Though I believe I am a Christian because God himself has laid out the way for me to follow and caused my steps to walk in that way, from an outside perspective, I’ve often told people that one of the main reasons I am a follower today can be traced back to a handful of highly influential summer camps. These were the camps up in the woods with chapel twice a day for an entire week with games of capture the flag every night. I was in a room of about 150 kids singing Shine Jesus Shine about a hundred times along with an overhead projector and some college guy with a guitar. Icy cold showers., foosball, and making new friends, some of them even girls (which was unprecedented for this awkward teen), and being surrounded by young adults who talked incessantly about Jesus, scripture, and missionary work rather than politics, cars, and the NBA playoffs – all these things were like living on another planet – a better planet.
Summer bible camp showed me a glimpse of what a vibrant community could look like, at least on a good day, and even on a bad day it was still better than anything else I typically experienced the rest of the year. Around the age of 14, I remember getting up early one day to go to the early prayer meeting that only some of the staff ever made it to. It was here I was first exposed to some of the back-channel chatter concerning how the camp was run. This didn’t disillusion me, but rather gave me a deep internal sense of ownership that was part of a growing love for the church, despite all it faults. I remember still loving camp even the year the music was bad, or the other year when the food was bad and the preacher was boring. Somehow it didn’t seem to upset me too much because this was MY camp, and besides, God was still the same whether being represented by cool people or dorks. Over time, some of this sense of ownership transferred back home.
A lot of folks, when they find out “how the sausage is made”, it’s a huge disappointment that causes them to seriously question their involvement. It makes sense. I’ve had negative experiences along these lines with regards to politics, as well as teaching in the public schools and some aspects of my career in computer programming. Somehow though, seeing the underbelly of the ecclesia at a formative age caused me to want to nurture and take care of it rather than dismiss it. Perhaps relatively early exposure to service, be it in playing music, leading bible studies, cleaning toilets, building projects and just plain old showing up without exception made a dent in my psyche somewhere.
Now, what I think about this most – as a hobby you could say – is not how to get out of church express my annoyance about this or that, but how to improve it’s health. The preaching is moralistic – how can we read and preach the bible to make the gospel clearer? The music is shallow – how can we deepen it without making it too hard on the congregation? Our counseling and pastoral care is sometimes lousy – how can we do a better job assuring people of Christ’s love in their despair? What can we learn from history and theology to help us with these things? How can we get along better with our brothers and sisters from other traditions?
This is why I stick with the institution of the church despite it’s numerous ongoing and various problems. In the end, Jesus is present there – where else can I go? You always hear people articulating why we should ditch traditional forms of parish ministry or religion entirely. Sure they have some good reasons. I’ve got some good reasons too. But I also don’t care. It’s mine.