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 love building nice-looking church buildings “for the glory of God.” We hang beautiful artwork, ensure the communion wear is spotless, and fill the stainless steel (or crystal) baptismal bowl with fresh, potable water. We script worship services to the point of perfection, and everyone has their part to play. We assign those with the best voices to sing well-rehearsed music into the microphone to spare the rest of us from awkwardness or bad pitch. Individually, these things are not necessarily bad, and we do most of them for very sensible reasons. But our focus on tidiness and cleanliness can gloss over the messiness of life and ministry. Taken too far, they become unrecognizable as the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Life is far from neat and tidy. Life is a mess. Mental health concerns continue to rise among young people and adults, and there is no shortage of explanations for why this is happening. 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 church trades the muddy banks of the Jordan for the polished baptismal bowl.
Tidying up the Cross
I had the privilege of traveling to the Holy Land a few weeks ago (hear some reflections here). I loved the outdoor sites like the muddy Jordan River and the barren wilderness of Judea. But most of the significant sites from Jesus’ ministry are covered with an ornate church or chapel. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is gilded in gold and marble, and incense fills the space. There is only one small patch of exposed rock where visitors can touch the spot where Mary’s placenta allegedly fell. Even more gaudy was the Church of Holy Sepulcher, site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb. The rock of Golgotha is completely enclosed, with a staircase leading a long line of pilgrims (tourists) to the top. You can reach under an ornate altar to touch the top of the actual rock, where the cross of Christ once stood (see picture).
The cross looks neat and tidy when we place it shining on the altar or on a necklace. 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. 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, challenge denominational institutions, and disturb our sensibilities. 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. Why has the church become so stagnant? Because it looks and feels stagnant and irrelevant to people longing for something deeper.
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.
God in the Mess of 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. This challenges campers to reevaluate their notions of where they find God’s presence.
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.
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 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 look for God in the mess.