Before I even get into what I'm planning to write about today, I just want to insert a quick disclaimer: While it would certainly be nice to be right all the time, I know that I am often wrong, and I acknowledge that what I have to say is by no means the end-all best point-of-view; however, this is my opinion and I feel like this is an important message for Christian young people.
One of the highlights of many church kids' summers is what they like to refer to as "church camp". The church I go to puts on a pretty fantastic church camp over the course of several weeks throughout the summer. The main point of the week of camp is the preaching, according to the camp administrators. This statement brings to mind only one question: did those people ever actually go to church camp? Admittedly, some pretty dynamic preachers are featured during the weeks of church camp, but I still doubt that a survey of the campers' main reason for paying money to come to camp would indicate that the preaching is the biggest part of church camp for the teens.
When I think of church camp, I think of awkward games and staying up late and lots of unhealthy snacks and week-long relationships and having to share a bathroom with seven other girls. The two main features of church camp (and I think most teenagers would agree with me) are terrible camp relationships and having as much fun as possible.
After three years of summer camp (and looking forward to my fourth in a couple weeks), I have a decent amount of experience with all the positives and negatives church camp has to offer. However, one negative sticks out in my mind above almost all the others: invitations after services.
Just for the sake of clarity, I don't mean like "Hey, wanna go to Steak and Shake?" (does anybody actually go to Steak and Shake anyway?), I'm talking about when a preacher issues an invitation to his audience to come to the altar to pray (basically).
Here's how a lot of these services go:
Preacher opens message with an emotional anecdote or startling statistic.
Preacher reads Scripture for two minutes.
Preacher paces around the pulpit, yelling and sweating like it's summer in Florida.
Preacher yells some more.
Preacher closes with an intensely emotional story. (yelling optional)
Preacher issues an invitation.
Entire audience goes forward to make a decision.
If this sounds familiar to you, first off, you're probably a Baptist. (lulz) Either that, or you've been in a similar service, whether for camp or not.
Personally, I have a problem with the invitations preachers issue at youth camps. Teenagers are notorious bandwagon jumpers in any environment. But pack us in a building with over a thousand other teenagers, get the audience so emotionally charged that everyone is super uncomfortable, and use manipulative language when asking (demanding?) us to make a decision during the invitation at the end, and you have a recipe for mass spiritual disaster.
I have many examples that I could mention, but I've picked two that I think best show why I think these invitations are so dangerous.
At my first year at camp, a preacher spoke passionately (or maybe just loudly) about why purity is so important for Christian young people (true). Upon finishing his message, he invited the campers to come forward and make a vow of purity to a camp leader (a little awkward, but not bad). But then he continued to say that he expected 100% participation. Some kids might resist the invitation even after this was said, but who is going to stay behind after everyone else goes forward at an invitation and look like a hardhearted rebel resisting the conviction of the Holy Spirit? What about all the kids who have already done that? What about kids who would rather talk to their parents or home pastor about it first? What about kids who just aren't ready quite yet? What about kids who want to think about it and make sure they fully understand what they're doing before they make a promise to Almighty God about something? What about kids who just aren't convicted to go forward? What about kids who are too young to even know what the preacher is talking about?
It's hard enough to be the only one not doing something when everyone else is doing something that's obviously wrong, but what about when everyone else is doing something that looks so right?
Well, like good children, every last camper went to a counselor and took their hand and said what the preacher had told us to: "I promise." Even as I was participating in it, it felt weird to me. While I don't regret making a decision to remain pure, I can guarantee you that my decision wasn't made then, and those words I said to a counselor I didn't even know certainly didn't mean anything to me. I wasn't convicted by the Holy Spirit to go forward in that service, I was convicted by a preacher and by peer pressure.
The other example is actually from a camp service I visited just this past week. The message was good right up until the invitation. The preacher worded his invitation in such a way that any conscientious Christian teenager would feel guilty not going forward, no matter their reason for staying in their seat. The moment he opened up the altar, probably 80% of the campers got out of their seats. But what I saw next is what bothers me the most.
I watched a boy sit in his seat, his body language indicating that he was not planning to get up anytime soon. Then the girl next to him stood up and started to move towards the altar, followed by the boy on his other side. He looked from one to the other, tensed up, and then started to move to stand up when he saw that both of his companions were going forward. However, the aisles were so clogged that Boy #2 was having difficulty getting out, so he started to sit back down. As soon as Boy #1 thought he wasn't going to be the lone not-serious Christian, he relaxed and settled back in to his seat. The next moment the aisles were clear and Boy #2 got up to go again, and Boy #1 instantly jumped up to follow his friend down to the altar.
Boy #1 clearly would not have gone forward if his friends hadn't been going, especially if he hadn't seen that hundreds of other kids had already gone.
Peer pressure isn't all about crazy partying. Every time a preacher at a church camp issues an invitation and a mass exodus to the altar begins, we have to deal with a lot of peer pressure. Most teenagers can't discern if the pressure they feel is the conviction of the Holy Spirit or if it's pressure created by their peers or the environment or the preacher.
Preachers and youth leaders need to be careful not to confuse their teens. I'm sure it's easy to get caught up in the thrill of seeing hundreds of teenagers come forward, but the focus should be more on helping teenagers to really understand and make sincere decisions and less on getting everyone in the building to respond. Luke 15 says that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over ONE sinner who comes to repentance than over ninety-nine just people who don't need to repent. Teens need to know their own hearts and use discernment (easier said than done, I know). But most importantly, teens should never be made to feel guilty for not going forward at an invitation. Whether they want to make a decision is between them and God, and that exclusivity and privacy should be carefully maintained.
I think it's very important for teenagers heading off to church camp to know that it is okay to not go forward if you're not feeling led to. I know that it's hard to just stand there when everyone else is going forward, but if you are honestly not convicted to go forward, why would you? Going forward (or not) for an invitation makes a statement. Unfortunately, the statement that it makes is more along the lines of "I'm a good person, look at me" and not "By God's grace I want to make serious changes in my life". If you're not serious about making changes in your life, going forward at an invitation sends the wrong message to people around you, and even though it's a positive message, that's dishonest. In general we as teens suffer from a tendency to not think about what we're doing. So just think before you go to do anything, and know that it's okay to decide not to go.
The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.
Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.