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.