Let’s get something straight: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is not in the Bible. (All the camp directors give a collective sigh of relief.) We Christians love building nice-looking church buildings “for the glory of God.” We hang beautiful artwork, the communion wear is spotless, and the stainless steel (or crystal) baptismal bowl is filled with fresh, potable water. The churches that really have their program in order boast worship bands that practice hours in advance of the service time so that the music throughout the service will be seamless and beautiful. Worship services are scripted to the point of perfection, and everyone has their part to play. Individually, these things are not necessarily bad, and most of them are done for very sensible reasons. My fear is that a focus on tidiness and cleanliness tends to gloss over the messiness of life and ministry to the point that they are unrecognizable as the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Life is far from neat and tidy. Life is a mess. If the primary place for encountering God is sterilized, what does that say about the relevance of the gospel in daily life? A cursory look at the gospels reveals that Jesus’ ministry was messy. He hung out with the outcasts of society and walked the dusty wilderness roads. The gospels come alive with the smell of the manger, the dirty feet of the disciples, the rot of leprosy, the bloody discharge of the hemorrhaging woman, and the stench of Lazarus’ tomb, yet the institutional church trades the muddy banks of the Jordan for the polished baptismal bowl.
The cross looks all neat and tidy when we place it shining on the altar or discuss theories of the atonement, but there is no tidying up the cross of the crucified God. The cross reveals that God is found in the messy, Godforsaken, suffering world. The tidy God can be controlled, polished, and presented to the masses, but the God of the cross breaks into the world in unexpected ways that cannot be neatly packaged or easily accounted for. Daring to create space for the messy human encounters where Christ might just show up is risky because it can shake the tower of theological academia and challenge denominational institutions. The truth is that much of the great theological work of the 21st century is being done in the dirty, imperfect world of messy relationships where the incarnate Christ is breaking in with news that the Kingdom of God has come near. The church needs places where people can connect as children of God amidst the grittiness of life, acknowledging one another in brokenness, and open to the diversity of ways in which God is working in people’s lives. It is difficult to find a place where this happens more concretely than at the Christian summer camp.
At camp, living in the Spirit becomes a way of life, not a sermon point. In intentional Christian community and through active engagement with the word of God and the practices of faith, campers are awakened to the possibility, or even the probability, that they will see God in some unique, unexpected way. At camp, young people become the recipients and the providers of pastoral care, with more direct attention to the reality of their suffering than most (if not all) other communities to which they belong. God shows up outside the pristine walls of the sanctuary in a grove of trees, an outdoor amphitheater, a campfire ring, or a lakefront. If they associate the church as place of worship with “the house of God,” they are able to reevaluate their notions of where God’s presence is found.
Even the camps that practice these virtues are far from idyllic worlds. Camps are risky places, full of tetanus, giardia, high-risk adventure activities, theological catastrophes, hormonal adolescents, and atrocious B.O. The reality is that relationships, experimentation, and openness to questioning make for a very messy environment not unlike the places Christ selected for his ministry. College-age summer staff that have very little theological training are wrestling with big faith questions alongside children and adolescents in their care. The explanations they try out in camp’s theological playground may or may not be theologically sound, but their wonderings are encouraged and theological thinking is affirmed in a manner that has life-long and even cross-generational implications. This theological playground is full of mistakes and failed experiments. It is messy. But the mess is where Christ shows up. Perhaps the most important thing that camp can teach the larger church is to be more comfortable with the mess.