The Church as a Camp Fire

Any mention of “boiling the billy” quickly recalls the image of the camp fire, of the drovers and their dogs, of great herds of cattle toiling along the endless stock routes of the inland, of an era which is almost past.

See the curling smoke drifting carelessly skyward into the orange glow of another day past; watch weary riders gathering for warmth; listen to the yams and songs exchanged in the fire light; feel the embrace of the thickening darkness. This is the resting point along the way. It is the time for camaraderie and mateship, for tending to the cuts and bruises, for engaging the vulnerability which blossoms through a challenge shared, a loneliness conquered, a hard day’s work completed.

The camp fire is one of the enduring pictures in Aussie folklore. It is replicated a thousand times over when campers, bush walkers, back packers and trail bike riders gather at the beach or in the mountains. The fire retains its bonding ability: it still unites; it still invites its watchers to tell their stories and sing their songs; it still creates that levelling community experience where strangers are accepted and pretence disappears; it still produces that deep intimacy with nature.

The genius of the camp fire is its simplicity, its absence of the need for infrastructure. All it takes is some twigs, a spark and a sheltered spot. No more, no less. No wonder indigenous Australians sought the warmth, the light and the security of their fires for thousands of years. And this precious tradition produces a matter for serious consideration: should not the local church be the “camp fire” in contemporary Australia’s journey towards meaning and direction? So much of the fabric of the camp fire image is central to the life of the local church. The church is:

  • The resting place along the way
  • The gathering place for fellow travellers
  • The provision of light in the darkness
  • The offering of warmth as a protection against the cool winds of circumstance
  • The forum for sharing the stories, singing the songs, engaging the heart
  • The preparation place for another day’s sojourn on the road of life
  • The conscious embrace of a sacred place

So how does the congregation light the fire to become a recognisable, safe refuge for the bruised and broken, the cynic and the sinner, the casual wanderer and the deliberately driven?

How does it become a natural gathering place to provide fellowship and enhance community? It ought not to be a quantum leap given that our Founder was adept at meeting people on their own turf, loved telling stories in the great outdoors, preached from a boat at the beach and met with ancient prophets on a mountain top. The common folks sought Him out and heard Him gladly.

The congregation-to-camp-fire paradigm shift requires a revisiting of the style of Jesus. In an age of loneliness, struggle and trauma for so many it is possible that we have either let the fire go out or we have put a huge hedge around it to keep out the very people for whom it was lit in the first place. Either way we are missing out on a great opportunity.

A few quick suggestions:

Let’s make sure that we are people of a warmth – A warmth which is directed both inwards and outwards. Too often we are anything but warm. Strangers are left on the outer; empathy is saved for those whom we know; gaps in fellowship spring open with those who think and function differently from us.

Let’s be much more intentional in the building of community – We think that a collection of individuals in the same place is the same as community. It is not even close. It is not fellowship. Without honesty, vulnerability and good old-fashioned love, we cannot hope for the church to have even minimum attraction for the lonely and the dispossessed.

Let’s tell our stories – The power of the shared story is immense. But the telling of it requires rare courage if it is to be real and helpful. We talk too much about our successes instead of our heart wrenching failures and disappointments. Our bias for the triumphant falls on ears which are already deafened by the reverses of life.

Let’s sing our songs – It’s time to celebrate a little bit more than we do.    Time to loosen up and let it hang out.  Luke tells us that Jesus was possessed by joy. Are we? Or are we the serious crowd who have forgotten how to praise our Maker?

Let’s try to live a little more simply in our church life – Have we, in our busyness and our commitment to our friends and programs, made it increasingly harder to make room for others? Church all too easily becomes just another busy routine. There is no space left to absorb new people into our networks. Cluttered lives lack the potential for truly enjoying others spontaneously.

The call for the church to be a camp fire is simply the call to be like Jesus – The abject lack of interest in the church by so many Aussies has been telling us something crucial for a long time.

But we have pressed on steadily with few changes and very little listening to the heart beat of our fellow Aussie travellers. Rather we have contained the warmth, hidden the light and forced the genuine seekers for community into other paths and places. In so doing we have moved away from the tracks where the weary and the lost try to find their way.

Does anybody have a match? It’s a bit cold around here.

Rev John Simpson