Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Good Old Church Camp

I was originally planning on posting this on my travel blog, until i realised that this post really has little to actually do with travel, and more to do with my general miscellaneous writings that appear on this blog. Okay, a church camp can be considered, to an extent, a holiday of sorts, and you do tend to go away somewhere - usually one of the many campsites around the city, but not too far away so that people who basically hate sleeping at campsites, and people who have to work, can get there at a reasonable time. You then tend to spend the weekend just hanging out with people, as well have having a couple of talks, and generally fellowshipping in the way that you would on a Sunday, but in a much larger capacity.

Honestly, I'm not sure if the camp is a tradition of many churches, especially the smaller ones, but with some of the churches that I have been too there is generally one a year. Okay, when I was in University we actually had quite a lot more camps: commencement camp, midyear conference, and a mens/woman retreat. We also had a national training event that came about after end of year exams, and of course we had our youth camp (and then there was the congregational camp on top of that, but I didn't go to that one because, well, by that time I was pretty camped out).

Actually, I have had a long history of camps, and it wasn't just the school camps that I would go on (though I believe we would have one of them a year, though in year 11 they decided to cancel the camp because the previous year 11s had caused at lot of trouble, which meant that we got punished for what they did, while they went on to year twelve and, not surprisingly, had a camp). I had also been in scouts, which also meant lots and lots of camps, though while some of those camps were at camp sites, a lot of them happened to be out in the bush in tents.

Four Player Ping Pong

Anyway, the main reason I am now writing this post is because I have just returned from my church camp and I feel like sharing some thoughts on my experience (though I'm not going to be posting it to my social media accounts because, well, as I have discovered people can be a little touchy). Mind you, I have now moved cities so these camps are a whole new experience, but in some cases the more things change, the more they say the same. However, what it also means is that I also get to explore, and experience, church camping here in Melbourne.

How Things Change

I have to admit that things have changed an awful lot since I was going to church camps in my youth. Back then when you went away you were basically cut off from the outside world - no radio, no television, and certainly no traveling down to the local coffee shop (or pub) for some coffee. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but it did feel as if when we went away we would basically leave our everyday life behind, and while we may have listened to music (though music is one of those touchy subjects where if one person objects to a song then the song isn't played) we didn't watch television, we didn't watch sport, and we certainly didn't have our computers or access to the internet. However, these days, not only do the campsites have wifi, we also have our laptops which we can pull out and much around on if we choose to.

And of course our cars to get us to the coffee shop

Yet maybe this also had something to do with the church that I am now attending. My previous church, which these days seems like eons ago, would expect most of us to be there by at least 8:30 pm on the Friday, and then have a Friday night talk. Saturday would start with a talk, then small groups, then lunch. In the afternoon would you have an elective, a couple of hours of free time, a leaders meeting (which meant that a bunch of people would be denied part of their free time), dinner, the evening talk, and then the evening activity. Finally, on Sunday, there would be a final talk, more small groups, and then we would head home while being told that it didn't matter how exhausted we were, we were still expected to be at church for the evening service.

Maybe it was because this particular church was a bigger church that there was still an evening service, but in another sense it was one of those churches that basically had a certain expectation of commitment when it came to being a Christian, and if you were not willing to meet that standard, then you mustn't be all that committed, and in the end are probably damned to hell (though they would never actually say that - they would just insinuate that you wouldn't get as many brownie points as a more committed person would).

There was still the singalong, but some things don't change
Yet these last couple of camps that I have been on in Melbourne have been much more relaxed. First of all there is no talk on Friday night (though one of them did have a get to know you session, though that was because the camp covered all of the church's services as opposed to just one congregation). The other aspect was that there was no expectation that you would then come to the service that night (and in fact all services were canceled, but then again I was so exhausted that I simply went to sleep as soon as I got home).

The other thing that seems to have come out of this church is that the previous churches that I have been to I have basically been around friends and peers, yet for some reason this church seems to feel much more like family. The reason for this though probably has a lot to do with me being such a distance from my natural family, where as back in Adelaide my parents and siblings were either just around the corner, or even in the next room. I guess moving away has the potential of creating much stronger bonds.

Human, All too Human

I have to admit that there has always been a misconception when in comes to Christians, and not even in my mind. Okay, I have been guilty of somehow expecting them to actually be better than the world at large, and was in a way shattered when I discovered that while they weren't necessarily worse, they were simply bad in another way. For instance when I was back in school I was an unfortunately target for bullies. My early schooling was at a state school, which meant the bullying was to some extent physical, but in another sense simply teasing. So, when my parents asked me if I wanted to go to a Christian high school I jumped at the opportunity, expecting that the problems that I faced at primary school wouldn't be there. Well, it turned out that the bullying at the Christian school basically took another form.

My primary school

Working in the industry that I do the one thing that comes to the fore is that nobody is ever satisfied, and even if they pay for one thing they basically expect a lot more. Okay, in one sense that is simply the way to do business - haggling and negotiation so that we reach a point where both parties are happy. However, this takes another form where the 'customer' starts throwing tantrums when they simply don't get their own way. There is haggling and negotiation, and then there is demanding privileges and options that they are not entitled to because they either failed to do their due diligence or simply wanted to save a few pennies. As a lawyer friend of mine told me - it is imperative to always get your money up front.

Which in turn leads me to the church. Honestly, when I was younger a part of me felt that I was just a spoilt brat complaining because I simply wasn't getting my own way. I complained because I was never made a small group leader, and because I was never made a small group leader I somehow wasn't as good a Christian as the small group leaders. It didn't help that there were subtle, though unspoken suggestions, that small group leaders were better, and more mature Christians, than those who weren't, and the fact that I kept on getting passed over for the roles made me feel as if I was somehow lacking in my faith. That is until recently when a friend pretty much gave me free reign to lead her group, only to discover that I actually hated being a small group leader.

Yet despite the fact that I was disappointed at being passed over for such roles, and that things didn't seem to go the way that I wanted them to go, I have since discovered that my complaints were only a drop in the ocean compared to what Church leaders actually have to face. Our congregation is currently in a transition between pastors and our current administrator has suddenly discovered what it is like to face the wrath of the congregation. It is even suggested that one of the roles of the administrators is to filter the emails that members of the congregation send.

Bible Study Group

Okay, while I understand that as Christians we will no doubt face opposition from the world, whether it be from the secular authorities, or whether it be from Christian elements outside of the particular congregation, but a part of me was surprised that a lot of opposition comes from within as well. This was somehow surprising, particularly since in this day and age if somebody doesn't like the church, or the way it is being run, they can simply pack their bags and walk to the one just down the road - except that it isn't as easy as that. Sure, the leadership and the congregational members may not necessarily see eye to eye, but when you have a community like that of a church, especially one where friendships have been formed over years, then simply packing up and leaving isn't always the easiest option.

Mind you, there is community, and there is community, and sometimes I wonder whether the modern Western church is capable of creating a community that exists beyond our individualistic mindset that makes us little more than a weekly gathering that has little to do with each other during the rest of the week, and is certainly not willing to step out and help those who are struggling.

No One is Good ...

Another change that I have noticed over the years is how Bibles, and note taking, has all become electronic. Okay, I use my phone to read my Bible, at least on the train in the morning, but I am still a lover of paper books. As for taking notes, well, once again I still use my notepad, which generally collects notes from sermons but are never looked at afterwards. Mind you, it isn't as if we are studying for an exam, though the general suggestion is that taking sermon notes helps one retain what is said, yet I'm not sure if that is entirely correct - I have this feeling that the only reason I take notes is because I have been doing it for so long that it has simply become a habit. As I have suggested, it isn't as if I look at my notes afterwards.

Anyway, the talks at the camp, and there were only three (unlike the other camps that I have been to), were exploring the nature of what it means to be good. As I think about it the definition of good is one of those definitions that one can really struggle to come up with something clear and concise. Well, definitions of any work, especially in this relativistic age, could effectively be anything, but in this sense we are trying to determine what it means to be good. Mind you, it is similar to the definition of love, in that while we might through the word around quite a lot, when asked to actually define it we will probably all struggle.

These guys certainly did.
Even though the pastor told us not look it up on Wikipedia, when he asked us to write a definition I suddenly realised that I couldn't. Well, I guess if asked off the cuff to define what it means to be good I would probably suggest that it is something that is acceptable to another person, or something that is pleasing to somebody. Mind you, goodness is actually quite relative these days because while a black coffee from McDonalds might be good to one person, it is not necessarily the case to another (who probably believes that the Starbucks Macchiato is good). However, we did eventually check out the Wikipedia entry after the talk, and sure enough the definition was quite relative.
In its most general context of the study of morality, ethics, religion and philosophy, the good often refers to and denotes that conduct which is to be preferred and prescribed by society and its social constituents as beneficial and useful to the social needs of society and its preferred conventions. The specific meaning and etiology of the meaning and use of the 'good' and its associated translations among ancient and contemporary languages has varied substantially in its inflected meaning depending of circumstances of place, history, religious context and philosophical context. Source: Wikipedia.
Mind you, that is only the opening paragraph on what is in effect a pretty long article, and the definition changes based upon whom you are referring to, yet the general consensus seems to be that it is something that is acceptable to somebody, and something that is pleasing to somebody (though that could also be the definition of beauty). Interestingly, during the creation narrative, creation is referred to as being 'good' as opposed to being 'beautiful', so I'm not entirely sure whether these words are interchangeable. Then again, I suspect that while something might be beautiful, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is good, and vice versa.

The question is also raised as to whether an atheist can be good, and the general consensus is that the answer is yes. I have heard some talks where the preacher has pretty much made the suggestion that since Stalin was an atheist and Stalin committed some horrendous crimes, then all atheists are like that. Honestly, that is a logical fallacy because that same speaker also opened his talk with an apology for the Crusades. Personally, I pretty much walked out soon afterwards, and have lost all respect for that particular Theologian.

Interestingly, there is also that quote from the Bible where some Pharisees approach Jesus and open the question with the phrase 'good teacher', to which he responds 'why do you call me good? Nobody is good but God alone'. That, honestly, sounds like somebody being incredibly picky, until you realise who he is talking to. When the Pharisees asked Jesus questions they generally didn't have anything to do with actually wanting an answer, but attempting to trap him so as to discredit him. Yet sometimes I wonder whether our attempts to discredit speakers puts us in that category as well - when we know somebody is speaking rubbish, do we challenge them on it or do we simply let it slide?

In the Middle

The final talk was a little different, namely because the original speaker had to disappear. It was on that little passage where we have a Pharisee enter the temple and start loudly praising God, thanking him for making him such a wonderful person. He then looks at the tax collector and immediately compares himself with him. I should mention that back in those days tax collectors were basically the lowest of the low - not only where they scam artists, but they were also viewed as Roman collaborators. Actually, back in those days the way taxes were collected was that the tax collector would take a certain amount, which was generally in excess of what was actually needed to pay the Romans.

The reason I raise this is because of how the church is basically become a middle class church. Okay, the churches that I have generally been to tend to be churches that are populated by university educated people - engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors. Sure, there are some tradespeople among them, but not many. What you don't tend to find are unemployed people, and you certainly don't find drug users or prostitutes - at least not anybody openly admitting it - nor will you find any of the congregation standing out the front having a smoke. The other interesting thing is that the Clergy seem to gravitate towards these churches, and those in affluent areas, leaving the less affluent suburbs struggling for staff.

I guess it is once again part of human nature, but one thing I have noticed, particularly with one church that I was involved in, is that they would go out and plant other congregations, but their selections tended to be affluent areas - they never bothered, or even considered, planting a church in a working class neighbourhood, or even a ghetto. Okay, a lot of their members would have come from university, and also from professional work places, but it makes me wonder whether there is this attitude that maybe, just maybe, working class and unemployed people are seen as being worthy since they tend to be much cruder, and poorer, than the professional class.

Okay, I have been to some suburban churches over the past few years and they certainly do have their fair share of trades people. Actually, these days tradies tend to be reasonably wealthy, namely because with the lowering of acceptance rates, and deferred payment options, access to tertery studies is much easier. That means that people are going to uni as opposed to learning a trade, and as such the trades are struggling to find suitably qualified people.

Yet that still leaves the unemployed, the homeless, and the undesirables. The reality is that, as Jesus, he came to save the lost in the same way that Doctors seek out the sick as opposed to the healthy. John Wesley saw that, and in fact specifically went out to share the gospel with them, as did Jesus. Interestingly though, as these groups accepted the words of salvation, and as God began to change them, there was a remarkable change in their lives, and the lives of their offspring to the point that within a generation Wesley's church had suddenly become a middle class church.

Against Christianity

That sounds like a pretty dodgy title for a post on a church camp, but in reality it is related to a card game called Card's Against Humanity. The game is a lot like a game show that I remember watching as a child called Blankety Blanks in that you are given a phrase with a word (or two) missing, and you have to fill in the blanks. However, you had a set of cards with single words on it, and you would put a word that you thought would be the funniest for that phrase, and the person whose turn it is would look a everybody's cards (not knowing who the owner is of course), and then pick the winner. The original card game had some pretty crude words in this collection, so my friend decided that he would create his own, using Christian phrases, and of course concepts that only those of us who are familiar with the Christian social circles would understand.

However, before I continue, one of the good things about the modern internet is that I can actually share videos, so here is one from Blankety Blanks.

That was fun, let's do it again:

I have to admit that this game was actually really clever, and in one sense reminded me of a book that I read a while back called 'Stuff Christians Like'. It was a light hearted look at some of the quirks of Christian social groups, particularly within largish churches. I say largish because I am not necessarily referring to churches that would be considered Megachurches, but are large enough that a single congregation could conceivably have a church camp. Yet there is something that is unique about this culture, such as camp crushes, raising your hands in a spiritual fashion (because Anglicans don't raise their hands, say hallelujah, or even scream out 'praise the lord').

Yet while it is a social group like any other social group, in another sense it is what one would consider a clean social group - we know how to have fun without resorting to drugs, alcohol, or debaucherous parties. Okay, while we might not be the only group that can do this, having been about through my life I struggle to find other groups that are able to have fun outside such a context. I still remember going to a friend's farewell party and upon returning home discovered my housemates falling over each other in a drunken stupor. I looked at this, shook my head, and wondered whether this was actually all that fun.

Creative Commons License

The Good Old Church Camp by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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