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Changed For Good

Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”

A friend of mine challenged me a while back to join her in writing in a journal every day for 12 weeks. It was semi-structured. She gave me a list of questions, one for each of the 84 days, but I could do them in any order I wanted. Some were easy; some required lots of thought; some were fun and others I hated. But only one of the 84 truly stumped me. I’m wondering if it’s just me, or if you can relate. Ready? Here’s the question.

When was the last time your changed your thoughts or beliefs about a significant issue? In my head, I ran through some of my core beliefs: faith, politics, social issues… nothing there. I’ve been pretty firm in those for a long time. What about more personal things, like priorities about how to spend my time and money? Even there, my beliefs are pretty unchanged, though how I live out those beliefs changes as my life/work/family change.

Is it really true that I’m only 37, and I can’t think of the last time I changed my mind about something significant? And is that a good thing, representing stability and clarity around my values? Or is it a sign that I have a closed mind and rigid thinking? I don’t know, but it unnerved me. So much so, that I’m not even going to ask you to raise your hands and admit if you have a similar experience. But we all know that once we become adults, it is easy for us to get stuck in our ways.

As I reflected further on this experience, I realized I had only been considering the kind of dramatic, immediate change that social scientists call revolutionary change. Once the change happens, we can’t go back. We are transformed. But we also experience evolutionary change. It happens bit by bit, slowly over time, so that the change can be paused, stopped, or reversed along the way.

Our Scripture reading this morning is an example of revolutionary change. Typically we read this story on Transfiguration Sunday. Jesus is changed, visibly and dramatically. But something interesting happens – the visible change wears off. As they go down the mountain, Jesus looks the same as when he went up. The disciples know what they saw on the mountain, but they can’t see it anymore. And yet, in their minds, those disciples can never un-see what happened on that mountain. So if we take a second look at this story, who is really transformed permanently? Not Jesus, but rather the three disciples who are with him.

But are they really changed for good? I mean, Jesus no longer shines like the sun, they built no shrines to return to, only three of the 12 disciples were there, and Jesus tells them not to talk about it. The danger here is that the disciples really might forget what happened. They might not be transformed as permanently as we first think.

So how do we know for ourselves whether we have been changed temporarily, or for good? Life gives us these spectacular, mountain-top, transforming moments, and in that moment, we feel like we will never be the same. We are changed forever. But then we go down the mountain, we tell no one what we’ve seen, we get back into our routine, and it turns out the dramatic change can fade over time.

Those of us who work for Christian summer camps have been using this Scripture for years to talk about how retreats and camps are mountain top experiences that change our lives forever. And we have a zillion stories and pictures of how lives are changed – at camp. But we’ve always had this little voice in the back of our heads. You know the voice. The one that says, “Maybe you’re not really changing lives forever.” It’s the voice of doubt, which is magnified in a culture that demands evidence, and metrics, and proof. Sure the kids were changed the week they were at camp. But did it stick? Were they changed for good, or only for a week?

Two years ago, we finally got the help we needed with the launch of the Effective Camp Research Project. A team of researchers began gathering data to
answer the question “Does camp make a difference?” Now here’s the fun part. Because so little research has been done on camp, any research would be helpful. But our WI UM Camps are so excited about this project. The research wasn’t done at a large Baptist camp in Central Texas. It has been conducted at ELCA Lutheran camps in southwest Wisconsin. The only way this could be more closely related to what we’re doing is if they did the research at Pine Lake and Lake Lucerne.

We are two years into this project; what have we learned so far? Lots, actually. How many of you would like to have more young families and children in church? It turns out, campers who go to camp come home and influence those around them. They have a measurable increase in worship attendance, reading the Bible at home, and praying as a family. The average camper increases their worship attendance after camp, and they bring their family with them. Cool, right?

But like those disciples on the mountain with Jesus, does that change last? Does one week of camp set you up for a lifetime of increased worship attendance? It’d be great if it worked that way, but we know that’s not realistic. Let me dig into this data a little bit for you, because what we found out is pretty cool.

First of all, the researchers uncovered that there are 16 items relating to faith and behavior that change after a week of camp. Some of those items change only temporarily, and three months after camp, the change has disappeared. Other items, however, remain changed three months after camp, or even show continued growth. The research tells a story that camp is, in fact, a mountain top experience that produces both temporary change and permanent change. We can now actually measure and point to the “camp high” or the “magic of camp.”

There are even deeper patterns, however. The researchers took those 16 items and divided them into three categories. First, what they called Vertical Faith. Faith between me and God. It’s about cognitive belief, doctrinal statements, and interest in worship services. Second, what they called Horizontal Faith, or how faith plays out in our lives and relationships. Third, self-confidence, or levels of personal happiness and teamwork.

Campers showed growth during camp in all 16 of these areas. When researchers followed up, however, all of the Vertical Faith components had reverted to pre-camp levels. All of the Horizontal Faith components had remained high, and in some cases, continued to grow. Let’s take a look.

These are the six items that grew at camp, but had returned to pre-camp levels within a few months. It is worth noting that a high percentage of campers believed these things when they arrived, indicating that most of our campers are already Christian. The change was statistically significant but modest, and after camp it reverted but went no lower than prior to camp. This tells us that camp doesn’t really change what a camper believes about God. But hold that thought for a minute.

These are the 10 items that grew at camp and either remained high or even grew several months later. Notice that while camp may not change what a camper believes, it has long-lasting implications for how they live out that faith. For what spiritual practices they engage with. In particular, I want to draw your attention to the fifth bullet point.

Faith in God helps me in my daily life. On the first day of camp, about half of campers believed this. On the last day of camp, not quite 60% of campers agreed. But here’s the best thing. Several months after camp, two thirds of campers believed this! And when people believe their faith has an impact on their daily life, we know they are more likely to keep their faith and stay engaged in the church. In fact the National Study of Youth and Religion, a different research project done by an entirely different group, discovered that youth who attended camp were over 3 times more likely to remain religious five years later than those who did not attend.

The Effective Camp Research Project has now surveyed over 1,000 campers, over 350 parents, and done over a dozen Focus Groups and Interviews. The research is ongoing, but it is already compelling. We can now say with confidence and evidence that although there is a special energy during the camp experience, the faith formation that happens is strong, and real, and long-lasting. I believe that one of the single greatest ways a church can grow, can attract young families, can deepen it’s faith and discipleship is to send young people to camp.

The ministry happening at Pine Lake and Lake Lucerne Camps is real and aligns with everything coming out of this project. These are your camps, and they transforming the lives of those who will be leading our churches and our communities sooner than we know. They leave camp with more than memories; they return home with a longing to participate in Christian community, a desire to use their gifts for the church and the world, and the assurance that faith makes a difference in their lives. Who wouldn’t want that as a vision for our future? Amen and amen.

Sermon by Pastor Sharon Cook