I know that my perspective is shaped by the experiences I’ve been through.
It’s true for everyone. In order to understand where someone is (as we say) “coming from” you need to understand the shaping influences in their life.
I offered a small glimpse of that when I wrote this: Where is the Revival Now? There I said:
I think I’m a real Methodist “throwback” and I’m actually rather glad about it. My early experiences in the faith included Revival meetings and Camp Meeting and Prayer Groups and Evening Worship Services and Midweek Prayer Meetings, etc. They were all aids to discipleship. They were important.
Revivalism was actually a very important part of my early Christian experience. So, as a result, there is a special place in my heart for Camp-meeting and revival meetings. The formative Christian experiences of my adolescence were closely related to these experiences. I know a lot of people feel differently about it. But, I’m eternally grateful to the people who first conveyed the Gospel of Christ to me.
I’m afraid I’ve drifted away a bit. While our family lived in the Boyne City area, I was president of the local Camp-meeting Association for a brief time. But, by and large, since entering the pastoral ministry, I have not attended camp-meeting in the summer. And, yes, I do feel that something is missing.
Now, let me be clear. I’m not talking about church camp. That’s a wonderful thing, too, but I never knew about that until I was an adult — and was asked to serve as a camp counselor. Sad to say, I don’t think that as a child or a teen anyone could have successfully even dragged me to church camp.
As a child, I was lost in the church. I was sent to Sunday school. Later, I was sent to confirmation class. I was sent to youth meetings. I was confirmed in the Congregational (U.C.C.) church. But, in my estimation, the Church had nothing to offer. It seemed to be a sterile and pointless institution. It seemed like an organization of people engaged in the pitiful attempt to hold on to the forms, symbols and rituals of a faith they no longer (and perhaps had never) believed. They sought to make relevant a Book whose acknowledged mistakes, distortions and falsehoods made it an unlikely source of authority.
An unfair accusation? No doubt. Maybe I shouldn’t have “written off'” the Church so quickly. But, please remember that the worst thing we can do to the Gospel is to make it look false, empty, boring and irrelevant to daily life. And, I haven’t forgotten that the “liberal church” never conveyed the Gospel of God’s love and grace and forgiveness to me.
So camp-meeting hit me pretty hard. There I heard some fiery and enthusiastic evangelistic preaching. Evangelists there spoke of a Gospel that was genuinely related to the struggles of my life. These people really seemed to believe that the Bible’s message was true. It was there I heard how faith in Jesus Christ related to personal guilt, decision-making, and daily life. There I heard about a real God with a genuine love for all people. My attention was now directed to the power, truth and relevancy of the very Book my Sunday school teachers had found embarrassing. I was told that Jesus Christ could change my life and give me a reason to live. I needed that. In fear and trembling, I responded to the invitation. The pastor of the Methodist church our family had been attending made his way forward to pray with me. It was a step I have never since regretted.
Time has passed. Much has happened since those days. My outlook has changed in many ways. But, what the evangelist at camp-meeting told me was true. There is a God of love. There is a revelation from God. By faith in Christ, there is a life of peace, hope and love. I’m glad someone told me that.
Are camp-meetings (and revival meetings) an anachronism? They were a great evangelistic strategy of nineteenth century frontier revivalism. They were once the heart and soul of American Methodism. But, many of the great camp-meetings are no longer in existence. Some of those that still remain have an uncertain future. But, what has taken their place? Where now is the point of entry for people like me who were lost in Church? Where now are we gathering together to call people to new commitments & into a deeper life of faith? Yes, some camp-meetings still survive (as noted above). Yes, there are other movements like the Lay Witness Mission or the Emmaus Walk and so forth. But, I wonder if we are really doing all we should to help people find reality, strength, and spiritual depth in their faith.
I have not forgotten the debt I owe to those who told me the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ. It is because of the truth, power and relevancy of that message that I continue to remember these experiences with gratitude.
Long ago someone preached a message of hope and faith to me. I’d like to do that same favor for others.