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The Problem with Bible Camp “Cry Nights”

April 5, 2022

Imagine this:

You’re 15 years old. It’s the last night of camp. Tomorrow you go home. Back to the mundane. Back to school. Back to normal life with all its baggage. 

You’ve been looking forward to tonight all week because you’ve been to camp before and you know tonight is going to be amazing. The last night of camp always is. There’s going to be a dance party where that one quiet kid will impress everyone with their shockingly good dance skills. You’ve still got a few dollars left at the camp store so you can splurge on all the snacks you want. And if you’re lucky, you might even get some alone time with your Camp Crush to, y’know, hold hands or something. 

But before you get to any of that, there’s one other thing required on the last night of camp:

You have to cry. 

Everything for the entire time you’ve been there has been leading up to the final night – the one where all the tension the speaker has been building is finally released and you (re)dedicate your life to Jesus while crying and hugging your friends. You repent of all the things you’ve been doing and apologize to the friend you’ve fallen out with. 

If you’re Pentecostal – well, there might be some other things involved too. 

The Cry Night is a rite of passage at youth group camp. Every retreat, camp, or getaway has it. I’ve led camps and retreats with incredible Cry Nights that led to true life change. While I’m (slightly) making fun of the Cry Night, I totally understand the need for them and their importance when we’re kids. 

Cry Nights – and church camp in general – are based around the idea of separating us from our normal life, introducing us to a problem we face, building tension around it, and then resolving that tension in an emotionally overloaded atmosphere. It’s a proven formula that has worked across generations and in all styles of church.

Cry Nights work.

But they also have the ability to set up unrealistic expectations in our walk with Jesus. 

For all their effectiveness, Cry Nights introduce us to the idea of a Mountaintop Jesus experience. They make us think we can only experience Jesus after we’ve taken the time to hike up a giant mountain because Mountaintop Jesus doesn’t live in the valleys of life, only on the peaks.

When we seek after Mountaintop Jesus, no longer is our faith a daily, sometimes mundane long marathon of small decisions to say yes to whatever God invites us to next. Instead, our life becomes a constant hike chasing waterfalls and mountaintop experiences. 

Eventually, when all you’re doing is hiking, you’re going to wear out. You’ll lose your energy and give up. No one can have the endurance to hike the mountain every. single. day to spend time with Mountaintop Jesus.

When all of our big decisions to follow Jesus are based on emotional responses to inflated problems, we start to think that’s what a normal walk with Jesus looks like.

One of my favorite quotes from Paul comes in 1 Corinthians 13:11 when he tells the Corinthians church “when I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” I think about that verse a lot. My walk with Jesus as a 34-year-old husband, dad, and business owner is totally different than the one I had at 23-years-old when I was an intern fresh out of seminary. That 23-year-old’s walk was completely different than 16-year-old Jonathan in a small conservative church with way too many old people.

Our relationship with Jesus changes as we mature – both in life and in our faith.

As adults, we have to stop chasing the waterfalls on the way to Mountaintop Jesus and settle into a daily walk through the garden with the real and true Jesus. The one who says his yoke is easy. The one who invites us to follow him.

Sure – some days will have hills to climb with the occasional sprint here and there, Jesus promised us there would be – but our daily strolls through the flat lands with Jesus is what prepares us for those hills and valleys. 

We have to learn to find Jesus in the mundane trips to the grocery store, the receptiveness of work, and the everyday boringness of day-to-day life. Those moments are where the beauty lies. To exhaust the metaphor even further, we have to learn to enjoy the stillness of the lake at the bottom of the mountain and not just the rushing waterfalls it took to create that lake.

Real life doesn’t look like an Elevation Worship video where we’re passionately and expressively running after Jesus at full speed. If we chase that high 100% of the time, we’re going to miss out on many of the beauties of a life long relationship with Jesus. 

We’re adults now. It’s time for our relationships with Jesus to settle in to the daily stillness of a lifelong journey, not the adrenaline soaked hike up the mountain.

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