Hart: “Contemporary Worship” Is The Triumph Of Summer Youth Camp

In fact, what stands out about [Praise and Worship approaches to public worship] is the aura of teenage piety. Anyone who has endured a week at one of the evangelical summer youth camps that dot the landscape will be struck by the similarity between P&W and the services in which adolescents participate while out of their parents’ hair. The parallels are so close that one is tempted to call P&W the liturgy of the youth rally. For in the meetings of Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ, or Bible camp are all the elements of P&W: the evangelical choruses, the skit, and the long talk by the youthful speaker calling for dedication and commitment to Christ. While these youth ministries are effective in evoking the mountain-top or campfire-side experience, they rarely provide the sustenance upon which a life of sacrifice and discipline depends. Yet, P&W is attractive precisely because it appears to offer weekly the spiritual recharge which before came only once a year. Consequently, many megachurches which follow the P&W format thrive because they help many people recover or sustain the religious experience of youth.

D. G. Hart, “Evangelicals on the Durham Trail,” Calvin Theological Journal 30.2 (1995)

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  1. For those trying to imagine what exactly is being described; see this view of what is now mainstream even in the NAPARC universe. It’s no longer predominantly the domain of the par-church and it’s not just the PCA that practices it. This is from the yearly middle school summer camp of the ARPC in June 2019.

  2. Interesting analysis. Seeing that DGH finds a historical reference point (or, better, exemplar) for contemporary worship in summer youth camps prompted me to wonder if another possible place to look is in meetings of Christians on college campuses. Perhaps the former is the parent to the latter? Question: any indication that DGH sees contemporary worship as a symptom of what Sasse calls “perpetual adolescence” in the church?

  3. Yeah, but that was written then (nearly 25 years ago) and this is now, the age of youth fleeing the church – or so say the polsters – in record numbers. Plus, IIRC, the big proponents of P&W style services were initially the Boomers, not those who were youth-camp-age in the mid-90’s (X-er’s and early Millennials). I’m sure the youth camp indoctrination zeroed in on the Boomers with great success, but has the bottom fallen out of that paradigm over the past couple of decades?

    • Seems to be a misinterpretation of Paul saying we must be all things to all men. I found a misguided zeal for the lost as the impetus for such new methods, maybe mingled with desire to reverse dwindling numbers amongst the future of the church, the youth. Rather than taking the hard path of explaining to them the biblical warrant and value to adhering to the biblical patterns, and doing so with zeal to seek to pass on what is true to the next generation, they seek the easier path of following what works quicker on the superficial level.

  4. If the goal is a lifelong personal relationship with Christ I wonder why meeting youth where they are at in order to bring them to a knowledge of the saving love of Christ is so wrong. Hart makes two assumptions in his brief statement: First he says,

    “While these youth ministries are effective in evoking the mountain-top or campfire-side experience, they rarely provide the sustenance upon which a life of sacrifice and discipline depends.”

    Two points, one, I seriously doubt that any single week experience will provide such sustenance. Two, what is the basis for such a statement at all? Is there data indicating that youth attending a more traditional liturgical camp are more pious or walk closer with Christ than those attending the more contemporary camps?

    Next he says,

    “….many megachurches which follow the P&W format thrive because they help many people recover or sustain the religious experience of youth.”

    So much could be said about this, but in general, what is so wrong with recovering or sustaining a religious experience of youth? I have fond memories of VBC when I was a child that still evoke smiles when I think back on them some 50 years ago.

    I understand the negative connotations associated with the “search for religious experience” in the strict sense, but when the experience is Christ, it is not simply a religious experience, it is Christianity.

    Let’s not place ourselves in the position of judge and jury for the entire evangelical world. As parents we are charged by God with raising up our children and the children of our congregations using Biblical principles with the goal of guiding them toward a close personal relationship with Christ upon which we hope they will continue to grow. Spiritual growth is a journey, not a destination, and as long as the means are appropriate, modest, and above all Biblical, some latitude in the liturgical format of youth camps can be beneficial.

    • Jerry,

      I’m not sure if you followed the link through to the original article but Darryl’s point is that the youth-camp culture—-we might call it the youth revival culture—became, under the reign of the Baby Boomers, the culture of the evangelical church.

      To be sure, from a confessional Reformed perspective, there are problems with the youth revival culture, with revival cultures of all sorts but to make that the pattern for public worship in the church has infantilized the evangelical church (and too many Reformed churches).

      The Reformed churches did not have a revival culture until Modernity, when they became infected with what I called the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). Ours was a means of grace piety, where we baptized our children, catechized them, prayed with and for them, took them to church, and trusted the Lord to do his work.

      Sure, summer camps are fun and done well they are beneficial but in the evangelical-revival culture, these camps are assigned the job of doing the work of the Holy Spirit: bringing our children to Christ. They do this through emotional manipulation designed to get “a decision.” This all comes not from Scripture and certainly not from the Reformed confessions but from Charles Finney.

      So, caring for our youth is one thing but transferring the Finney-inspired youth revival culture to public worship has been a disaster for the Modern church.

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