A few times each summer, my dad would disappear for a week at a time. My brothers and I would ask where he was, and Mom would tell us that he was at Jr. High Workshop. Or Sr. High Workshop. Or ACS. Things like that. By the time I was finally old enough to go to a Jr. High Workshop, it had been joined with Sr. High Workshop and repackaged as Summer Breakaway.
I was excited, because I was going to be rooming with a former neighbor and good friend in one of Louisburg College's pre-renovation dorms. I knew that it was a church camp, but certainly wasn't expecting a revelation about my faith. That summer, I didn't get one either. My roommate, Damon, and I made a few friends and with them we stayed up late, ate Pixie Sticks on the fire escape, made pyramids out of soda cans, and argued about which of the Sr. High girls was the hottest. These are the things I remember about my first Summer Breakaway. Nothing Jesus-y here, move along.
During that first summer, though, I did meet a guy named Heath Gilbert. Heath was one of the younger staff members and therefore automatically one of the coolest, in our estimation.
When Damon and I returned a year later for our second Summer Breakaway, we were pretty Stoked to find that Heath was the staff member in charge of my dorm group. Dorm groups are the end-of-the day meetings that serve the dual purpose of assuring someone adult that the youth they're responsible for have made it back to their assigned dorm in one piece and helping those same youth digest the day's happenings if they so need it.
I don't remember many dorm groups, but I remember this one. Heath opened our first meeting with the question "So who are the hot girls this week?" It seemed strange that we were being encouraged to have the same debate we had assumed we shouldn't have been having a year earlier. So there we were, joking and laughing. The weird thing was that, when the discussion turned to more serious topics having to do with faith, the tone in the room didn't change. Heath went out of his way to see to that.
It was the first time in my young life that I'd seen the room get Jesus-y without also having to get serious. Even my home youth group, as led by my dad, couldn't have a faith discussion without all of the air being sucked out of the room(this was most likely in spite of Dad's efforts, but who's going to tell a seventh-grader that about his father?). We could talk about things, ask questions, and get serious...and we didn't have to stop laughing for any of it.
I consider this the first great lesson about Christianity that I learned. To this day, if you ask me to name someone with a profound effect on my life(particularly if you ask in the context of my spiritual walk), I'll probably tell you about Heath Gilbert. That summer was the point where the things I believe stopped being the right answer in Sunday School and started being the things I believe. I firmly believe that Heath jump-started that for me.
The door was opened once I understood that faith could come with a sense of humor. It doesn't have to be solemn to the point that it feels like mourning. It shouldn't be treated like a burden. You're allowed to have fun. Knowing my parents, it's a lesson that I would have learned eventually anyway; but it would have taken much longer for me to accept that lesson from my parents than it was for me to accept it from a hip twenty-something.
When I go back to those events now as a staff member, I always tell myself that my goal is to be Heath Gilbert for one of those kids over the course of the week. Every now and then, I get a little confirmation from some corner of the universe that I just might have achieved that.
At every ACS, I do two "interest groups" that are mostly just an hour-and-a-half of general nonsense and fun with the youth who have dared to sign up for it. In order to justify the existence of this group, which I call "Laughing in Church," I have to Jesus up the last 5 minutes. I hit them with a line I stole from Lewis Black, "Faith without a sense of humor is the most dangerous thing in the world."
The Church is losing its sense of humor. It has no idea how ridiculous its members who demand that evolution be referred to as "The Scientific Theory of Evolution" so that the kids who have been trained to be mistrustful of science can immediately ignore that segment of class and daydream about The Rapture.
The only way I can think of to combat this is to try to be Heath Gilbert for as many youth as I possibly can.