Today, I filled out the required final report for ACMNP. Here is part of it.
Please understand that none of this is meant in disrespect. I have arrived at these thoughts after careful consideration and reflection on my summer in Olympic.
We were not prepared at all for our experience at Olympic for a variety of reasons, the conference itself being perhaps the biggest one. The first issue I noticed with the conference was the redundancy of the small group meetings and the large seminars. I went to four small group meetings, and three of them were repeated during the main seminar. What was the point of going to the small group meeting if I was going to hear literally the exact same thing a few hours later? I gladly would have gone to one of the other three meetings if I had known I would have gotten the same presentation in a different setting.
The biggest issue with the conference is the fact that it focuses on the wrong things (at least in the seminars I attended). We learned a lot about how to construct our services and our sermons. We learned how to market the program. We learned that park life was going to be hard, and that we would be dealing with a lot of hostility, but that our summer would be great overall. We learned environmental stewardship, and how to work with the parks and concessionaires, and how to ensure our safety in the parks.
We did not learn how to confront evil head-on. We did not learn how to broach the concept of a higher power, let alone the Gospel of Christ, to a group of people who are openly—almost proudly—hostile of religion, especially Christianity. We did not learn how to cope with being alone in our faith amid a culture of debauchery. We learned a lot of surface-level skills, but were ill-equipped for the actual groundwork we were sent to do.
The result was a program that felt like an afterthought. Granted, my team’s schedules were totally opposite of each others’; I worked early mornings, Mal worked late nights, Anna worked at random times, and Jen worked 12 hours a day an hour away. As the season progressed, we were unable to have meetings during the week, resorting to meeting an hour before the service started just to practice our songs and say a quick prayer. Still, the lack of knowledge about the important things hindered our development as a team and deeply inhibited our mission.
I could tell the living environment wore on my team members. It wore on me, and I have a high tolerance for that sort of thing. We were weary of our coworkers, of our workplaces, and of the constant feeling of failure that followed us wherever we went; that sense of failure was the predominant reason we lost focus at the end. At the beginning of the season, I tried to talk to others about God. I invited many people to our services. I tried week after week, and achieved nothing. The two people who did come consistently only came because they were our best friends, not because they particularly cared to hear the Gospel. Again, if we had been prepared for this level of apathy, we may not have failed as much as we did, but we were not prepared, and so we failed.
A good friend of mine at the park who’s worked in parks for years said that the housing at Olympic is some of the worst he’s ever seen. The nightly parties, disregard for rules, and general lethargy are poisonous to anyone, let alone a group that is trying in earnest to live in the complete opposite way. Another coworker, one who’s worked at Olympic before, told us that Olympic workers tend to see the ministry team as outsiders at best, and crazy, unlikable weirdos at worst. According to him, they liked us this year because we didn’t seem to look down on them for their behavior.
That is a good thing, and should be celebrated. But what good is it to be comfortable around our friends and coworkers if we have no idea how to talk with them about faith? I study theology independently and voraciously. I have a good understanding of others, especially when it comes to uncovering why they feel the way they do or believe the things they believe. I have above-average communication and rhetorical skills. On paper, I am well-equipped to approach people from all walks of life. In practice, this proved extremely difficult.
If I couldn’t do it, why should we expect others to be able to? I don’t say that to belittle my brothers and sisters in the program. However, from conversations I had at the conference, I surmised that few of the participants were, for example, ready to deal with arguments from well-practiced atheists. We cannot allow participants to enter this program with a shallow faith. If one’s faith is rooted solely in the fact that they grew up with it, or if it’s something that simply makes them feel good, they are in great danger of pushing others away or of losing it entirely (one of my team members has seen AMCNP members fall away from the faith during two different seasons).
The conference requires major reform. There must be less redundancy. More effort must be placed on relational ministry, particularly regarding conversations with anti-theists. Uncomfortable conversations about the reality of park life, especially the rampant immorality, need to be had. There needs to be more intellectual formation (perhaps a reading list?). Young people today are hyper-skeptical. Describing the feelings you get when you pray does not work to convince anyone, however legitimate those feelings might be. If participants are not prepared to defend their faith against an onslaught of opposition, how can they be expected to carry out the Great Commission in any meaningful way?
Participants should also be provided with prayer schedules. It’s tough to pray when your work schedule changes, or when you feel spiritually lost. A schedule would help to alleviate some of these difficulties. The Liturgy of the Hours would be a good model (in a nutshell, the Liturgy involves praying the Psalms every day at certain time). More guidelines should be provided to effectively interpret and use the Lion’s Lead test. It’s a useful test, but only if we know what to do with the information. We had some idea, but having conversations about our strengths and weaknesses proved more difficult than they could have been with proper guidance.
I do not say all of this to disparage ACMNP. I did have a great summer. I see enormous potential in the ministry, even at Olympic. But major change must happen. We must be prepared for the reality of park life. Comments here and there about how dark life is in employee housing don’t cut it. We need real examples of the evil we are about to approach. It may scare some people off, but the ministry will be richer for it.