There was a strong response to Laura Graham’s post last week about running an ‘all-in’ church camp, and several readers asked for follow-up report on how it went. Here’s a brief retrospective interview.

TGCA: Laura, last week you told us about how your church was about to try to run an all-ages camp without a separate kids program. This post generated a lot of interest and several people asked if you would give us an update on how it went. So … how did it go?

My short answer is that camp was a blast! We rattled around, we laughed, we learned, we ate and we hung out. Rory challenged us about what it means to call the same God ‘Father’, resulting in this feedback: ‘I know you guys always talk about us being family but it was good to hear someone else agree, and show us why’. In free-time, kids and grownups hurled two year olds down black tarps, made slick with water and dishwashing liquid from the local servo. A woman from Columbia, who moved to Darwin to learn English only a few weeks ago, bested a bunch of smack-talking tween boys in her first ever game of Carcassonne. I can think of many similar examples of why camp was special; stories which show the ‘church as family’ principle lived out in our people. And yet, this question is harder to answer than I expected.

My short answer is that camp was a blast! We rattled around, we laughed, we learned, we ate and we hung out.

Joshua, the rector at St Pete’s, is always talking about principles vs. practice: the need for theologically determined principles which may be outworked a number of different ways. When it comes to reviewing camp, it can be difficult to keep the principle separate from the practice. If something didn’t work the way we expected, is it a problem with how we did it, or does it go even deeper, to the why of it all?

I’m still convinced that being a family means we need to spend time together, and that includes what happens at the heart of our meetings, when we meet around God’s word. We’re just getting started with figuring out the best way to do it, and lots of my reflections are about that—practice. Practice to one day make perfect? We’ll see!

TGCA: Were there things that surprised you (good or bad)?

It should be obvious, but the practice of ‘all-in church’ doesn’t indicate, by itself, any commitment to church-as-family or convictions about intergenerational ministry. That is, people can do ‘all-in church’ for any number of reasons. So too, just because you’ve decided that kids will be better loved by being ‘all-in’ doesn’t mean the kids themselves agree! Whenever I had push back, I asked the kids why they wanted to go back to a separate program, and it was usually about having more fun or freedom. Is this a case of kids needing vegetables but always choosing lollies if they’re offered or didn’t we make the vegetables taste good enough? I’m still working that out.

TGCA: Did the experience bring any new light of experience to the theological reflection (that church should be for everyone together)?

Though only one of the talks was specifically about church community, the ramifications of the cross kept pushing us to see ourselves as family members, not individuals. We saw this in the Lord’s Supper, as we reflected on those with whom we shared the meal, as well as the Saviour who made it possible. We saw that there is a way to ‘do church’ well, from Hebrews 10, as we exhort each other to remember that the blood of Jesus has truly washed away our sin.

The ramifications of the cross kept pushing us to see ourselves as family members, not individuals. We saw that there is a way to ‘do church’ well as we exhort each other to remember that the blood of Jesus has truly washed away our sin.

One of the most profound moments of camp almost didn’t happen. In the middle of Rory’s talk on shame, and how our shame is dealt with at the cross, we paused to let everyone write down something they felt guilty about. We set up a rubbish bin, about 20 metres from the session hall, and everyone ripped up their shame slips and threw the pieces away, because that is the reality of having been washed clean by Jesus. A total fire ban scuppered our more dramatic plans for how to destroy the slips, but it didn’t matter. There was something incredibly profound about filing out to the bin, and seeing others file out too. Young and old, singles, groups, a child with an adult, we all had guilt to throw off and freedom in Christ to claim. When I got out there, 2 infants kids were peering into the bin. A wooden cross leaned crookedly nearby, as one pointed to all the shredded paper and explained to the other about the forgiveness found in Jesus.

I love that kids saw adults wrestling with their sin and rejoicing in Christ’s pardon, and vice versa. We are not so different, any of us, despite our best protests. We all need our burdens removed at the cross, and we all need reminding that they have been.

TGCA: Are there things you would do differently next time?

Yes! I want to think through learning aids for kids apart from worksheets, see if we can love our crèche parents better, and have a go at all-age discussion groups (and maybe orderlies!). One of the most successful intergenerational ministry moments was our creative response time, in the middle of the session on fear. I was so encouraged by how people picked a medium to reflect with and then chatted while they worked, about their fears and Christ having overcome them. I’d like to encourage more of this interaction, because it’s one thing to share the same room as each other and quite another to share ourselves. 

TGCA: Do you have plans to try new things in your weekly services as a result of the weekend?

We have an ongoing commitment to church-as-family at St Pete’s, but it also makes sense to learn in age-appropriate ways most of the time. We want to start from a place of being together, and work out what we need to do separately. This means the kids begin and end in church, despite the messiness of exits and entrances and service timings and noise. It means we play with service templates in the holidays, when there’s no separate kids program, in an effort to keep making church a place for everyone. Camp has particularly emboldened me to keep working out ways to do reflection and response in an ‘all-in’ environment.

We have more questions at the end of camp than answers, and certainly more than we did at the beginning. But if you’re thinking about trying some of this church-as-family stuff, let me encourage you. You already are family, in Christ. Figuring out what that looks like is going to be messy, and you’ll make mistakes, but that’s ok. Families forgive each other, and they keep showing up for each other. Families built around Jesus keep showing up because of him, our brother and great high priest.