Many Christians today, particularly in so-called “mainline denominations” (like Lutheran, Catholic, and Methodist), abdicate the work of pastoral care and pastoral theology to the ministry professionals. We attend church to be preached a sermon and to receive care, and we leave the theology to the professionals. The notion is that pastoral theology is safe when it is in the hands of professionals. Leaders can agree on doctrine, which can then be taught to the masses. This system is designed to guard against heresy and prevent abuses, and it assumes a hierarchical structure of authority. The irony is that this very system results in abuse, most clearly in the silencing of the powerless. Dissenting voices irrupt the Western, patriarchic claim to a universally applicable truth by attending to the voices of women, liberation theologians, Asian theologians, and others around the world who have suffered oppression in the name of protecting universal truth claims. This oppression makes clear that pastoral theology is far from safe in the hands of professionals and must include intentional dialogue with the diverse community of believers.
From a Western, hierarchical standpoint, Christian summer camp is a profoundly unsafe environment for pastoral theology because the professionals are not in control. Pastoral care is placed in the hands of young, unqualified people who are engaging in unchecked psuedo-theological reflection. In my years of serving at Christian camps across the country, I have repeatedly heard this concern from clergy members, who are afraid their young congregants will be exposed to heresy at camp and return theologically damaged. My response has changed over time as a result of new experiences and lived realities. Starting with my first camp experience in eighth grade and progressing through a career of Christian camping ministry, I have discovered camp to be a theological playground in which rigid doctrine becomes suddenly malleable. The untouchable truth claims that are safely protected behind the display case of the church building and curated by the professional minister are suddenly accessible to young people, who have little training in their care or proper use. In carefree, youthful exuberance, they smell them, shake them, rub their faces in them, and do all manner of unspeakable things to them. The professional ministers with the stomach to endure this defilement stoop to pick up the detritus only to realize that the truth claim has not been destroyed but rather made alive again. The truth of Jesus Christ does not need protection, and those who seek to guard it may inadvertently destroy it. Christ is alive and at work in the world in the lived experiences of Christian community.
Life at camp is normed in a way that takes seriously the ongoing work of Christ’s ministry, as camp guides (or “counselors”) and campers learn together to identify God’s action in the world through the mundane and the extraordinary. For young people accustomed to compartmentalizing their experience of God at church as separate from their everyday lives, the camp experience offers a radical re-centering of their lives as caught up in and dependent upon the activity of Christ. The Christian camping model assumes that Christ is active in the world and looks for where the Holy Spirit is moving in and among the community of practice. There is a sort of hyperawareness at camp as participants notice the inbreaking of God in concrete, unexpected ways and participate in God’s ongoing work in the world. In his book The Shape of Practical Theology, Ray Anderson describes this activity as “Christopraxis,” which he defines as “the continuing ministry of Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit” (p. 29).
My first camp experience in eighth grade was irruptive in my life because I discovered that I was an active participant in God’s work in the world. There in a tent on a small island in the middle of the Mississippi River, I engaged in theological discussion with young people my own age and, for the first time in my life, dared to consider the question, “Do I really believe this stuff?” That discussion was precipitated by days of living in intentional Christian community when we participated in Christian practices in the midst of daily living. It is illustrative that I do not remember what specific theological ideas we came up with in the tent that evening. I am reasonably certain that any professional minister eavesdropping on our conversation would have cringed at what was probably our desecration of theological doctrine. We were engaged in a theological playground. We were assembling theological ideas, toying with them, and then knocking them down. Our counselor or a visiting pastor could have come barging into our tent and given us theologically sound doctrine, but I probably would not remember what he said any better than I remember the specifics of our actual conversation. However, I would have remembered that he corrected us, which would have reenforced my incoming assumption that I am a passive recipient of theology. Instead, I remember that I engaged in a theological discussion of my own volition with people my own age. I remember that they valued my thoughts as much as I valued theirs. The playing itself is what matters in communities of Christopraxis because Christ is an active, powerful presence, not a doctrine to be kept safe.
Ministry professionals and Christian educators tend to focus on right belief (orthodoxy) in a way that does not account for bodily wisdom (habitus). Their initial response in an environment like the Christian camp community is to correct problematic theology. As Anderson and other practical theologians note, theology is constructed through the presence of the Holy Spirit in lived, bodily reality. What matters is not that the nineteen year-old camp counselor misinterpreted the biblical passage but rather that the Bible is open and accessible for reflection on real life circumstances and the individual camper’s understanding of the biblical passage is valued. If my transformative camp experience is any indication, the misinterpretation will not stick as much as the bodily wisdom of participating in interpretation. When theological reflection, particularly in the trusted small group setting, is combined with action, the campers are engaging in practical theology through communities of Christopraxis. The conviction that Christ is active and up to something in the lives of these young people is itself right belief (orthodoxy).
For a new interpretation of Anderson’s Christopraxis, see: Andrew Root’s new book