The Liturgy of Young Life Camp

My wife and I returned yesterday from a week as adult guests at Malibu, a Young Life camp on the coast of British Columbia. We were there while high school campers were there, and so we were able to experience camp from two angles: we did the same things that the campers did, but we were also able to look behind the scenes a bit to see why a week at camp is organized the way it is.

Malibu in the morning
Malibu in the morning
That was one of the more fascinating and eye-opening parts of camp for me. It is obvious that the camp speaker walks through a progression of topics throughout the week, from the character of God to the cross and resurrection. But less obvious was the fact that various activities were planned to happen on specific days so they would have a particular impact. The ultimate goal was that by the end of the week, each camper would be confronted with who Jesus is and challenged to personally respond to him.

I began to see the week as a liturgy of sorts. Some people, even many Christians, don’t like the word “liturgy” because it reminds them of ritualism, of dead religion, of going through the motions. But James K.A. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, defines liturgies as “rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations.” He goes on to say:

Square dancin'
Square dancin’

Liturgies are the most loaded forms of ritual practice because they are after nothing less than our hearts. They want to determine what we love ultimately. By ultimately I mean what we love “above all,” that to which we pledge allegiance, that to which we are devoted in a way that overrules other concerns and interests. Our ultimate love is what defines us, what makes us the kind of people we are. In short, it is what we worship.

Liturgies are not just what you experience at church. They are everywhere: Smith gives the examples of the shopping mall, freshman orientation at a university, and football games. They all communicate a message—not just by using words, but by fostering practices, creating rhythms, and feeding desires—about what is ultimately important. They all serve a particular vision of human flourishing, and they all lead to a form of worship. Too often, their version of worship and human flourishing is destructive.

In this way, a week at a Young Life camp is liturgical counter-formation. Through a series of rituals—music, singing, games, organized activities, even blowing horns before meals—it teaches campers to love something, and to worship someone, other than what they are taught to love and worship every other day of their lives when they go to school, the mall, sporting events, and the movies. Bob Dylan wrote a song called “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” With apologies to him, I’d also say “you gotta be shaped by somethin’.” You’re always being shaped, consciously or not, by a set of cultural forces and practices. It’s the genius of a Young Life camp to put that shaping power in the service of the good news of Jesus.

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Tell a Story that Captures Hearts: A Review

Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a projected trilogy by James K.A. Smith called Cultural Liturgies. In the first book, Desiring the Kingdom (which I have not read, but Smith gets the reader up to speed in the early parts of this book), Smith argued that humans are primarily shaped more by the imagination than the intellect. It is the stories we inhabit, and not so much the arguments we believe, that give our lives purpose. In other words, “we don’t think our way through to action; much of our action is not the outcome of rational deliberation and conscious choice. Much of our action is not ‘pushed’ by ideas or conclusions; rather, it grows out of our character and is in a sense ‘pulled’ out of us by our attraction to a telos [end or goal].” We are shaped by the liturgies that tell attractive (not attractive in the sense of “pleasant,” but rather, “resonant”) stories and fuel our imaginations, whether those liturgies are secular or religious: “Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves…. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week … without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols (Jer. 7:18).”

In this book, Smith looks specifically at what that insight means for the practices of worship and Christian education. The book comes in two parts. In part 1, the theoretical part of the book, Smith walks the reader through expositions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, asking what their theoretical models of how we are formed might mean for how we worship. In part 2, the practical part, Smith talks explicitly about how the theory discussed in part 1 reframes Christian formation and gives a fresh understanding of how worship works.

Smith intentionally pitches this book to be accessible to both worship practitioners and the academy, meaning that one audience will think there are too many footnotes, and the other will think there are not enough.

It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking (as well as, it is hoped, practice-provoking) read. Throughout, Smith attempts to practice what he preaches by telling his readers stories that enable them to imagine what he is talking about. One of my favorites comes early in the book, when he talks about the disconnect between thought and action he experienced when he was reading (and approving) the agrarian writer Wendell Berry while sitting in a Costco.

But since the ultimate goal of the book is the renewal of practice, I was hoping for a bit more in part 2. How can this formation take place? What are some habits of worship that can be used to re-orient us? If we are shaped by stories, I wanted Smith to tell stories about how it has been done in a few communities. Smith points, for example, to the importance of the arts for the church, but by the end of the book I was not quite sure exactly what he meant: painting during a worship service? Liturgical dance? Preach stories instead of sermons? Although I deeply resonated with the argument of Imagining the Kingdom, I think there is a danger—like reading Wendell Berry in Costco—of reading, agreeing, and yet not having the map to get to the place Smith is pointing us to. Perhaps Smith plans on doing more of this in volume three.

Note: Thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.