(Read on for an edited transcript. For the full version of our conversation, including more discussion about church as a ‘family business’ and the urgency of evangelism, click on the audio player above.)
Tony Payne: As the weather warms up, as Christmas decorations start coming into the shops and the streets, we thought it would be just the right time to talk about the Christian summer and why it’s different.
Phillip Jensen: Although before we do, they now are saying that the beginning of summer is Halloween.
PJ: Yes. And that's because they tried to involve us in Halloween as a community more and more. I think Halloween is the archetypal Australian holiday, because it involves a sycophantic following of the mindlessness of America, while at the same time making greater sales for retailers. It's a combination of materialism and sycophancy. Very Australian.
TP: A bit of cultural cringe and materialism. It can't be any more Australian than that. And then we roll straight from that into Christmas.
PJ: Well, once Halloween is gone, then the retailers have to think of something else to get us to spend our money on.
TP: I've noticed that they’ve also started to try to do it with the post-Thanksgiving sales, which in America is called Black Friday and is the biggest shopping day in America. So we don't have Thanksgiving in Australia, but we’ve now got the Black Friday retail sales from Friday through to Monday.
But that said, now we roll straight into our summer holidays. And you wanted to talk today about the distinctive thing Christians have always done at this time of year, which is to go on conferences and camps.
PJ: Yes, we do. Our non-Christian friends go away for family holidays, and sometimes with cousins, sisters and aunts, or even some neighbours and friends. But Christians do more than that; we go away as a church, as a congregation. Sometimes we go away in age specific groups—children's camps, teenagers’ camps, etc. Sometimes it's interest groups that go away. Sometimes those are combined. Sometimes it's a much bigger, wider community convention. The big one we have in Sydney with the Anglicans is the CMS Summer School, which many, many families go to. A couple thousand people and just as many children, as far as I can see, go away for a week together. And so it's a cultural habit of Christians around Sydney that we go on camps and conferences, especially over summer.
TP: So is it just a cultural thing or a nice thing we do? What sort of purposes or reasons do we have to go away together?
PJ: That's what I think is important to think through. Because there's a tendency to say, “Well, we just do this every year, because we do it every year.” But there are lots of different reasons, and if you're clear about your purpose, we can make much better camps.
A lot of it has to do with having time that's not the normal time of the working week, because in the rush of daily activities, it's easy to rush through the Bible without much time for thinking. So to spend a week or a weekend where you can actually just spend quality time with others pondering about what the Bible is actually saying—it's a bigger, deeper dose than you get on Sunday morning in church. It's serious rethinking that only can come from having time away.
TP: One of the most beneficial things I find about going away for several days to study the Bible is that I’ve got time to identify all the junk I have in my mind on this question that I have to clear away before I can actually see clearly what the Bible says. Normally there's just no time to do that.
PJ: Yes, and another aspect of camping and conferences is relationships. It is a time where we can broaden our relationships and meet other Christians, different Christians, Christians who go to different churches, who have different perspectives. I remember the first Beach Mission I went on, I saw people doing children's work in ways I'd never seen before, because all I’d seen so far was my own church’s Sunday school. But these people, they were so creative, which just broadened my outlook on how you do children's work.
Sometimes, it's a matter of deepening our relationships. So instead of going away with other people, we go away with our church group and the relationships that we have each week which are rushed, are given real time to be nurtured. And you don't get it from just day conferences, because it's the conversation over the breakfast tables, that conversation late at night…
TP: That’s when they see you as you really are—when you really have time to get to know each other properly.
PJ: Yes, in the past, we've gone away to hear great, overseas speakers that you couldn't normally get to hear. This is lessening now because thanks to the internet, you can hear the overseas speakers without them travelling over here and without you leaving your own lounge room. It is different hearing them in person, but that's of less importance now than in the past. Sometimes like Beach Missions, you go to share the gospel with children or teenagers. And so it's both evangelism and training that is taking place. And again, you're not going to do that in your home or local church as much. It is strangely easier to talk to people down at the beach with a team of friends than it is to stand on the corner of my street and say anything to anyone.
TP: So it can help in our understanding of the Bible, it can help in our relationships, and it can be a way to actually do Christian ministry together and learn and grow in those things. But camps or conferences are also a way for us to pause and think about what we're doing, a chance to think about our lives and our church context, by getting out of our lives and our church context, and maybe going back ready to do things differently.
PJ: Yes. A lot of church teams are planning for next year, and good planning is very valuable in teamwork, because in a busy week, you don’t have time to explain everything to each other. But to spend a week or a few days away with each other builds the network of the staff and the shared vision that you're all working for.
But there are other things that we do, and one is addressing particular issues at that time. If there is a problem in our congregational life, it's a time to get away and think through that. What is it that we all agree about or should agree about? What does the Bible teach about our particular issue? And I think it's an incredibly valuable exercise because sometimes problems bubble along week by week, but are never properly addressed because we haven't given ourselves enough time to talk with and listen to each other and to listen to God's word about it.
TP: Yes, I think that's very important because generally speaking, we want the exposition of the Bible–letting God set our weekly agenda by seeing what he says in the next passage–to be our bread and butter. But we need the other kind of teaching as well where we draw it together and say, “Well, what does God's Word say about this question?” You can do that in a topical series, but there's an enormous benefit in going away and spending a weekend thinking about a topic and having the time to draw out its implications and talk about it over lunch and come back to it again and really dig into it.
PJ: Yes. It’s also good to go away together to be united in mission, which is what the CMS Summer School does every year for Sydney Anglicans. We have a good Bible teacher who comes and expounds the Scriptures—this year is Ed Loane who will be expounding Galatians for us, which will be fantastic. But we also hear from our missionaries, and we pray together and hear about the world mission. And that unites us. Things like Synod where we have laws and arguments—that doesn't unite us. We’re united in the cause of the gospel, and that's what actually makes Sydney as a diocese so powerfully strong, because of going away together for this purpose.
In general, I say the camps actually fulfill enormously valuable things for Christians and churches and organizations, and I'm glad we have lovely summer weather that we can do this. And I just want to encourage people to take some time to be more than an individualist this summer, to get involved in some kind of residential camping or conferencing because it enriches our fellowship together and our own personal lives.
TP: There are many great reasons you've mentioned, and it is a good encouragement for us to get involved. But I think back over my experience of many, many years of different conferences and camps and conventions, and it isn't always plain sailing. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I think there are things to avoid or dangers that you'd want to bear in mind for Christian conferencing and camps.
PJ: Yes indeed. The most horrific and dreadful one is the danger of sexual predators using the camping situation to attack and abuse, especially to prey on young people. The primary and early teenage years are one of the most dangerous areas of camping in terms of sexual predation. It's a wonderful age group for running camping, but if we're going to run camping for that kind of age group, we really do need to set in place the safe ministry procedures in the most strict and rigid manner. You just can't afford risk at that area. And it's that age group, in particular, where we've had the greatest difficulty in the past. The next camp could go off the rails if we haven't taken all procedural care to make sure it doesn't happen.
But there are other things too, such as risky travel arrangements. You see, when they are a bit older, and they've just got their provisional license, and five of them get in the car together, that's one of the great dangers in travel.
TP: And then five of them go to the conference for three or four days where they stay up till four o'clock every morning, and then they all jump in the car to come home on the final day and have a three-hour trip home at night. It's a disaster waiting to happen.
PJ: Yes. When they're 19 or 20 years old, you can't actually tell them when to go to bed, but you need to try. And you need to make sure that the drivers are being responsible.
The other big problem is cultic behavior that could come up because of our passion and zeal to get the best out of the weekend. It's not hard to fall into some practices, which frankly, are cultic and mind-bending and brainwashing, and we must work to avoid them.
TP: It's the flip side of having time and space out of your normal routines. It also means there's opportunity to manipulate people and to create an environment outside their normal environment where you can falsely or illegitimately influence them.
PJ: Yes. Here's a list of things I've worked on over the years to make sure that we never do these things, because this is exactly what the cults do.
One is disturbing people’s sleeping patterns, not giving them the right amount of time for sleep. Reducing the food. Cults will say, “Oh, let's have a day of fasting or two days of fasting.” Well, that changes people's body chemistry and the capacity for their minds to think clearly—so make sure that your people are fed properly. Changing the clock; we're on camp time. Camp time is different to other time, which again, controls people. Love bombing, where you pour enormous affection into people. I'm not talking about sexual affection; I'm just talking about positive affirmation for everything they do. It is the whole practice of over-emphasizing how wonderful they are and not speaking the truth to them. Another one is cutting them off from any external influences. We're on camp, so put your phone away, put away any Wi-Fi connections that you have. Don't look at the newspapers, don't listen to the radio, don't watch television. So you've isolated them from the world. You can understand these good things for example at camps where teenagers have their phones taken from them.
TP: Let’s just have a week where we don't constantly scroll our phone. And it's really positive.
PJ: Yes, indeed, but when you don't allow people to have any phone calls with people outside or with family, you really are creating a problem. Another big one is no free time. Every minute of every day is taken up with another activity and another conversation. You've got to allow people time to sit and think and do nothing, especially introverted people who need time away from people just to reflect.
So we just got to do the reverse of these cult behaviors. I remember one camp we ran, where I thought the campsite provided inadequate food for the university students that I had with me. And so we paid more money to have loaves of bread and more fruit freely available at every table at every meal time. So no one could feel like that they were hungry all the time.
But there are other camps that I've seen that don't mean to be cultic, but the structure of the camp is wrong. For example, I think the Cursillo program is dangerous–I wouldn't be involved in that one–because it falls into the love bombing kind of problem, of just being so positively affirming of people in such a strange and peculiar fashion that it really disorients people from reality. And it's really sad.
And a Protestant version that came out some time ago called the Emmaus Walk was much the same. It was an unnatural set of times, programs and relationship context; it just was manipulative in my view. And so you have got to be careful of that.
But it can be even simple things—for example, ‘mountaintop decisions’, they used to call them. You go up to the top of the mountains for camps and conferences, and you get people to make decisions at the conference. But in fact, it's maybe better to get them to understand the decision that needs to be made, and get them to make it a week later when they're back at home at the foot of the mountain, because it gives freedom for rethinking and making sure that your emotions, the tiredness, and the excitement, aren’t distorting your thinking. Helen Roseveare, an ex-missionary and lovely lady who is now with the Lord, she spoke to me and said, “Whenever you have missionary appeals, you get emotional missionaries, and emotional missionaries are no use on the mission field.” And there's a truth in that, that the mountaintop experiences need to be carefully guarded.
TP: They need to change our minds and our hearts through the word of God, not through the manipulation of emotion. And if there is that real change, then the decision that's made in the cold light of day the following week will be the right decision, not just one that's driven by the intensity of the experience.
PJ: So the wonderful experiences that enable you to do great things in Christian ministry and understanding, can also be dangerous.
TP: Yeah, that's really useful. Perhaps to conclude, what would be an encouraging biblical framework for us to say that conferencing and camping is a great thing?
PJ: Well, we can say, Jesus took the disciples away and was teaching them by himself up on a hillside, and also up in Caesarea Philippi. But the fact that Jesus did it is no word that we should. I don't think it's one of those things that we need to look into the Bible to get a biblical word to do it. It's not that you should go to camps because the Bible tells you to go to camps, but rather we go to camps because it's a way of giving yourself more time to do biblical things–praying, fellowshipping, reading the Bible. We're not saved or built up or encouraged by structures and systems such as camps or conferences; we are saved by the word of God in prayer inside those systems; that is what matters.
TP: And so the opportunity to do those kinds of things–to share the Word of God with one another in a particular way, in a particular context and time, with the time to pray and think through and encourage and challenge each other with that word–that's what's valuable about it. It's a wonderful opportunity God gives us to do those things. And maybe thinking about it in those ways can also just protect us against the dangers of whatever camp or conference you might be going on over the next few months. We pray that this kind of experience will build you up through the word of God and prayer.
Two Ways Ministries is running an important camp at the end of January 2024 called Launch, for people who have left school and are ‘launching’ into adult life. Get in touch with us if you know any school leavers who would like to go away for a few days to think through what the rest of their life is going to be about.
Click this link to find out more or register for Launch!
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