Leaping from tall poles in a single bound and other tales of Christian camp

superman-shieldThis week in a cove near Elizabethton, Tenn., some kid is going to jump off a 30-foot utility pole and live to tell about it.

No need to be alarmed. It’s a safety-harnessed gut check for youngsters (and the occasional adult). They put on a safety helmet, tie on a harness with an assistant holding the other end of the rope, and climb to the top of the pole. As they stand there, teetering, a trapeze bar hangs about six feet away.

The goal is simple: To launch themselves into the air and grab the bar. The hard part, the first time, comes just before jumping. Will the rope hold? Will the guy holding the rope do his job? Will I look stupid if I miss the bar? The answer to all is yes.

The leap of faith (but this one isn't at Doe River Gorge)

But why do it? The name of the activity offers a clue: the Leap of Faith. It’s one of the outdoorsy and out-of-the-ordinary activities featured at Doe River Gorge, a Christian ministry center.

“Our goal is to bring young people to maturity in their character, in their skills, in their understanding of God,” according to Director Terry Maughon. “We get kids who come for fun and adventure, but we want to expose them to Christ in a positive way, and we gear our programming to that.”

That kind of mission is shared by at least 10 Christian camping and conference centers within a 50-mile radius of Johnson City and hundreds more nationwide. The Christian Camp and Conference Association claims about 1,000 member facilities. (There are also about 300 Jewish camps, a dozen Muslim camps and a handful of other religious camps nationwide.)

Camps have changed from their heyday in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when they were rustic and simple in every respect, from sleeping quarters (bunk beds in barracks-like dorms) to food (hot dogs and Tater Tots were typical) to programming (Bible classes, chapel, swimming and softball). These days, a camper is likely to find air-conditioned housing, salad bars, and options like high ropes challenge courses and wilderness expeditions.

“People want the experience of the woods, but require more stuff for that to happen,” said Jason Onks, executive director of Buffalo Mountain Camp and Retreat Center. It’s a challenge, he said, “to balance meeting those needs but not take away the experience of being outside. It’s partly the result of changes in expectations from campers, but mostly from parents.”

Faced with a different culture and shifting expectations, camps and conference centers need to be more creative than ever, said Mike Staires, director of communications and marketing services at the Christian Camp and Conference Association. While some facilities are thriving, average nationwide attendance is shrinking. CCCA members report about 6.5 million participants every year, down from 8 million earlier this decade.

Ramsey Falls, at Buffalo Mountain Camp. Photo by Mark Peacock.

The campers themselves are changing too. More kids than ever grow up around cities, live with electronics and participate in organized activities, and so fewer feel at ease living close to nature. (“Our staff jokes about kids having ‘nature deficit disorder,’” Onks said.) Camp leaders see more spiritual diversity too.

 “Most kids who came 20 or 30 years ago didn’t question the Bible,” according to Brett Forney, promotions and development director at Appalachian Christian Camp in Unicoi. “But for the generation now, that’s not the thing. We’re not assuming they believe. A good number don’t go to church. Their parents just want them out of the house, and Christian camp is a safe, relatively economical option. So we’re getting back to basics, including more evangelistic aspects with some of them.”

Even so, she and other camp leaders say the constants of the camp setting make a unique impact on children and teens. It’s not about air conditioning or water slides.

“Kids may come the first time because of the toys,” Staires said, “but when they leave they say the most important part was talking with their counselors, meeting friends – those relational kinds of things.”

Camp provides a kind of “greenhouse environment,” he said. “Kids are in the Bible, having some quiet time, playing hard, spending the day together, not distracted by TV. But through the heat and exhaustion they are pushed together, faced with how to figure out how God fits in all this. They’re able to stop and think. It’s like someone pushes a pause button.”

Except when they jump off a very tall pole.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 27 June 2009.

Southern Baptists in Louisville: Listening for a call. Maybe.

ear_guards_ear_plugs_33691Earplugs are available at the Believers Church, in case the band plays too loud.

The seven-year-old congregation, which attracts about 150 worshippers weekly, meets in a rented building, a former gymnastics studio at 213 E. Springbrook Drive, using an intentionally broad-brush name.

At first glance, you’d never guess this is a Southern Baptist congregation. That’s by design, according to Lead Pastor Mike Friday.

“We’re not running from who we are, but at the same time, Southern Baptists are not all the same,” he said in a phone conversation this week. “We don’t push the denomination. We push Jesus.”

He insisted that it doesn’t take long for visitors to discover the Southern Baptist connection, and he discusses it in the required membership class. But while he values the cooperation of the denomination, his time is limited, with him being the one full-time staff member.

“It’s not a lack of interest (in the denomination) as such,” he said, “but it’s hard to give that time.”

Even so, when Friday and his wife launched the church in 2002, they gave it a name and took an approach to ministry that would fly under the radar of people who may have been soured on church in the past. The phrase “Southern Baptist” is nowhere to be found on any of the church’s signs or on its Web site.

“There have been a lot of people hurt in the past from various denominations, unintentionally,” he explained. “We wanted to take out that hurdle for someone looking to get back in.”

The church has been growing, he said, with new members joining regularly since moving to its new location last November. That fact alone makes the Believers Church unusual among the 42,000 Southern Baptist congregations in the U.S.

Membership is shrinking in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which claims more than 16 million members. The number of baptisms has sunk to a 20-year low. Giving is down. More than a few leaders wonder about the overall health of the SBC.

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote that Southern Baptists “are fractured and factionalizing. … We have tragically devolved into ‘a giant movement now in decline,’” quoting a professor at his school.

These concerns will be high on the agenda next week during the annual denominational meeting, the literal Southern Baptist Convention, when thousands of SBC leaders and “messengers,” delegates from congregations, area associations and state conventions, gather in Louisville, Ky.

In advance of the convention, Johnny Hunt, a pastor from Woodstock, Ga., who is completing his first one-year term as SBC president, published a 10-point declaration titled “Great Commission Resurgence” in April. (The title refers to the last words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, directing his followers to “go into all the world, making disciples.”)

The document mostly reaffirms historic Southern Baptist beliefs and values, particularly their concern for evangelism. But it also addresses some thorny issues, such as the denomination’s racist past. Hunt would like to see the convention vote to adopt the document next week and set up a task force to study how to implement it. So far, more than 3,700 church members, including seminary presidents and past SBC presidents, have signed in support.

But one section, which calls for an examination of the structure and workings of the denomination “at every level,” set off alarm bells among other leaders. Some read it as an implied but unjust criticism of state conventions and other organizations. Others wonder if it opens the door to merging two of the SBC’s most important institutions, the North American Mission Board and the International Mission Board.

In a rare moment of public disagreement among top denominational leaders, Morris Chapman, president of the SBC executive committee, issued a statement to explain why he opposes the resolution as long as it contains the offending section, calling it “distracting” and “divisive.”

Mike Friday of the Believers Church certainly cares about the outcome of the convention. He’s served in Southern Baptist churches more than half his 46 years. He has paid attention, as best he can, to the discussions surrounding the Great Commission Resurgence, which could steer the denomination for a generation.

But he also has a congregation to lead, with studies and sermons to prepare and people to visit. Vacation Bible School starts on Monday. And no doubt someone will need to check the supply of earplugs.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 20 June 2009.

Jesus wept, and so can we

By the time Alan Wolfelt was 15, his best friend and two of his grandparents had died. He remembers hearing familiar advice about coping with loss: You’ll get over it. Time heals all wounds. Keep your chin up.

But the conventional wisdom didn’t help.

“What people were saying just didn’t make much sense,” he said in a phone interview this week.

By age 16, Wolfelt had written a mission statement for his life: to launch a center to help people deal with loss, a place where they could learn to mourn. Out of his wounds, he said, he found his calling.

Wolfelt, now 54, fulfilled his adolescent vision, earning a doctoral degree as a clinical psychologist and then opening the Center for Loss and Life Transition in 1983. He’s written at least two dozen books about bereavement and grieving. Besides the counseling and teaching he offers at his center in Colorado, he spends up to 75 days a year presenting workshops and seminars across North America.

He comes to Johnson City next week (16-17 June 2009) for two sessions at the Millennium Center, hosted by Tetrick Funeral Services. Tuesday night’s seminar, “Understanding Your Grief: Touchstones for Hope and Healing,” is designed for anyone facing bereavement or caring for those who do. A workshop for caregivers, “The Art of ‘Companioning’ the Mourner,” will be held Wednesday.

Some fundamental facts about grief are easily missed – or dismissed – in our “mourning-avoidance culture,” according to Wolfelt.

For one, the loss of a loved one, particularly a close family member or friend, is a transitional event: there’s no going back. A significant loss takes us to a “new normal.”

“So well-meaning clichés about ‘getting over it’ aren’t that helpful,” he said. “It’s not about resolution or ‘getting back to normal.’ It’s about reconciliation … integrating the new reality with our lives.”

Grieving and mourning are essential parts of that process.

“If we give and receive love, it’s natural to grieve,” Wolfelt said. “It sounds corny, but it’s true: you have to feel it to heal it. When you have a loss, you can’t avoid grief. You have to go through it.”

Mourning, which he defines simply as “grieving made public,” is also an instinctive response, a need to tell and listen to the stories and share in other ways about the people we’ve lost. He goes so far as to say it is impossible for anyone to mourn alone.

Central to Wolfelt’s work is the idea that we need companions to help us grieve. He’s even coined a verb, “companioning,” to describe the task.

“My role as a fellow human being is to help someone feel safe enough to be open in their mourning,” he said. “I can create conditions to help the mourner” by listening, by simply sitting with a grieving person – in short, by acting as a friend rather than a therapist “trying to drag them back to their old normal.”

While his work is not specifically religious, Wolfelt calls grief an inherently spiritual journey, one that forces even the most secular person to ask profound questions about the meaning of life, or about why one person gets cancer and another doesn’t, or about the nature of God.

Wolfelt said he has integrated his clinical expertise and an interest in Eastern philosophy with his Methodist faith to shape his ideas about death and mourning.

People who are spiritual or religious need to “guard against the idea that we don’t need to mourn, or that to do so shows a lack of faith,” he said. “You can have profound faith but still miss the person. But I see a number of people who are shaming themselves” because they think they shouldn’t be sad.

As he pointed out, Jesus himself wept over the death of a friend.

Grief forces hard questions, and Wolfelt encourages them.

“We all have a world view, and then loss flips your world upside down,” he said. “Now you’re faced with questions, some directed at God.”

A good companion, according to Wolfelt, allows mourners to ask the hard questions and search for meaning in the loss.

“If you say ‘Don’t ask why,’ you’re inhibiting one of the instinctive needs to find meaning,” he said. “The very nature of grief leads to searching. But those who do not search, do not find.”

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 13 June 2009.

The mixed history of Cherokees and Christians

Tobacco was a sacrament in the old Cherokee religion, the smoke a messenger carrying prayers to the spirit world.

Wine is part of a sacrament in the Christian tradition, signifying the blood of Jesus.

Dr. R. Michael Abram sees a rich irony here. Abram and his wife, Susan, are the owners and curators of the Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery in Cherokee, N.C. He is a keynote speaker at the Native American Festival at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton this weekend.

“Take those two items and put them in each other’s culture with no religious meaning,” he said in a phone interview, “and both get into trouble.”

Millions of American Indians have struggled with alcoholism, and millions of other Americans – descendents of Europeans who brought Christianity – became addicted to tobacco.

That’s not a bad metaphor for the uneasy history between whites and Indians, which has been punctuated by conflict, ignorance and suspicion.

When he teaches about Cherokee heritage, Abram finds that religion is a popular topic.

The Cherokee belief system embraced a complex collection of legends, rituals, symbolic colors and numerology. While scholars can identify several common ideas, such as a reverence for fire and water, other specifics are hard to pin down. Scholars disagree, for example, on Cherokee thinking about a single, ultimate creator.

“It depends what century you’re talking about,” Abram said. “It was always evolving.”

But one constant was how Cherokee beliefs saturated daily life.

“You can’t just tease apart Cherokee culture and the old religion,” he said. “The religion is interwoven with daily life – medicine, government, all aspects of Cherokee life. I like to think of Cherokee life as a basket, with all the strands woven with one another.”

The Cherokee culture, once spread over thousands of miles in the Southeast, started changing dramatically as European settlers pushed westward in the 1700s. Christian missionaries, notably from the Moravian Church, lived and worked among the Cherokee and were strong advocates for their rights. The first conversions to Christianity came before the American Revolution, and by the early 1800s a number of prominent leaders were devout Christians.

But there was a dark side as well: European settlers, often misreading or ignoring the teachings of their Christian faith, systematically and violently drove out the Indians.

To this day, many Cherokee revile President Andrew Jackson because of his removal policies, which Abram compared to the Nazi Holocaust. Even faced with fierce opposition from other white leaders, including Davy Crockett, Jackson rammed through his policies bent on Cherokee removal.

According to Abram, Jackson used the Cherokees’ trust of clergymen against them, appointing the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn as his treaty commissioner to settle the now-infamous 1835 New Echota Treaty, which led to the expulsion of the Cherokee nation from the eastern United States. In 1838, the remaining 17,000 Cherokee people were force-marched over 1,200 miles to what is now Oklahoma. Starvation, sickness and exhaustion on this “Trail of Tears” took between 4,000 and 8,000 lives.

Today, few Cherokee practice the traditional religion. Many are fervent Christians who consider the old ways “pagan.” Others are what Abram calls “mixers,” combining ideas from Cherokee religion with Christian teachings.

Despite obvious differences, the two religions echo each other at certain points. The “going-to-water ceremony,” an important Cherokee initiation rite, is reminiscent of baptism, for instance. Then there’s Stone Coat, a central figure in Cherokee mythology, who sacrificed himself for his people and is “certainly a Christ-like figure,” according to Abram.

Abram, who grew up as a Pentecostal and is still a Christian, has “absolutely no qualms about that mixing.” In fact, he thinks white Christians could learn a few lessons from the Cherokee religion.

“The old religion followed ways of nature and emphasized preservation and balance. It was practiced in every aspect of life all the time,” Abram said. “The idea of establishing balance – that’s what really stands out in the old Cherokee religion.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 6 June 2009. (Parts of this column were first published on 4 June 2005.)

Changing presidents at a local seminary

In his 15 years as president of Emmanuel School of Religion, Robert Wetzel saw how seminary education must include more than simply learning theology, history and ministry methods in a classroom.

Intellectual rigor and academic discipline are crucial to Wetzel, but the education must “make it more than that. It must be head and heart.”

Wetzel retired this week after a five-decade academic career. On Monday the seminary, perched on a bluff above Milligan Highway, will have a new president, Michael Sweeney.

Sweeney worked in Papua New Guinea as a Bible translator for 15 years before coming to Emmanuel three years ago to teach courses in world mission and New Testament. He is the fifth president in 44-year history of the seminary, which mainly serves Christian churches and churches of Christ. (Wetzel also served on the mission field, leading a new theological college in England for 11 years.)

“What we do best is prepare people for ministry in community, and so we want to model what it means to be the church,” Wetzel said. “The early days of Emmanuel were very ‘heady,’ influenced by the Enlightenment. It’s not that we’ve abandoned that, but we put more emphasis now on helping students create and experience a sense of community.”

Perhaps the most visible symbol of that emphasis, and the most tangible legacy of Wetzel’s presidency, is the Emmanuel Village. The student-housing project was designed to emulate a small English village – complete with stone “cottages,” winding streets and a community center – not because Wetzel is an Anglophile, but to nurture a community that would be absent in cookie-cutter apartments.

There’s literally a price to be paid, however, particularly when seminary enrollment nationwide was stagnant. Emmanuel, with a $3.5 million annual operating budget, carries an $8 million debt, mostly in a $7.5 million, 20-year bond program that funded the last phase of the village and other projects. The past year’s economic downturn took a toll as well. Although no faculty members were released, several staff members were laid off. The actions were painful, Wetzel said, but the school has kept its strong donor base and holds $24 million in assets.

Sweeney knows he takes office during difficult financial times and a changing church atmosphere.

“Colleges and seminaries aren’t as influential as they once were,” Sweeney said. “The most influential leaders now are ministers of large churches. In (many congregations), degrees don’t mean as much as they once did. A lot of people just want to take a class or two. So we must relate more closely to the churches and be aware of issues they contend with and help the ministers develop the gifts they have.”

The school launched the Emmanuel Institutes in 2005 to do just that, offering workshops in local churches or engaging them in research projects on topics ranging from church finances to studying the effects of marketing. Emmanuel will also increase its online offerings.

While the school will aim to increase its traditional enrollment – Sweeney thinks Emmanuel’s headcount can grow by 100, to about 250 – its job description is expanding.

“Our biggest challenge is to revamp what and how we teach, to serve churches in their situations,” Sweeney said. “There’s a role for seminaries to fill.”

Both men are convinced that seminaries like Emmanuel, even as they reinvent themselves, are vital for the health of churches they serve and, by extension, the society where they operate. Wetzel and Sweeney are disturbed, for example, about theological shallowness among large numbers of churchgoers and even entire congregations.

“Americans assume success is a fundamental value that is generally unquestioned,” Wetzel said. “So I’m concerned that churches are going on models of success: They do what they do to bring in crowds. They’ll say, ‘We’re trying to meet the culture where it is.’ We can thank God there are churches with thousands of people, but there’s a tension in providing better solid biblical teaching.”

Sweeney agreed and then pointed to a silver lining.

“There’s a lack of depth, but it’s an opening for seminaries, to address that need (for theological teaching),” he said. “We’re in a cultural shift. People aren’t asking the same questions in seminary as I was. Much of my seminary experience was about engaging in fun, intellectual discussions. It’s not that anymore. Theology needs to be a way of thinking how I carry on my life. If it’s not, people aren’t interested.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 30 May 2009.

Christian colleges, commencements, controversy

Notre Dame, the nation’s most prestigious Roman Catholic university, walked a fine line last week when President Barack Obama, who favors abortion rights, delivered the commencement address. Critics said the school crossed a line just by inviting him. Even more complained about granting him an honorary degree.

At least two dozen graduating seniors boycotted the ceremony. At least three dozen protesters were arrested on the campus.

Starting with Dwight Eisenhower, Notre Dame has invited most presidents to speak at commencement. (One notable exception: Bill Clinton.) But this year, the invitation to Obama upset the delicate balance between Notre Dame’s Roman Catholic teaching, which strongly opposes abortion, and its academic freedom.

A 2004 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is straightforward: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

On the other hand, as a leading university Notre Dame is obligated to academic freedom.

While not as high profile, the dozens of church-related colleges and universities in this region struggle with the same tensions, often played out at their big, public events.

Formal criteria for choosing commencement speakers are few and far between. Generally, colleges select people of accomplishment, who are likely to present a worthwhile message, and who have contributed significantly to society or to the institution. Most church-related colleges also want their speakers to be people of faith.

 “I try to find a speaker whom I think will be challenging,” said Don Jeanes, president of Milligan College, affiliated with Christian churches and churches of Christ (and where I teach). “Secondly, we want it to be a person of strong Christian commitment … someone who is consistent with the majority of where our constituency would be in theological persuasion.”

King College in Bristol, Tenn., affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, considers its commencement address as part of the academic program, according to Tracy Parkinson, assistant dean of the faculty.

“Commencement is special because of the nature of the school,” Parkinson said. “At the same time, if you’re going to bring folks from a wide variety of perspectives, as we do during the year, there will be people on campus who agree and some don’t. It’s an important part of what we consider the academic integrity of what we do.”

Parkinson said that considering the college’s normal criteria for commencement speakers – “a professing Christian, who’s accomplished in his or her field” – then Obama would be “a reasonable candidate” as a speaker, as would people “on the other side of any number of political or social issues.”

Public figures by definition are engaged in public issues, which can make it difficult to avoid controversy, according to Dirk Moore, director of public relations at Emory and Henry College, a United Methodist school in Emory, Va.

“Often what you want to bring to a commencement address is someone who’s been engaged in public service and so has had to take certain positions,” he said. “It can be hard not to be lightning rods.”

But part of the learning process is hearing from people who have different points of views, Moore said, and that process doesn’t end at commencement.

“Ultimately what you have here is a learning opportunity,” Moore said. “It would be unwise for any educational institution to keep them out simply because we may disagree with them on particular issues. We’re here to serve and educate students, open their perspectives on the world.”

Moore thinks the Notre Dame administrators were correct to invite Obama – not in spite of the controversy but because of it.

“Controversy is never pleasant for colleges and universities, but that’s kind of expected, to have voices expressing opinions,” he said. “What are you going to do, ridicule them for having firm beliefs?”

That’s one reason Moore was impressed with the Notre Dame students who protested Obama’s presence.

“A university is doing its job,” he said, “when it’s having students who come out with convictions that are important in their lives.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 23 May 2009.