adolescent faith.
To those who have been called to serve within established churches, serve faithfully. The grass isn’t greener on this side of the fence. Well, maybe in some ways it is, but there are snakes in the grass, so its a tradeoff! Remember, if life with God can happen anywhere, it can happen here. Even if “here” is a living room one hundred feet from the empty campsite where everyone was so excited to spend the evening.