On camp last week I gave kids the opportunity to become Christians if they wanted to. They could also recommit their life if they wanted to.
Usually when I do this a few kids put up their hands after the prayer to say they’ve prayed it. Then I invite them to come and talk to me afterwards, usually about half the kids who put up their hands come and chat. I like to chat to them because then I can talk to them about what’s next and tell them what they can be doing to keep following Jesus. I feel like there are lots of people who say the prayer to follow Jesus, but nothing happens after that. It’s all emotion and no action. I want to do my best to make sure as many people who say they want to follow Jesus are equipped to keep following Jesus as possibile.
On Thursday, when I gave kids an opportunity to become Christians, quite a few put up their hands. Then when I asked them to come and chat to me after the talk 27 kids turned up. About a third of these said they were becoming Christians for the first time. It was very exciting!
That night we had a camp fire where a whole bunch of kids shared about about what the week had meant to them. For a lot of them, the story was similar, similar to each other and similar to the story I have heard many times before at camp. They come to camp, become Christians, want to follow Jesus, and then after camp the struggle to live following Jesus. Then they come to camp again, get reinvigorated, get excited then go from camp find it difficult to live for Jesus.
I realised that for a lot of the kids this camp is their primary or only spiritual input. The problem is that this is unsustainable, because one day they’re not going to be able to come on camp any more, and also because camp only happens, at most, once every 12 weeks. The obvious solution it seems to me, is to get them in a church and youth group where the Jesus is worshipped and the Bible is taught. So on the Thursday night of camp, I decided to change my last talk. I decided to give them a gee up for church and to challenge them to put their money where their mouth is.
I told them if they’re really serious about following Jesus they’ll do it in conjunction with his people. I talked about how the church is how Jesus has decided to work in the world. If we want to make a difference, we’ll do it through the church. I said this on top of my amazing acronym for sustainable faith: BPOC (B – Bible, P – Prayer, O – Obedience, C – Church, see amazing!). In the end I challenged them and said that if they don’t to BPOC they will not stay Christians. It wasn’t the best talk I gave, in fact it was probably the least polished. However I felt like I made pretty good case for need to follow up commitment with action.
Then I got the leaders up the front to talk about their church and youth group and all the kids were given a sheet talking about all their church options. Finally, a few hours later, when camp ended, there was a time set aside to specifically go and talk to leaders who go to church in your area, and organise to go to church with them.
When we gave them this opportunity only about 20 kids got up and spoke to leaders. I was a bit sad about that. I felt like following the strong response to the gospel, the depth of feeling at the camp fire, the challenge I gave, and the ease with which kids could connect with churches, we’d get a better response. But we didn’t. And I’m pretty sure that of those 20 kids they’re not all going to end up at church or youth group.
I figured that there are probably a number of reasons for the response. One I think when you decide to become a Christian you can be responding to your need for forgiveness and love. When you commit to going to church you do it out of obedience to Jesus and an understanding of the importance of the church. It’s not as basic an emotion or desire.
Another reason is that Jesus is much more attractive than church. Jesus has unconditional love, Jesus has unconditional acceptance, Jesus is (seemingly) undemanding. Church on the otherhand, is full of real people, who you don’t know and you may not like. Church and youth group will happen at a particular time, not of your choosing, and will require that you don’t do whatever else you were going to. Church will stop you from Sunday morning sport, Friday evening parties and friends or Sunday night TV or homework. Church requires sacrifice.
A third reason is that when we gave kids the opportunity to respond they could talk to leaders about going to their church and get details or they could stay sitting down talking to their friends. It’s a very tangible sacrifice that we were asking the campers to make. And as it turned out, for many it was probably too big a sacrifice, or perhaps just too subtle. It’s the kind of sacrifice most of the Christian life is made off. Following Jesus is not normally the big sell your house, move countries, die for you faith decisions. It’s much more often going to be small choice between comfort and a small amount of discomfort. And we choose comfort because it’s just a little decision not a big one. But as may be the case with these campers, the small choices can have big consequences.
Now I may be too pessimistic about this, these young people could all be doing great in following Jesus. Maybe most of them go to church and don’t need to get details or find out more info because they’re covered. But I suspect it’s not the case.
I guess in the end this teaches me a few things. Mainly that young people are more interested in Jesus than they are in church. Jesus seems relevant, and needed. Church lacks urgency or appeal.
It also teaches me that while camping ministry is powerful, it’s ultimate effectiveness isn’t found in how well it brings people to the point of decision, but how well it play an integrated role in the faith development of young people. Camps can’t be a one week spiritual supernova. They need to be a meaningful week in a young person’s continued trajectory towards Jesus. Pulling that off is much harder but the results are infinitely better.
Interesting post Tom. Although, I think there are a few more reasons why people might choose not to go to church apart from their own unwillingness to make sacrifices or be obedient to God. For many people the church is often irrelevant and doesn’t actually inspire them to live more for Jesus. Perhaps some of them have tried and have been hurt by the churches judgements or even lack of welcome.
You’re right Mil. I didn’t give a comprehensive list of reasons that people don’t go to church. People often do have understandable reasons for not going to church which aren’t bourne out of laziness or a desire to avoid sacrifice.
However in the case of teenagers in general, and the camp I was on in particular I think that most of these kids haven’t had enough of an experience of church for it to be negative.
I would deal differently with the kid who has never been to church and doesn’t want to go than with the adult who has had experiences with church that has caused them to leave.
I don’t think you need to experience church to have negative feelings about it.
I don’t think church is the answer for camp happy teenagers. Church isn’t just about the willingness to make a scrafice to not go to other things, it can have family implications, peer implications all of which could be more neagative than supportive.
Also regardless of if you have been before or not, church is intimidating, songs you don’t know that everyone around you seems to know, what do I do when they go and get wine and bread, etc etc.
I reckon it should go camp – small group / bible study – church.
A small group provides to space to ask questions and already have a regualar contact with others, you study the bible but more relaxed etc. then from there Church won’t be such a daunting or boring step.