Coming Down from the Mountain
Camp season is upon us, which means tens of thousands of students across the country will leave their homes for a week to immerse themselves in Christian community, worship, and studying God's Word. Invariably, the majority of these students will arrive home seeking passionate worship, devoting time to study Scripture, desiring fellowship with other believers, establishing accountability partners, telling others about Jesus, and longing to grow in their relationships with Christ. Unfortunately, within weeks the inevitable strain of life's drama and challenges usually dampens their vigorous pursuit of Christlikeness. The passion for Christ shared by tens of thousands of students often takes a long hiatus in the fall, eagerly longing for the next event for a fresh renewal. This roller coaster of a Christian life, highlighted by "mountaintop experiences" and "spiritual highs" periodically dispersed in an otherwise stagnant faith, do not have to be the norm for Christians. In fact, nowhere in Scripture is a Christian's growth solely propelled by the emotions of mountaintop experiences. These emotions are good, but meaningless if not used when in the valley.
In Matthew 17, Jesus takes a few of His disciples on a literal mountaintop experience. Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus to the top of a mountain, where He is transfigured before their eyes. His average form and appearance gave way to a radiant display of glory. Any doubts those disciples had were washed away in His display of immeasurable beauty. A human face began to shine like the sun. Ordinary clothes became whiter than physically possible, adorning the Savior like beams of light. Peter, James, and John encountered Christ in the fullness of His glory on that mountaintop. Often, at camps, retreats, and other events, students encounter Christ on a deeper level than they have before. All doubts fade away as they encounter the love of God made manifest through Christ in a meaningful way.
In response to this experience, Peter declared his intention to remain on the mountain. Whenever students encounter Christ at a camp full of emotion, in which they are temporarily removed from the real world to foster growth, the desire is often to remain at the camp. Tears flow down the faces of students on the final night of camp as they realize they must soon face reality with all its struggles and pains, forced to fight to pursue Christ once removed from an environment conducive to spiritual growth. Because camps are often accompanied by heightened positive emotions, students long to keep the feelings alive by staying at camp.
However, Christ did not bring these disciples to the mountain so they could stay there. He did not reveal Himself in a spectacular display of glory so the disciples could permanently bask in it. Even as Peter asked to set up residence, Jesus understood their experience on the mountaintop would soon reach its conclusion. The futility of Peter’s inquiry was revealed when he was interrupted by God, who audibly identified Jesus as His son and demanded obedience. The purpose of the encounter was not to create an atmosphere in which they would remain, but to provide the three disciples an experience with the glorified Christ that would radically affect their lives. The mountaintop experience occurred to lift up the name of Jesus in a way that would impact the future actions of the disciples. The disciples were not made for mountaintop experiences; rather, the mountaintop experience was made to strengthen the disciples for the valleys.
Camps do not exist to carry students through their walk with Christ, jumping from one camp experience to the next—the sum total of their personal relationships with God stuck manifesting one week out of every 52. Camps do not exist to create a “spiritual high” strong enough to hold students over until the next event. Camps, much like the disciples’ mountaintop experience, exist to provide students an encounter with Christ that will dramatically affect their lives once reintroduced to reality.
Immediately following the decent from the mountain, the disciples encountered a harrowing situation. After an indescribable spiritual experience, the three selected disciples were thrust back into the drama and pain of life. A parent brought his demon-possessed child to the other disciples, who were unable to cast the demon out. It is difficult to find a more miserable situation than the one described in the passage—one in which a father is forced to watch a demon attempt to murder his child for years by throwing him into fire and water, completely helpless and incapable of rescuing the boy. Moreover, upon finding disciples who had previously cast out demons across the country, he brought his child to them in a desperate attempt to save his life, only to find them equally incapable of resolving the situation.
It was for these circumstances that Christ was transfigured on that mountaintop. On that summit, Christ equipped them to enter a broken world with faith in Christ’s ability to ultimately solve its problems. He was glorified to them so they could have the necessary faith to do the work Christ set apart for them to do. These three disciples became stalwarts in the early days of the Church, passionately leading the Body of Christ with this experience permanently etched in their minds.
Student ministries load up buses, book speakers, bring in worship bands, pack U-Hauls, train leaders, rent campgrounds, and make all other necessary preparations so students can have an incredible experience with the risen Savior at camp. However, they should not do so narrowly focused on the enjoyable experiences of a single week. Rather, student ministries should view camps as a launching point—a week in which students are realigned and reinvigorated to share Christ with the world, perfectly equipped to enter the drama and pain of life with their focus on the One who died to make them whole. Speakers and leaders should teach with the other 51 weeks of the year in mind, providing the students with the tools to remain strong and passionate in their faith after coming down from the mountain without crashing or needed another event in the future. Christians were not designed for a roller coaster faith, so camps should be designed as steps in a ladder, not shots of spiritual adrenaline ultimately resulting in a crash. Let us train students to enter the world after a mountaintop experience, with faith and resolve in their walks with Christ, ready to encounter life’s difficulties, with a personal encounter with the love of God made manifest in Christ permanently etched in their minds.