Please don’t tell my Mother about this article. The title alone is enough to make me lose my spot at the holiday dinner table. I’m pretty sure that the 11th commandment for my mother and her pals is, “Thou shalt not miss camp meeting.”
Camp meetings have been a part of the American landscape since the early 1800s. At the 1868 General Conference session in Battle Creek a vote was taken to endorse camp meetings for all Adventist conferences. From that point camp meetings have been a permanent part of Adventist church culture.
But there’s a problem. My mother is a feisty, 80 year old and that seems to be the average age of camp meeting attendees in many conferences. That’s an exaggeration but not by much. A common observation of camp meetings across the country is that there are two prominent groups attending camp meeting these days. Senior citizens and the grandkids of said senior citizens. It’s not a criticism it’s an observation.
And the age of the camp meeting attendees isn’t the only thing that’s growing. So is the cost of camp meeting. No two conferences are alike. Their income is different. Their expenses are different. But if your conference is conducting a full camp meeting, they are probably spending anywhere from $200,000 to $750,000, depending on the size of the conference and workforce. Again, not a criticism but an observation.
Now, I happen to see huge possibilities whenever Christians gather in large numbers. The potential for vision casting, fund raising, and real revival is always there. But I think it’s fair to expect conferences to carefully evaluate anything on their calendar or in their budgets as large as camp meeting. At the risk of oversimplifying, I suggest that they start by asking at least 3 questions.
What is the purpose?
What is the purpose of camp meeting? Now I have to warn you. If you are searching for a single purpose for all camp meetings, you’ll be disappointed. Ellen White’s statements about the purpose of camp meetings are a good example.
“Our camp meetings have another object…they are to promote spiritual life among our people. We meet to receive the divine touch.” Test. Vol. 6 pg. 32
“The camp-meeting is one of the most important agencies in our work. It is one of the most effective methods of arresting the attention of the people, and reaching all classes with the gospel invitation… They should be held in the large cities and towns where the message of truth has not been proclaimed.” Gospel Workers pg. 400
“A mistake has been made in holding camp-meetings in out-of-the-way places, and in continuing in the same place year after year.” Ibid
So, is the purpose of camp meeting outreach or nurture? Should we be in large cities or small towns? Is our target audience new believers, non-believers, or mature believers? The answer to each of those options is probably yes. You can make a strong case for each option, depending on who you are and where you are, and when you are. But the point is make the case. Have the discussion.
What is the price?
I’m not suggesting that money should have the last word in the conversation about camp meeting, but it should speak up! I’m also not suggesting that camp meetings should be expected to carry their own weight financially. But I am suggesting that the price of camp meeting should reflect and enhance the priorities of the conference.
For instance, the Lake Region Conference has been blessed with forward thinking leadership. I watched as Dr. Cliff Jones and his executive committee slowly developed and communicated the conference’s core values: Word, Worship, Wholeness and Witness. Each level of the conference was involved for maximum ownership. Conference goals and objectives flow out of these values. Camp meeting can be a perfect forum to regularly communicate and carry out those values and goals. If it does, for me it’s worth the price.
Where are the people?
The fact that many camp meeting sites are practically empty during the week and full on the weekends says a lot. To some it says that people are not as spiritual or as committed as they once were. Maybe. It might be saying something totally different. It might be saying it’s time for a change.
Camp meetings were birthed out of a need for flexibility and innovation. In the 1800s there were few churches on the frontier and even fewer pastors. The solution was to bring the people to the preacher rather than the preacher to the people. They innovated and it worked.
Adventist camp meetings grew in large part because the Adventist message was unpopular in many areas and the churches and halls refused to rent to them. So, they gathered in the open air and in tents. They actually saved money and their numbers grew. They innovated and it worked.
By observing the patterns of people, conferences can learn a lot about their priorities and needs.
I’ve said a lot. What do you think? Camp meetings. Here to stay or time to go?
By Dr. Jesse Wilson