I’m a big fan of camp ministry. My opportunities to speak at or be involved in camp ministry have been pretty limited, but as a pastor I have seen the fruit of camp ministry in the lives of our students and young adults. For most of the youth in our church who get baptized, they will point to camp as the context for when they really heard the gospel and responded to God’s grace. Camp has been the context and catalyst for many lives being changed. At our church we’ve particularly been the beneficiaries of the great ministry at Anvil Island. I’m tremendously thankful for the work they do. There are many other great camps as well who are doing fabulous work.
But here’s the deal: camp is not normal. Camp is great. God is doing great things through camp ministry, but it is not the normal way that we grow in Christ. Camp is a growth spurt, but not our normal growth. Camp is bright spark that only has value if it ignites a long-lasting slow-burning fire. A spark that disappears as fast as it ignites is worth nothing. So let me suggest that the most important part of camp is what you do after camp.
Mushrooms & Oak Trees
When considering Christian growth, I’ve found John Newton helpful. Newton discusses how Christian growth is like a slow-growing oak tree, rather than the overnight growth and then death of a mushroom. The oak grows slowly with deep roots to endure windstorms, droughts, and seasonal changes. He says, “The full-grown oak that overtops the wood, spreads its branches wide, and has struck its roots to a proportional depth and extent into the soil, springs from a little acorn. It’s daily growth, had it been watched from its appearance above the ground, would have been imperceptible, yet it was always upon the increase. It has known a variety of seasons. It has sustained many a storm, but in time it attained to maturity, and now is likely to stand for ages.”
True Christian growth is slow, steady and largely unseen. There are growth spurts here and there, important moments and life-changing decisions to be sure, but mostly it is the largely unseen steady growth like an oak tree. Camp is a wonderful growth spurt, but make sure it gets followed by the more normal and less glamorous oak-tree kind of growth.
Some Christians live like a rollercoaster, soaring spiritual highs are followed by steep lows. If it weren’t for these occasional highs their life would be one of steady decline, always growing further from God. The spirituals highs of conferences, missions trips or summer camp are wasted if they are not followed by the more normal everyday growth. Don’t be a roller-coaster Christian. Seek the steady growth of maturity.
So How Do You Keep Growing?
We often think of the Christian life as a series of emotional experiences. Intimacy is measured by feeling. But this is an unhealthy way to measure things. Instead, Christian growth most often happens through faithfully availing yourself to ordinary means. They may not feel glamorous and exciting, but they are the normal and best way to grow.
So what are these normal means of growth? Let me list a few and challenge you to commit yourselves to these ordinary, but crucially important means of Christian growth.
- Commit to worshipping with a local church.
Every week we gather together as God’s people, a strange and beautiful mosaic of people. We sit under the faithful teaching of God’s word. We sing together of the beauty of God and his grace. We come to the Lord’s Supper and proclaim together our unity in Christ and the grace given to us in the death of Christ. It may not be sexy or flashy or hip, but we grow as we join together in a local gathering of diverse people who are being changed by Jesus. It’s not as cool as camp, but it’s crucial for growth.
- Belong to a community.
Whether it’s an official church community group, or just a group of friends reading the Bible together, it’s important that we journey with others. Find a community who will pray for you, encourage you, challenge you, teach you, and love you. And be that community for others. We don’t grow alone, we grow with others.
- Read your Bible and pray.
When people complain to me that God feels distant, I always ask them how often they are spending time in pray and the Word. Why do we blame God when we don’t make time for him? You don’t have to read massive chunks every day or spend hours in prayer for it to be valuable. You wouldn’t ride 100kms on your first day riding a bike. Start small and work your way up.
- Preach the gospel to yourself.
Does that sound odd? One of the most important disciplines we can develop is to proclaim the gospel to ourselves every day. We so easily forget that we are sinful and Jesus is a gracious saviour. We need to remind ourselves constantly that God has adopted us and welcomed us because of Jesus, not because of our performance. Every day we need the good news again. Newton would say that we need daily glimpses of Christ’s glory. Maturity doesn’t mean self-sufficiency, quite the opposite! Maturity means more repenting, more trusting Jesus, more dependence on him.
- Find somewhere to serve faithfully.
We grow best as we serve others. What does Christian maturity look like? Newton says it is marked by ordinary faithfulness and consistency. We grow stale and critical as we sit on the sidelines and watch other serve. We grow in humility, love and maturity as we serve Jesus by serving others. So find somewhere to serve and serve faithfully and consistency.
So for all those returning from Bible camp and heading back into the routine of school or university, don’t waste your camp experience by neglecting Jesus this fall. Build off your summer growth with a steady and unseen growth in Christ. And may God grow you into a mighty oak in his time!
 John Newton, as quoted in Tony Reinke, John Newton on the Christian Life, p.142.