Over the years, I have had conversations with other church leaders about why they wanted to go into the ministry. The two most common stories are either about the kind of church that they grew up in and the other, about the transformative experience of church camp.

Zoom meeting

Many of our churches during the pandemic attracted a whole new demographic of people through online services. One of the questions that I have heard has been, “How are we going to integrate these people who connected with us through technology and who aren’t likely to show up on Sunday mornings?

weird churchIn the book Weird Church, authors Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, highlight nineteen different models of the emerging church. Two of those models reminded me of the experience of church camp.

I also went to church camp every year from sixth grade until high school. I do remember it as a highlight of my childhood years. That one week in the mountains of Colorado had as much impact on me as the nearly every Sunday experiences of being in church.

I especially remember one dark, cold, clear night sleeping out under the stars during a meteor shower. It was during my second year at Presbyterian church horse camp (I believe the kids were Presbyterian; the horses were all non-denominational!) We had packed our horses with food, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, Bibles and a guitar or two. We rode our horses up the mountain to a 9,000-foot pass and set up camp.

Night sky with milky way and huge amount of stars.

After an evening of good campfire food, storytelling and singing we were finally allowed to find some flat spot for our sleeping bags. Somehow, I ended up sleeping next to a cute red-headed girl. We laid there staring up at the clear Colorado skies as dozens of shooting stars streaked across the mysterious expanse every minute.

What I remember about my childhood was that I loved the community and the fellowship of my church family, but I felt especially close to God that night under the stars in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I went into ministry largely because those church camp experiences gave me a thirst for God that has dogged me all these years.

We are so accustomed to thinking that shaping a person’s Christian spiritual life needs to come in the form of weekly worship and Bible studies. But the truth is that the most transformative and formative experiences are often found in those once in a lifetime or once every year type of activities.

The Weird Church authors highlight two forms of the emerging church that reflect this model—pilgrimage and one that they are calling “same time next year.”

I share these two models because some of you are asking, “How are we going to connect with the dozens of people who became extensions of our congregation during the pandemic through our online offerings?”

Mecca

Muslim pilgrims arriving at Mecca

Pilgrimages are often once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For Catholics walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain is the ultimate religious experience. Every Muslim is mandated to go to Mecca once in their lifetime. At a critical juncture in my own life, I set up my own pilgrimage—a ten-week, 4,000-mile cycling route that connected me to all the places I had lived. Our own Brett Webb-Mitchell, pastor of the Community of Pilgrims, has completed many pilgrimages around the world and is the author of three books on the subject. The Presbytery of the Cascades is now embarking on establishing a pilgrimage route along the 352-mile Oregon Coast Trail. Pilgrimage is now back in vogue.

“Same time next year” is the title that Weird Church authors give those camp-like experiences that many of us remember from our childhood. They are the camps that we return to every summer or fall where we see the same people. They are the retreats that participants book months in advance and eventually become like family reunions. Ghost Ranch in New Mexico is known for their “same time next year” church communities as well as Companions on the Inner Way.

The pandemic has been brutally tough, but it has also exposed some new opportunities that we couldn’t see before.

  • What if your church contracted with a person who was just responsible for planning and organizing those once-in-a-lifetime and “same-time-next-year” church activities?
  • What if you had one person who concentrated on discovering and meeting the spiritual needs of those people who, because of distance or lack of interest, would rarely show up for Sunday services, but might consider other formats?
  • What if your church reached out to those whose spiritual development is best met by providing opportunities for an intensive week-long experience rather than to a year’s worth of worship services? (In other words, those who would commit 168 hours (the hours in a week) to an intensive experience rather than 52 hours to one-hour weekly experiences.)

I don’t remember a single worship service from my childhood despite having attended hundreds of them. But I do remember that one night at church horse camp sleeping under the stars watching a magnificent meteor light show, and sharing it with a cute red-headed girl. My thirst for God started there.

God is not limited to one hour on Sunday. God sometimes shows up in those once-in-a-lifetime moments and never goes away.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

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