Adventures at "Christian Summer Camp"

Thursday, 25 August 2011

This month, the Guardian featured two differing views on "Christian summer camps" for young people just before I was set to go on holiday - a negative piece from Thomas Prosser, published first, followed by a response from Steve Clifford. Both interested me as the example Prosser focused on was that of Soul Survivor, the organisation whose events I have attended and participated in for eight years now - and the organisation whose summer festival for 20 and 30-somethings, Momentum, was what I was due to head off to.

So what was it all about, this week of brainwashing made palatable by trendy guitar music and "yoof lingo" (as Prosser would have you believe)? Or as Clifford described, was it more of a revolutionary call to inward transformation and action in the community? As I'm heavily biased with a distinct agenda I lean towards the latter, but with good reason. Soul Survivor's festivals aren't for everyone nor should they be immune to criticism but I genuinely believe that the organisation is brilliant at what it does.

I saw a threefold focus this week - on living like Jesus, looking to God and Biblical example through all circumstances, and mobilising delegates to go out into the world and be proactive in realising and living out our callings - the last point being something greatly emphasised (hence "Momentum"). This played out through teaching on the life of Paul and lessons we can learn from his ministry (Andy Croft), through teaching on "living in the desert" drawing on various examples from the Old Testament (Mike Pilavachi), through teaching on Jesus's commands to action and sending out of the disciples and the way this is so important to us now (Danielle Strickland). Twitter has led me to a guy who has helpfully typed up all his notes from the main meetings and seminars he attended and shared them on Tumblr - do have a read if you want to know more because it saves me doing a lot of typing.

Outside of main meetings, there were 80-something seminars and so much to choose from. I ended up mixing things I'm familiar with and wanted to get fresh perspectives on with encountering some new faces and for the first time, material focused on leadership in a general sense. So while this all led me to tried and tested major inspirations Elaine Storkey on the "unchurched, deadchurched and dechurched", Jo Saxton on leading as a woman and Roger and Maggie Ellis on communication within marriage, it also led me to new finds - Patrick Regan from youth charity XLP on politics, discussing responses to the London riots and showing us footage of him in 2007, discussing with politicians the fact that if nothing was done about societal inequalities in London, there would be dire consequences within a few years. It led me to Danielle Strickland speaking on trafficking. This woman is awesome; she's even managed to use cupcakes for non-nefarious purposes - as part of an initiative helping women to exit prostitution and supporting those working in brothels, if you're wondering.

I think things managed to strike a good balance between "meaty" and "chilled" this past week. Here's the thing: I am a geek - and I like teaching which leaves me with several pages of notes and something approaching exegesis-induced brain overload. And quite possibly a reading list with a section headed "heavy" (as I left Graham Cray's seminar on women and leadership holding). I also like simple and straightforward points with real life examples, which focus on the application or exhortation of a specific verse. Via main meetings and seminars I was able to learn from both - and I believe that the two ways of teaching are important and really valid, particularly where young people at different stages of faith are concerned. There's no point in overwhelming, but there must also be challenges.

Aside from the teaching, worship and speakers, I wanted to take some time to explain a bit about why I support Soul Survivor's work. Not because I have some sort of vested interest, because I don't. I'm just writing from a place of knowing what an impact the organisation has had on my life and the lives of some of my friends, and the lives of other people it works with and helps.

Five things Soul Survivor does really well 

1) A passion for young people, their lives and their potential. The work done by Soul Survivor - its summer festivals, partnerships and teaching focus - is geared towards teens and people in their 20s and 30s, who are encouraged to step out, develop their gifts, get stuck in and make a difference. Additionally, the difficult issues faced by these age groups aren't ignored and there is also a real commitment to addressing them in a productive yet non-judgmental way. The organisation's commitment to this generation is clear to see from the enthusiasm of its key figures.

2) A focus on justice. Soul Survivor recognises that social justice should not be the sole focus of Christian life, but as an organisation it's really committed to making activism and global issues a major part of life for young people. There's its long-running partnership with Tearfund through the Soul Action campaign and Soul Action's new What If? campaign, which focuses on human trafficking and was launched at Momentum. Throughout the week we heard from long-time friends of Soul Survivor working for justice in many areas of the world and as always, there were plenty of organisations on site promoting their work - from fighting poverty and calling for tax justice to helping asylum seekers and working with disadvantaged young people in our cities. On one hand, I look at all these opportunities and get ever so slightly jealous, because my mortgage and my office job mean I can't get involved with most of those trips and internships and programmes. But I also know that Soul Survivor really fosters a sense of caring about justice in delegates - underlining that there are opportunities for all to get involved with the causes they're passionate about.

3) An atmosphere of fellowship. One of the things that always moves me about the summer festivals is seeing people who are going through tough situations and making hard decisions being really supported and looked after by their friends. This sounds incredibly cheesy - as if we all head off down to the West Country for five days of vomit-inducing Christian love once a year, but that's not what I mean. Even though people giving out "free hugs" are a common site at the Bath and West Showground in August. There's a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood and all being part of one body. Great efforts are also made to create a safe space to deal with issues and hurt. No hype; no manipulation; careful explanation of what's happening; support from the leadership team and suitable processes in place.

4) A positive attitude towards gender equality. Because I bet you were wondering if I might just get to the end of a post without mentioning those two words. Seriously - I'm really proud to support an organisation that is committed to a belief that all roles in the church are open to men and women and also to supporting and training women with a call to leadership. As far as I know, Soul Survivor decided to explore making a firm commitment to gender equality after a time of ministry at Momentum several years ago revealed the extent of female delegates' struggles and hurt with this issue. This has translated into seminars, the one day conference, Equal, which I attended in June, right down to some really great women speaking on the main stage - and there are plans to expand on the "Equal" theme with discipleship networks and mentoring. It needs to be emphasised that all this is done in a way which doesn't attack those who disagree, but sets out a firm stance on what's at stake.

5) A commitment to ecumenism. This is pretty simple. I'm big on co-operation and fellowship between denominations, groups, and different types of churches. I don't want to hear partisan rhetoric, I don't want to hear particular churches or groups of believers criticised or mocked from the main stage, and I don't want entire denominations or organisations denounced as "dead" or picked apart over doctrinal disputes. Disagreements are to be expected and totally fine. Particular behaviours arising from such disagreements are not. Furthermore, I don't think elitism is a very effective way to work with young people. And so this week I've met people from a variety of churches, seen loads of people in Methodist hoodies, actually, (was this just me?), heard messages from a Salvation Army Captain and took communion presided over by a bishop (as Catholic delegates also took communion of their own). Not once did I see someone make the Face of Distaste when a particular denomination is mentioned, or make a sermon all about how another group of churches have "gone wrong". And I'm really, really okay with that. Long may it continue.

Image via plinkk's Flickr


grahamsgrumbles said...

This sums up the festival wonderfully. I didn't see all the Methodist hoodies, so maybe it was just your end of the campsite.
I do find it painful having to have two separate communion services. So horribly awkward.

Akela said...

I have to say I've come close to simply not bothering to read most pieces on religion in the guardian such are the frankly nasty and bullying comments that tend to appear below the line.


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