Off Topic: Spiritual Surfing

Why is church camp always at the beach? 

When I was a kid, every time I would head off to some church camp for the summer, I was stuck off in the middle of the woods. It was usually some camp with a goofy, fake Indian name like Camp Wannahockaloogi, or something to that effect. An hour or more from civilization, we were forced to sleep in little wooden cabins, barrack style, and swat mosquitos all night. The closest we would get to a “beachfront” was that roped off area of the lake that was less green than the rest of it. Instead of going home with a tan, all we had to show for the week was a series of welts from the nightly towel fights. I usually lost those fights.

But nowadays, it seems more and more church camps are at the beach. Instead of packing insect repellent and hiking boots, kids throw their sunscreen and swimming trunks in a suitcase and head off for “Christians Ablaze,” “Spiritual Explosion,” or one of those other Christian events with a pyro-maniacal name. The church charter bus fills up with excited kids ready for a week or two of sun and sand. When it reaches its destination, it is usually some beachfront hotel where the kids will hear flashy speakers and great bands.

When this shift from the wilderness to the shore occurred, I was initially puzzled. Why would we move students from isolation to the middle of vacation central? Why would we take students away from blue jeans and briar thickets and move them to bikinis and beach volleyball? We decided to take our spiritual retreats to the same place MTV holds it spring break specials. What gives?

But then it hit me. 

What better place exists than the beach to learn the art of Spiritual Surfing?

For as long as I can remember (at least back to my childhood), Spiritual Surfing seems to be the predominant method of discipleship in many Christian circles. The theory is such: if we can give someone a super dose of spirituality in a short amount of time, then they can ride the emotional wave until the next event. It is just like surfing. We catch a wave of emotion (referred to as a “spiritual high”) and then we attempt to coast with little to support our faith except the surge from our last wave. Then, we doggy paddle, floundering around in the water until the next wave comes by to push us forward some more.

These emotional highs come from special events with great speakers and great worship. They can also come from books, or revival meetings. During the throws of these super spiritual experiences, we will become convicted of our spiritual apathy and make commitments to “do it better” this time. Then, we get shot out on the wave.

Thus camps, conferences, and crusades have marked the way we have done discipleship for decades in our churches. Perhaps it comes from our roots in the Great Awakening traditions of our religious past in America, but we have mastered the art of up and down emotional spiritualism. It has become so much a part of the way we see the faith, that many of us have become convinced this is simply how our faith works. Fact of the matter, many of the people reading this just assume the Christian walk is supposed to be some roller coaster ride. Periods of deep commitment followed immediately by a return to an apathetic, self-centered lifestyle are what God had in mind right?

Unfortunately, this approach does little for true discipleship, and it has become evident. Many of the people sitting in our church pews have become spiritually anemic, because they are waiting until the next time some great speaker can pour sagely advice into them.

We have become a people who cannot feed ourselves. The spiritual disciplines, once held in high regard as everyone’s responsibility, have become tired heirlooms. They have been set aside, collecting dust in the corner, and people have forgotten them. The modern church in America today stands in the position of the most educated church the world has ever seen. Yet, it seems the vast majority of the people in pews, whether openly or not, feel they do not know how to read their own Bible. People today find themselves scared to pray in public, because they are not sure they know how.

It appears we have outsourced our spiritual disciplines. We have become comfortable letting other people tell us what the Bible says. We have become comfortable letting other people pray for us. All we want to do is show up for the next big wave.

This is a serious problem. If ever there is a way to erode one’s faith and deteriorate their relationship with God, it is by taking away the tools of the relationship. When this occurs, we find a people who cannot stand on their faith in the midst of hard times. We find a Christianity that is weak and shallow. We find people who claim a faith they do not own, and we create a culture where we say the right things but do not do them.

The nourishment that makes for a healthy Christian life comes only from people practicing the disciplines, and doing so in a disciplined manner. That is why they are called disciplines. When our life is marked by regular, daily prayer and study of God’s Word, we become a people who see things the way God sees them. We become true disciples.

If, we begin teaching the spiritual disciplines to the littlest and continue through their childhood and youth, then they will do their faith differently. It will not be dependent on event-oriented emotional fixes to keep them afloat. They will find their sustenance in the Word and prayer. Then, maybe we won’t have two-thirds of them leave the church when they graduate high school.

Camps and conferences can be good, as long as there is real discipleship occurring between them.



6 thoughts on “Off Topic: Spiritual Surfing

  1. This is the absolute truth!!! The way you win people is the way they are connected to the body. If they are won because they are attracted to the beach then that is what they are connected to, the beach, when Christ wins them then they are connected to Him. Darrell


  2. Darrell, you have said it well. So often our temptation is to try to attract people with something other than the gospel. The problem with this is the fact that we get what we ask for. We wind up with people who want something other than the gospel.


  3. These emotional highs do more damage than just not teaching people the spiritual disciplines – they lead to a devaluing of the gospel. When every other month they're bombarded with the message that, "You haven't been walking rightly for the last few months/years/whatever," it enforces the idea that we need to just buckle down and do better about praying, reading the Bible, evangelizing, etc. It's an American slant on legalism – teaching that the more "Christian" activities you do, the more right you'll be with God. What a sad, destructive lie. Instead, youth camps should be preaching the gospel, loud and clear, that if you're in Christ, there is nothing you can do that will make you more right with God. When we understand God's grace, our motivation becomes less about "doing it better this time" and more about running toward the prize – Christ himself. This will lead us into deeper prayer and Bible study, not deeper into legalism.Sorry for the rant, but as a recovering legalist who grew up in church and church camps, this post got me all fired up 🙂 Great thoughts, Keelan.


  4. No need to apologize Lauren, your words are quite pertinent. I agree totally. If we are not careful, we create a whole Christian subculture built around events. It is legalism. But instead of a legalism of "don'ts", it is a legalism of "do's". Instead of the "don't do this, don't do that" attitude that has been prevalent in so many places, it is "do this activity, go to this event" and I will be a better Christian. We fill our schedule with events, and empty our lives of any real relationship. Busy has become the new Godly in a lot ways.That is simply not true.


  5. Great post and great comments! I agree that youth camps should be preaching the gospel, loud and clear, that if you're in Christ, there is nothing you can do that will make you more right with God. Part of the problem with this though is that most adults don't know what that looks like so it is hard for them to teach it as well. It is a bad cycle that we are in because we have been doing the "do's" of events for so many years and even generations, that most Christians don't know anything else. It was not until adulthood that I started to hear this much needed message and understand how to do that, and that came from a great SS teacher and less from the pulpit.And the whole idea if having teenagers run around in bikinis and swimsuits for a whole camp is VERY weird and TOTALLY off my radar that the first time I helped at a beach camp, I was blown away by all the flesh that was being put on display, and allowed by those in leadership almost all day long. Talk about distracting! Lets take a bunch of hormonally driven teen boys and surround them by barely dressed teen girls and THEN tell them to pay attention to God and His word. Like that is going to happen!!I also remember growing up going to camp in the hill country of Texas (aka: God's country:) and we had some good teaching back then. But one thing I remember most is sweating!! The chow hall was air conditioned and a few of the cabins were back then, but the tabernacle was not. Although we at least had screens on the windows so the mosquitoes were not too bad. It is a far cry from what kids go to today, both physically AND spiritually!!


  6. Rich the point you bring up should be another post in itself. You are spot on with the comment. A very large reason so many ministries avoid the issues of spiritual discipline is because those leading them do not know how to do this themselves. We are well over a generation removed now from a church where it is everyone's responsibility to read and study on their own. Not only do the youth not know this, but neither do their parents. It is a cycle.Church has gotten professional in a lot of ways, and we have moved to the model that says we pay someone to do that stuff for us. Therefore, a lot of parents have the mentality that they pay a youth minister to teach their kids how to do this stuff. For many, this can be a way to hide in the uncertainty of not being versed in the spiritual disciplines.The cycle must be broken though, and that will only happen when individuals stand up to do it different in their own life. When one person here and one person there decides it will be different for them and those they influence, they change not only their lives, but the lives of future generations in their line.Well said Rich.


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