Thursday, July 21, 2005

Back to Camp

I went back to summer camp this year. More than 20 years after serving on the staff of an outstanding Presbyterian summer camp I had the opportunity to return to my roots and spend two weeks as "pastor-in-residence."
First: I had a blast, and highly recommend two weeks at camp for anyone feeling a bit stressed out and over-urbanized or suburbanized.
That said, in twentysome years the place had changed a bit. Its core identity -- a place of building community -- remains remarkably constant. However, the flavor of the community is significantly more evangelical. Praise music has replaced folk music and spirituals at campfires: "My Jesus, My Savior" instead of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot." The story of the call of Samuel has replaced African folk tales as a way of inviting campers deeper into discovery. Intentional Bible study has replaced more general "time for reflection."
In many ways these changes are overdue corrections. It's not that the community was ever too secularized or too accommodating to secular culture. Rather, it simply assumed a familiarity with the songs and stories and traditions of Christian faith that, over time, failed to reflect the reality of its staff or campers. The same is true in the broader church today.
On the other hand, one might argue that the church -- and camp, to a lesser degree -- are actually more accommodating to the culture now. This is something of a stretch at camp where a deep respect for creation, near absence of consumerism and focus on community rather than individual striving remain radically counter cultural. Still, the "Jesus-is-my-boyfriend" praise songs are by and large capitulations to some of the least inspiring aspects of popular culture, and the theology they reflect draws on some of the least inspiring aspects of contemporary church life, too.
Those trends worry me because the signs of an accommodating church are all around us. Non-denominational churches (as well as many main line ones) are springing up as fast as strip malls in sprawling American suburbs -- with architecture often just as uninspiring. Few, if any of these congregations give voice to any prophetic critique of sprawl itself. Churches of all kinds engage in nitch marketing efforts to appeal to religious consumers but rarely offer a prophetic response to consumerism. The church too often supports American foreign policy but remains silent about idolatrous nationalism and militarism.
If you're lucky enough to find yourself at camp this summer, don't let a few mediocre praise songs spoil your fun. But if you find yourself in a church somewhere soon, keep your eyes wide open to the various gods who are being praised.

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