Church is a weird thing for me right now. It’s a sticky thing, in all the way it clings to me in uncomfortable places that aren’t always as flattering as I’d like. And yet it’s slippery at the same time, that thing you just can’t ever get a good solid grasp on. Which is an odd paradox that leaves you with this thing that you can’t get away from and can’t quite hold on to.
Today is the first day of teen church camp for the church I grew up in. Seeing posts from dear friends who still attend that church, or one of the other free will baptist churches in the area–it makes me feel like I’m double-fisting downers and uppers, like I have a margarita in one hand and a double shot of espresso in the other.
There is a wild jumble of emotion entangled with simple the memory of that camp for me. There’s that feeling of Christmas, that feeling of going to bed knowing that you were about to experience something you’ve been waiting months for. Seriously, I can feel it around me. I can smell the woodchip pathway that led to the girls cabins, I can hear the laughter of my middle school self and my best friend Amanda. I can hear the squeaky frames of the old, rusty bunk beds. I can remember that feeling of hope, the hope that proclaimed that MAYBE, just maybe when I got to the shower, there would actually be hot water. I can feel the muggy Missouri heat clinging to my skin, singing worship songs around a campfire late at night. I can feel the chill of the chapel, which I’m still fairly confident is kept at least ten degrees colder than necessary, lest wayward, hormone-riddled girls be tempted to try to sneak in with a sleeveless shirt and blame the heat for their state of undress. I can see the boys walking in, some of them freshly showered for the first time in days, dressed in khaki pants and plaid button up shirts, going to claim their seats on the boys’ side of the chapel. Girls seated across the aisle of the gender-segregated auditorium, sneaking surreptitious glances at all the delicious adolescent male eye candy. [Please don’t underestimate the level of sarcasm involved in that statement. It’s a lot. Just…a lot of sarcasm, guys. But yeah, I was that girl. Don’t judge, so were you.]
I remember so many amazing moments at that camp. Relationships that still keep my heart warm, a decade or two later in life. Those first moments of unadulterated gratitude as I began to lay a frail grip on the person of Jesus and who He was and what He was about and how very very much He was FOR ME. That church camp was my spiritual awakening, in so many ways. And I was surrounded by people who held me dear to their hearts. Peers, adults, people who watched me grow up. And those people loved me in a way that I have never questioned, cared about my soul and my future and my eternity.
And yet, there’s a place in my heart that can’t quite reconcile the Jesus of that camp with the Jesus I’ve come to know as an adult. The Jesus I met at that camp was a man of simple answers, simple ways to live out my faith as a young female. Keep my language clean, be very cautious with secular music and movies, dress modestly, guard my sexual purity with my life, accept that alcohol consumption is inherently wrong, be cautious with the friends I keep and make sure they’re good influences, invite people to church. To my knowledge at that point, those were really the biggest deals of all the deals. And I think a great deal of that was my own lack of maturity. I mean, really. I met the Jesus of Camp Canaan when I was seven years old. My head wasn’t yet a place that could house tough questions, abstract questions with no black and white answers. I hadn’t lived life yet, hadn’t met anyone who wasn’t a white, middle-class Baptist Republican.
And yet as I grew older, those simple ways to live out my faith began to feel so very, very empty in the context of a world that is not in any way simple. They began to feel like not the point, like Jesus had to be more than those things, had to be bigger. And I bumped heads over and over with the Scripture that talked about coming to Jesus with a child-like faith. And here’s the thing that keeps rolling around in my head.
What if having simple, child-like faith in Jesus doesn’t mean reducing faith to a list of bullet points? What if there are bigger things, bigger realities, a bigger heart of Jesus that simply cannot be confined to a list of bullet points? What if the bullet points don’t give life the way Jesus does? What if the reason that so many of my friends from church camp no longer darken the door of a church is not because Jesus failed them, but because the bullet points did? Because they found that sticking to the formula didn’t give them life more abundant, didn’t give them a purpose or tell them who Jesus was and what His hope for this whole, big, jacked-up world is.
And the crazy thing, the reason I wrestle so hard with church sometimes, is that sometimes I feel like I’ve simply graduated from one list of bullet points to another. Church in North America feels like a list of bullet points to me on so many days, a formula. When I was a teenager, the bullet points went something like this:
- Don’t swear
- Don’t drink
- Listen to clean music
- Watch clean movies and TV
- Dress modestly
- Guard my sexual purity
- Fill my life with people who believe the same things I do
- Invite people to church
And now, here I am, ten years later, and faith, church–it all still feels like something that can or even NEEDS to be streamlined into a list of action-focused bullet points.
- Read Scripture
- Go to church, where there will be three songs, a prayer, offering, another song, sermon, closing song
- Make an honest living
- Get married
- Start a family
- Read Scripture together, pray together, and go to church together
And on and on and on.
Is that it? Twenty years after I met Jesus, I’m still asking if that’s all He is. Not that there’s anything wrong with any one of the things on the list of bullet points. Many of them are absolutely vital to walking with Jesus. But are those things really the whole and the heart of it? Is that the sum total of what Jesus had in mind for the living, breathing Church He called to Himself? Is that abundant life?
Seven year old me sure thought so. Twenty-eight year old me still wrestles.