“Are you in an abusive relationship dear?”
“Yes, with a Christian youth festival.”
Actually, the bruises on my arms (that’s a photo of my right arm) came from over-enthusiastically carrying a till around 500 metres in a box that was too large for my short-person arms. But still, I do have a complex relationship with Christian festivals, especially youth festivals where levels of group-think, mass emotion and peer pressure are likely to rise fasting and be stronger, even when those aren’t being courted.
As a note, this is being written from a place that assumes that Christianity not a terrifying religion destroying the rational world, and is OK with teenagers being taught about and engaged with Christianity. (At some point, I’m going to stop feeling like I have to issue a disclaimer on that…)
One the things I love about such camps and festivals side: it’s fun going camping with your friends and without your parents for a chunk of time. It’s also, on the faith side, a great opportunity to realise that you’re not the only freaky Christian person or freaky Christan family in the country. There are, in fact, LOADS of them, and they’re not all insane (at least, not the scary kind of insane). They also give a lot of really good teaching and thinking on a huge number of topics, aimed at their age group (last weekend included relationships, justice, The Hunger Games, women in leadership, and ordination, amongst other things) – most of which is much less emotional than the main services (and therefore scares me much less) – which the majority of Christian teenagers, who don’t go to big, urban churches, don’t get anywhere else. This is *actually* invaluable if you’re in anyway serious about growing in your faith, and I love that there are people out there taking teenage brains and teenage faith seriously.
At the same time, I do find myself slightly sceptical and disengaged a lot of the time in the main services. Partly this is because I am not 14-18 any more and therefore the style of the service doesn’t actually suit me. Partly it’s because I’m a little leery of all crowd experiences. And partly it’s about my own personality, of which more later.
Let’s be clear up-front. I don’t think that Christian youth festivals and camps are by definition seeking to encourage conversions to the extent that they cross that fuzzy line between evangelism and manipulation/brain-washing. There are some that I would probably regard as dubiously close to/over that line, and that not all of the teenagers that go to them are exposed to alternate views elsewhere (though, I suspect that is more of a problem in the States than in the UK). But most of them (including this one that I was at) are aware of that line and are careful of it, even while they are working within, sharing and promoting a particular worldview and belief system. That said, it’s always worth thinking critically about the world you find yourself in and what you say you believe – which is something we’re not really busy teaching teenagers how to do at the moment – and that is something that I think all such festival struggle with, even when they’re really intentionally working to stay on the safe side of the manipulation line. The balance of seminars: services sort-of engages this problem, but I still worry about it.
And this is where my personality and my own faith-story bite in. I’m naturally introverted, I don’t do crowds as far as humanly possible (I will always look to sit at the back or on the side at any large event), I work with my head first, rather than my heart, and I don’t have a ‘big conversion moment’ – oh, and I studied rhetoric – all of which combines to make me slightly sceptical of the big event, the call for conversion, and, to be quite honest, slightly like my experiences and way of approaching life are being considered ‘lesser’ in comparison. I grew up in a Christian family and my life is marked by a series of small decisions and choices to believe rather than a big moment of conviction. I engage with God best in things that use my head – in theology and debates about faith in politics or society, and in meditation – rather than in things that engage my emotion (musical worship). That’s not to say I never ‘feel it’ – but it’s not my norm, and when it does happen it will be because I’ve engaged with and am responding to something that’s got in with my head, in a sermon or in something I’ve read, first.
At these big events (and in evangelical circles generally) it often feels as though you’re not really-really a Christian if you’ve not done the big moment of revelation and repentence and you don’t ‘feel’ God. It’s like Christians, for all they talk about God-given differences and different skills and talents and callings that reflect our personalities, and being different parts of the body, totally fail to embody that when they all get together for a big service, and the quieter, more intellectual types get a bit lost.
I see this in other places too, because I think that a lot of the world outside of the church sees church as being a service on a Sunday and Christianity as being about the feeling and the need rather than about anything so rational as thinking and choosing. I remember getting cranky during the 2008 US elections when the Right spent time talking about how Obama wasn’t really a Christian because he’d framed his conversion in terms of a choice that involved his intellect, and the Left spent time treating Obama’s faith as something that was OK because it wasn’t really-real, he just had to pay lip-service to it to get elected, and his talking about it as having been a choice he made as a special code to the Left that he wasn’t a Crazy Loony Really. All of which is just nonsense.
When I’m in a contrary mood I respond by questioning the authenticity of the ‘group effect’ in both conversion and worship. And that’s much more prominent at a big event like a festival that looks after people for a week and sends them off again than it is in my church, where I have a relationship with a community that I know and see discipling people in a way that I trust. When I’m not in a contrary mood I just think that maybe I should focus on the seminars over the services and take some space to breathe at the back. (And then I start wailing about how it’s so unfair, because I am totally being slighted…)
I spent the first four days at Soul Survivor last week being a bit like that at the back of the main meetings – while simulateously really enjoying being on a cafe team and getting to a few seminars, so it was really nice when, on the final morning, m’lovely colleague Kiera got up to speak in the main communion service and spent a part of her time talking about the importance of making the choice to believe and to be faithful, and of doing that daily, no matter what your day looks like and how you’re feeling about it. And it was so nice to hear someone speaking in a way that was encouraging without whipping up a storm, realistic about what daily life is actually like, and getting at believing beyond feeling. And not just because it makes me feel validated – but ‘cos it’s true.