As I’ve watched my newsfeed on Facebook this morning, I’ve been reminded of two things:
- How powerful a tool social media can be to help us create and sustain community.
- How something like summer camp, a mission trip, or any other opportunity that takes us away from our day to day lives and places us outside, with strangers, for an extended amount of time can serve as a community building catalyst, sustainer, or an opportunity to grow deeper.
I was sitting in my office this morning when a private message popped up that contained a hyperlink and a short message of, “I saw this on a friend’s page, he was an adult special needs camper for several years.” The message was from a student at a university located 260 miles away from me that had been a camper and is now a summer staff person at a United Methodist camp, the hyperlink was to an obituary for a 24 year old camper who liked to swim, sit with his friends looking out over the lake, and spent a good portion of the year looking forward to his week at camp, like many of us do. The young adult that shared the link with me, Marshall, is part of a group of young adults that are leading the Young Adult ministry of Camp Mechuwana--part of a newly formed group to build on the important work that has already been done in the camp’s ministry with young adults already.
The link that that one young adult shared “went viral” as person after person shared it and with it their own feelings of grief as they remembered the infectious smile or the friendly disposition of this camper or lamented how young this person was.
In a matter of minutes a community of faith began mourning one of its own and the community had no boundaries or walls beyond the 8 weeks of summer camp and a few weekends together here and there. In fact, some of the people who were remembering this camper considers this community their religious community and spend 6 days together, once a year.
It is not social media that created this community, though. The community was created by the intense, intentional coming together for a week of camp. For adult leaders, youth leaders, and campers alike the formation and bonding that happens in a camping context is unlike any other community formation.
For many, the community that forms in a camping context is an invitation to envision community in a different way. One of the people that represents spiritual depth to me cannot connect with God while sitting in a pew or participating in the life of a local congregation. Her commitment to listening to God, though, is not absent. Emily says that she connects most with God outside, in the natural environment. She didn’t stop there, though. She explained that the rigidity that is often found in a local church is not appealing, there’a definition for everything that, she feels, often prohibits conversation.
The development of community, though, also takes place beyond the camp road, cabins, and waterfront. Emily said that what she values most is connecting with people post-camp. “...folks that I have known for less than a week want to be my friend! I love that. I think the part that I use (and value) the most is when we get talking by message, because it's just the two of us, and no one can see what we are saying publicly. I think what gets me the most is when a conversation starts at camp--about God, or what our ideas of heaven are, or if we are being constantly monitored for "sin", or about what the meaning of life is, or anything Big like that--and people come and track me down on Facebook to specifically carry on that conversation.” Utilizing the tools that Facebook provides, Emily is able to continue to strengthen the community that forms in just a few days of camp.
Emily isn’t involved in a local church. In fact, she her faith community as her camp experience and treats it as such. Her willingness to have tough conversations about theological concepts, the formation of community with a deep concern for others, and a missional component, in my view, makes her experience a “church” experience. St. Augustine of Hippo defined church as a city all of its own inside the city the community gathers. He also believed that church should give us a foretaste of heaven. Regardless of whether you choose to utilize social media or not, you cannot disregard its importance in sustaining community in the 21st century.
Marshall, the young adult I spoke of above, on the other hand, is deeply connected to a faith community outside of camping ministry. He grew up Episcopalian and still very much identifies with the local church he grew up attending. For Marshall, though, summer camp is an extension of what his religious community has formed him to be. He described the grounds feeling very holy. He talked about being actively involved in the ministries of camp, and says, “...as much as you put into Mechuwana, you will receive...” It is the intentionally going deeper--getting to know people, submerging yourself in the work you do, and surrounding yourself with God.
Our invitation to go deeper, to move closer to the heart of God, is fostered by the acute formation of community for a short amount of time and, I believe, the utilization of social media to exist outside of that community. Social media is not the end all and be all, but it is a tool that is now at our fingertips (literally!) to be used to invite dispersed communities, like the one that forms at our church related camping and retreat centers, to shape itself in a different way.