While martyrdom or outright persecution were unlikely, I might face ridicule and misunderstanding. Some of my friends might disappear, put off by my newly found faith. This trek might be costly, an uphill climb. But there was one unavoidable element of Christian discipleship that nobody warned me about, which is probably a good thing, because if I’d known, I might have opted for Buddhism instead.
Camping. Within weeks of deciding to follow Christ, I found myself at a youth camp, ensconced in a wigwam-like tent for two whole weeks. I went there feeling somewhat jaundiced, because my pre-conversion experiences in the great outdoors weren’t great. For one thing, one had to erect a tent created by designers who were surely inspired by dark forces. I was especially useless at this. I’ve written about it before in this column, which is evidence of residual pain. Most people end up with a tent peg or two left over at the end of the fraught process of tent construction. I’d usually end up with a spare couple of poles, resulting in a sudden collapse of the canvas in the middle of the freezing, rainy night. Not fun.
But despite my initial hesitation, that youth camp was quite marvellous. Fragile, fledgling decisions were galvanised, even if I was a little overenthusiastic as a new convert. Every evening service during the camp would end with an ‘altar call’, and I responded every night, whatever the issue. Attending that camp solidified my initial conversion experience, not least because I spent a fortnight hanging out with others who had made the same choice.
And then I graduated from tents to chalets, and became involved with Spring Harvest for over three decades. That too was a delight. The word ‘chalet’ was at times a little misleading for American friends who crossed the pond to see what the event was all about. They imagined a luxurious pine log construction, where they’d be waited on by a blonde Swedish sister called Olga. There’d be a log fire, a sauna, an opportunity to whip each other with twigs following the sauna.
It wasn’t that kind of chalet. But it was wonderful, and life-altering. At Spring Harvest, I learned that the way my denominational tribe did things was not the only or the best way. I discovered people who loved Jesus greatly, whose style of worship and theology was quite different from my own. I found that we Christians can accomplish more together than alone, as we campaigned for the Siberian Seven, launched Stop the Traffik, and got behind the initial licensing of Premier Radio. There, innovative ideas were forged. Faith was strengthened. Authentic hope was replenished. Laughter and tears were shared. Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. God is not only a festival-goer, but a festival organiser too, as the Hebrew feasts and festivals amply demonstrate. Those people of God, so gifted at sliding into amnesia and forgetting their story and purpose, were summoned together frequently and inconveniently, to help them to recall what was most important.
Of course, there are some of the bah humbug type who insist that all this event-going is a waste of time, that we should concentrate our efforts on the coalface of our own localities. I utterly disagree. Events like Spring Harvest, One and Soul Survivor can be far more than high-energy kneesups that distract us from our purpose, but can effectively equip us to fulfil our purpose with fresh determination and energy.
I still don’t like sleeping bags or soggy groundsheets. And those chalets were not quite like those inhabited by the rich and famous on the snow-white hillsides of Switzerland. But tents and chalets have been major stop-offs in my Christian hike so far, and I’m glad.