God of Adventure
A pastor recently asked: ‘Where in the Bible do you find camping culture mentioned?’ Well, I’m glad he asked because I’ve been reading an excellent book by Bruce Dunning called ‘God of Adventure’ which establishes the biblical validity of ‘Christian Adventure Learning’, arguing a case that liminality (conscious awareness) and adventure learning combine to be one of God’s principle tools to connect with his people, challenge them, and have them participate in his redemptive purpose for his creation.
The book takes the reader through more than one hundred biblical examples of adventure learning and camping. For example: The biblical narrative of redemption through the establishment of the Hebrew nation begins when Abraham demonstrates trust in God by taking the risk to relocate from his contextual urban existence into a nomadic experience, far from home. (Principles of challenge, relational trust and risk also happen to be the vital platforms of any successful adventure learning program.)
The wilderness features heavily throughout the biblical narrative as a life-changing experience. Think of the biblical luminaries who saw their lives changed or their ministry empowered through wilderness experiences. Here’s a few – Moses, David, Elijah, John the Baptist and Paul. Even Jesus sought the reflective qualities of the wilderness immediately after his Baptism and came out of declaring “The time has come at last – the kingdom of God has arrived.” (Mark 1:15)
Jesus’ strategy of discipleship is heavily dominated by an approach that looks like an expeditions program. Eleven men changed the world after spending three years on the road and sharing many meals around a roadside fireplace with their Rabbi. As John the apostle suggests (John 21:24-25), the totality of Jesus’ deeds means there would not be room in the whole world for all the books that would have to be written (he was writing in the pre-internet age, of course). No doubt a lot of what was spinning around in John’s head when he wrote this came from the fireside conversations shared with Jesus after a long day’s walk.
The much-quoted example of the First Century church in Acts 2:43-47 is far removed from our modern day experience of privatised suburbia but it does seem to include a lot of what makes camp programs so powerful; even today. Their fellowship was marked by day after day meeting with common consent, breaking bread together and sharing meals with simple joy.
Bruce Dunning is the Camp Director at a Canadian campsite called Medeba, a facility I visited last year and whose ethos is now having an influence on the Baptist camping ethos at QCCC. All decisions made at Medeba are processed through one vital grid—how can we make this decision one that maximises community? It is now a question that arises frequently in our planning at QCCC.
A lot of campsites have fallen into the habit of promoting their programs as ‘temporary community’. It’s almost something of a mantra in Christian camping circles. It’s not one we subscribe to.
We think groups who go on camp already have community and when they leave, they’ll still have it. What matters is whether the camping program has enhanced their community, strengthened it and made the returning model better than the one that arrived. It also takes a lot of pressure off us to ‘create something’. The whisper of the Holy Spirit resides in each guest before they arrive and will last long after they go. Bruce Dunning suggests, ‘It is not our responsibility to transform people; rather it is our responsibility to try and create an environment that makes change more likely to happen’.
This brings me to the results from the recent National Church Life Survey. A few questions were asked about the validity of camping to church health and they’re worth examining.
The first question was ‘have you attended a camp/conference/retreat in the last two years?’ In the latest survey, 15.6% of Baptists said they have ‘never’ done so. Another 35% had not attended in the last two years. 20% had—once; 22.8% two or three times, and 6.7% had been to four or more (champions!).
Another question asked was, ‘Is church camping very important to strengthening my Christian faith?’ Amongst Baptists 68% say they totally agree, 6% totally disagree and 25% said they were unsure. If allowed to take some statistical license, I’m inclined to discount the unsure result as it closely resembles the numbers saying they have never been on camp, or at least not recently. So perhaps they didn’t feel qualified to comment. Taking this group out leaves more than 90% of Baptists participating in camping programs who see it as very important to strengthening and nurturing their faith. That’s compelling!
Out of interest, for the question of participation in camping, ‘all church denominations’ answered this way: 39.1% never, 29.1% not in the last two years, 13.7% once, 13.3% two or three times and 4.8% multiple. Clearly Baptists have a stronger involvement in, and commitment to, camping, but I think we should still be very concerned that more than 50% of our people have not been on a camping program in more than two years.
The same pastor asked if I believe that a church that is not spending money on going camping is not a healthy church. I’m sure a church can be healthy without camping, but I think it’s the wrong question to ask. The NCLS suggests people identify camping programs as an important part of their spiritual formation. Therefore the questions we should be asking include, ‘How great can we be with regular participation in camping?’ Or ‘Is the church that doesn’t camp missing out on something important?’
Andrew Grant is Director of Camping for Queensland Conference and Camping Centres (A ministry of Queensland Baptists). He is a one eyed Manly fan and spent his formative years in Zimbabwe.