So, in my time in the Bible belt, I have noticed a phenomenon that I am only now beginning to understand: the church-camp high. For the uninitiated amongst you, this is a common experience within the US Christian church: an individual, usually in high school, goes with the youth group at his church (see 1 below) to a gathering of other youth, usually at a beach, for a week. During this week, this young man listens to 2-3 sermons (lectures about Jesus and things related to Him) a day, sings worship songs to Jesus, spends time with other Christians, and flirts with as many girls from other youth groups as he possibly can. At many of these camps, on the last night, there is an extended time of worship during which there is an invitation given to become a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. After this, there is a lot of singing. I mean a lot of singing. Like an hour or more. And amazingly, hundreds of otherwise ADD, hormone-crazed high-schoolers remain engaged the whole time. When they return home, most go one of two directions. Either they are content to let that week stand as the climax of their spiritual lives and reminisce over it like a 40 year old dreaming about his “glory days” in high school athletics, or they become “church-camp/conference addicts” who live from one week-long conference to another like drug addicts looking for another hit. For years this phenomenon has baffled me, and I have struggled to make peace with it. Today, something clicked.
I would like to pause here and say that what follows is nothing new. Men much wiser and more eloquent have expressed these ideas before (see Piper, John and Lewis, C.S.). I am writing about them because writing is a good way for me to solidify things in my mind. That being said, onward we go…
Why does this phenomenon exist, and why does it seem to exist only in the church? Because that’s the way God made us, and it doesn’t, respectively.
Let me address the second statement first: that this phenomenon only exists in the church. This statement, simply put, is a lie that church kids believe because they never step far enough outside of their Christian bubble to interact (gasp!) with non-Christians. All of humanity experiences this. For example (2) let’s take romance. Not the amazing, sanctifying, Christ-reflecting, loving-when-you-would-rather-walk-away, only-clearly-embodied-in-marriage kind of romance. I mean puppy-love, first-kiss, holding-hands romance. We have all been there. It’s a great place to be. Here’s the problem: it passes. It goes away and it invariably leaves us wanting more. But even that topic is too broad, so let’s zoom in further: the first kiss. It’s great. There is a reason that there are days of music on iTunes devoted to this single moment of a relationship. Contained within is a rush of adrenaline and endorphins that is rarely paralleled in human experience. What’s more, it’s good. I mean Divinely good. God created it. Romance, kissing, and (brace yourselves) even sex are God’s creation. He made them, and He made them to be as pleasurable as they are (if not more pleasurable…but no time for that discussion now). Sex is a pre-Fall activity. Let that sink in. The problem comes in when we try to make these activities gods, take them out of their God-given limits, and return to them over and over to satisfy our souls. I’ll explain. We feel that rush of adrenaline and endorphins associated with the first kiss, and we are satisfied…temporarily. That feeling doesn’t last, so we go back for a second kiss, only this time isn’t quite as good as the first. Next, we put our hands where they don’t belong. This gives us a pretty great rush, but that fades too, so we start removing clothing…and on and on it goes. Eventually it ends in regret, addiction, dependency, and a string of broken hearts and relationships. Why? Because we found something that, for a moment, satisfied the longing in our souls, so we made it the thing around which we based our lives (which is called worship, by the way) and we lived for the next “hit” so to speak. The problem is, it failed, and down with it crashed our lives.
Now to answer the second question: Why does this phenomenon exist? Let me answer the bigger question, and I will answer the smaller question in the process. The bigger question is not “why does the church-camp high exist,” but rather, “why do the church-camp high, the first-kiss high, and all the other momentary highs in life exist? And why the let-down afterwards? And why the longing within our hearts to return to that moment in time?” The answer: because we were created that way. We were made to experience immense love, pleasure, intimacy, and joy. We were made to feel swept up in something bigger than ourselves, to feel overwhelmed by a thing we can’t control. This experience is intrinsically good, but only if it leads to its God-intended end. You see, we stop short. Whether it’s returning in our minds to a Florida convention center or the hood of a pick-up truck under the stars, we (as C.S. Lewis would say) are far too easily pleased. We revel in the experience as if that was the end in itself. But it’s not. It is the first step on a path the leads to the Substance of which it is only a shadow. We were made for God, and nothing else will do. As I said before, God made kissing, relationships, sex, sermons, beaches, and music. And He made them out of His own character and imagination. They reflect Him and they point to Him (3). That initial taste was meant to prime our desires, not satiate them. We were created to go, “that created thing was good…God created it…I bet relationship with Him is more epic, awesome, satisfying, and fulfilling than that experience…That sounds good…I’ll have that.” But we don’t. Instead we act like fools, and we return to the moment of experience rather than its source. Let me use another relationship example to drive home my point. Our reaction to pleasure and to experiences of God is like meeting an incredible girl in a coffee shop, going out on an epic date, getting her number, then instead of calling her for another date, going back to the coffee shop in hopes of getting that same experience all over again. We have access to the “source of our joy,” so to speak, but instead we return the vehicle through which the joy came. It’s foolish, but it is fallen human nature, and we do it all the time. Instead of turning and worshiping God, we worship the thing He made.
Now to the big point: relationship with the God that created us is, in the end, the ultimate fulfillment of every (holy) longing and craving that we find within our souls, and that relationship is only found through Jesus Christ, not any created thing (4). So, if we would be true Hedonists and not just “lazy, half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex, when true pleasure if offered us,” we would go to the Source of the pleasure, and not just our first brush with it. If you are a church kid, you know how this works. If not, it works by accepting Christ’s offer of letting His death pay for your sins, His life stand as your righteousness, and His Sonship replace your rebellion. It means entering into a relationship with the God of the Universe and following His Son wherever He would lead you (that’s a daily thing, not a one-time-at-church-camp thing, by the way). May we have the wisdom know what is true Pleasure-seeking, and the courage to lose our selves in its finding.
Christ, let us find You amidst our pleasure and joy, and even more so in our suffering. Amen.
1. I am going to use the male pronoun here because at no point do I even want to imply that I understand the inner workings of the female mind at any stage of life, let alone high-school…it is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong…I just don’t understand it
2. Note: if you kissed dating goodbye, feel free to skip this paragraph and avoid the scandal within
3. What is amazing is that the creation I have listed only reflect a miniscule part of Him. In the account of creation, male-female romantic relationship, which Hollywood would have us make the crux of our entire lives, only gets about two lines…but back to the point at hand
4. An interesting fact about created things: they give us a glimpse into the character and attributes of their Creator. If a created thing is pleasurable, wouldn’t that seem to imply that the Creator values pleasure? Or, if the created thing is beautiful, doesn’t that imply that the Creator values beauty? Not only that, if He can create that finite beauty or pleasure, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that He can create things that are even more beautiful and pleasurable, or that within Himself is a limitless store of pleasure and beauty from which the created things spring? Let that blow your mind for a minute. Maybe we should worship Him instead of the stuff He creates. Just a thought