I’ve been attending holiness camp meetings since before I have distinct memories. Growing up in southern Massachusetts, my family attended Douglas Camp Meeting in Douglas, MA and Portsmouth Camp Meeting in Portsmouth, RI every year of my childhood and adolescence. And many of the people we worshipped with at those summertime gatherings attended other holiness campgrounds in New England–Smith Mills and Ithiel Falls, for example. Denominations, such as my own Church of the Nazarene, have summertime camps, of course. But, what has made these ‘holiness’ campgrounds unique is their interdenominational vision, their limited (and perhaps more sustainable) scope, their intergenerational experience, and their belief that there are many Christians in diverse denominations who hunger to see their faith visibly manifest in the lives they live here and now–what has long been called, ‘holiness of heart and life’.
Historians tell the story of holiness camp meetings growing out of a fractious time in nineteenth century American Christianity. The civil war had exposed many divisions within American culture, and in the midst of social, religious, and ethical upheaval, many followers of Jesus longed for a way of life characterized more by hope and transformation than had been experienced in American culture. And so, the holiness movement began in revivals and tent meetings and eventually in established camp meetings, as preachers spoke of freedom not simply from condemnation, but from the tyranny of sinfulness itself. Christians from many denominations flocked to seek this transformation.
Eventually the holiness camp meetings gave rise to organized holiness denominations. My own Church of the Nazarene is one such denomination. And though camp meetings continued to be strongly attended through the 1960s, since the 1970s the number of holiness camps along with attendance at them has decreased dramatically.
At some point, in my experience, what was birthed out of a hunger for tangible transformation in the here and now, grew into something quite different. For some, camp meeting continued to be a significant time of reconnecting with the past and with simpler, often romanticized, times. For others camp meeting became a way of indoctrinating the values of holiness into successive generations. For others camp meeting became a type of retreat from the world; a communing with God in nature; a time of quiet and disconnect from the busy-ness of life. For others, camp meeting became a family-oriented vacation, which required entertainment, opportunity, and some measure of luxury. And for others, camp meeting became a less offensive or intimidating Christian gathering, supremely suited for introducing seekers and unbelievers to Christian beliefs and practices.
I can’t say whether any of these trajectories has been good or bad. What I think I can argue is that the religious aspect of camp meeting has lost much of its appeal in American culture. I myself am devoted to camp meeting because of my own peculiar history. Camp meeting, for me, too, had become more about the past than the future, more about preserving something than pursuing something…until this year.Camp meeting for me had become more about preserving something than pursuing something. Click To Tweet
This year I attended Portsmouth Camp Meeting in Portsmouth, RI for upwards of the thirtieth time. But this year was different. This year I caught a glimpse of what might have driven tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Christians out of their cities and homes and into the hot, inconvenient, rustic wilderness to hear preachers talk about God and the Christian life. This year I found myself, like a child after Christmas or summer vacation, wishing it would never end.
What made 2016 different? Certainly, a prophetic voice spoke to us in the person of Pastor Scott Daniels. There are many great preachers and many great evangelists in the holiness movement today. But, Pastor Daniels, in my opinion, stands as a rarity among them. Why? Pastor Daniels does not speak simply about salvation from the consequences of bad acts, nor does he speak of transformation and freedom as principles or bullet points from a doctrinal heritage to be punctuated with prooftexts. Dr. Daniels digs deeply into the Scriptural teachings of transformation, enmeshing his preaching in the language and contexts of Scripture.
There is a hopefulness in the Gospel of Jesus as he understands it, but not simply a hopefulness that we will escape condemnation at the end of all things. Pastor Daniels speaks of a life, in the here and now, that reflects our relationship with the King of all Kings, the one God who became flesh in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.
So, I suspect Pastor Daniels made a difference. But, then, too, singer-songwriter-composer, Steve Adams, and his supremely gifted children, Craig and Chris ministered through music and testimony, as well. Their gifts and talents are so abundant and their love for Jesus so manifest that I am sure their music alone drew a crowd, as it has in so many places at so many times.
But, then, there is a uniqueness to the Adams as there is to Pastor Daniels. They come from a rich history, but their message, again, is one of transformation, of peace in the midst of life’s storms, of perseverance…in short, of hope–hope that we are more than we have been, more than life has made us or that experience tells us we should hope to be. And, like Pastor Daniels, Steve and Craig and Chris fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and the Perfector of faith.
I don’t know what the future of camp meetings, or even of Christianity in America, might be. But, this summer I did remember again the good news of Jesus. And the good news of Jesus speaks to something that life and experience often steal away from us. The good news of Jesus is hope. As Thomas Chisholm’s hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” so aptly put it:
Strength for today And bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine, With ten thousand beside.
Our pursuit of God is not a pursuit of the past, but a pursuit of the future God has promised, both one day and today. I’m not so fond of roughing it for the sake of roughing it, but I’ll sit in the heat and sleep on a cot to hear prophets in the wilderness. How about you?