While I have been doing doctoral work I had to give up something I really enjoyed: speaking at summer youth camps. It was a deal I made with my wife to try and bring some sanity to our home and protect our family (and, no, I don't have a demanding wife, I have a very smart wife). But now that five years of hard work and a dissertation are done, I've accepted an engagement this summer.
A few weeks ago the program director from a nearby camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains called and asked if I'd speak to 300+ junior highers. I was honored that he still thought well enough of me to ask. And I was curious (if not a little nervous) to see if this 48-year old college professor still had the knack for making biblical teachings accessible to teens. After the usual discussion of details about camp size, number of sessions, theme, purpose, etc., I let him know that I was interested but that I had some reservations about one particular component of the typical summer camp: the altar call.
Let me back up. I spent nine years working at one of the largest Christian youth camps in America in the 1980s and 1990s. I love children and youth, I love teaching the Bible and I love camp ministry. It was formative in my life and as a youth pastor I've seen it transform countless students' lives. Though many would argue that camp ministry is on the decline in a postmodern culture (at least the entertainment-driven model), it still has a valid place as a transformational component of adolescent faith development.
But, as I told the director of the camp, I now know so much more about the emotional, psychological, physiological and spiritual development of teenagers. I realize now that I and so many others have been guilty of manipulation when it comes to teen conversion. In his book Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers, Chap Clark brilliantly demonstrates that teens have an innate tendency and desire to please the adults around them. So when a caring and influential counselor asks a question like, "You want to become a Christian tonight, don't you?" the teen is inclined to say "Yes" just to please the adult. (By the way, the previous question is a horrible one in that it is leading, closed-ended and manipulative.) The motivation for a conversion experience is driven by approval from the counselor rather than a personal desire to follow Christ in a transformed life.
Added to the pressure to please adults is often some type of emotionally-charged environment such as, low lights, music, campfire and passioned pleas all after an exhausting week in which students are tired, stressed and easily manipulated. Tony Jones refers to this as "emotional rape." The altar call becomes nothing more than a chance to take advantage of adolescents who are already susceptible to poor decision-making. Teens often agree to some kind of commitment, usually in the form of a series of steps/laws or a formulaic prayer (which can be eerily similar to one of Harry Potter's magical incantations), without the adequate opportunity to understand what it is they are committing to. As the secular musician Maryn Cadell once recorded, "Invite Christ into my heart? How surreal. How serene. I didn't even know the man."
Does this mean that there is no room for a call to salvation at a summer youth camp? Not necessarily, but the method should be closely scrutinized. After assuring the camp director that I still believe in personal salvation I offered an alternative to the altar call (maybe I should call this an "alter call"). I propose that we begin to view salvation as a much more communal process rather than an isolated event. In the New Testament we find people joining a movement called The Way as they commit to following Christ. For these people there was no sense of personal salvation outside of the Christian community. This is why the unity of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free is such a huge deal to the Apostle Paul. Recently a missionary I know by the name of Phil Bergen commented on the process of salvation, "In Burkina Faso becoming a Christian isn't a conversion. It's trading one community for another." Phil gets it because he's a missionary. Community is the place and means of salvation. This is first-century Acts stuff!
Danny Carroll has written a fantastic text on immigration called Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible. In commenting on the Hebrews' understanding of community as it relates to salvation and acceptance of the foreigner, Carroll states, "In the ancient world, to leave one's gods was to renounce a crucial element of national and cultural identity. To believe in the deity of another people, and all that would entail, meant to enter into the very core of their existence and adopt their worldview." Salvation in both the Old and New Testaments usually means leaving behind one community and entering into a new community of brothers and sisters.
So what does this mean for the typical summer youth camp and a call to salvation? I am eager and excited to present the Gospel, review the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and teach about the saving grace of God. But after that presentation has happened from the stage (and not just in one meeting--it's certainly a fallacy to think that the entirety of the Gospel can be presented in one thirty-minute sermon), it's my job to send the student who has questions about God back to his or her youth leader. It's the individual youth leaders, counselors and pastors who know the context of their students the best, and therefore know how to best lead a student further on in the conversation about God. I'm just the one who primes the pump. The youth leaders are the ones who fill up the bucket. An abstract decision made by a student at my request will never be as strong as the decision made through intimate and personal conversation with a caring mentor in the youth group.
So, no more altar calls for me. (Furthermore, the altar call is an invention of nineteenth-century American revivalists and is not found in the Bible). From now on it'll be a deal-breaker as to whether I'll agree to speak at a camp. I'll gladly call students to a deeper commitment and understanding of God, but I won't use manipulative tactics. Salvation is a process (sometimes a very long process) that happens best in the context of relationship and community and family. I hope the staff and counselors I work with this summer agree. It'll be interesting to see if this camp invites me back.