More than a Camp High: Pursuing Emotional Experience for the Glory of God (Part One)

More than a Camp High (Part One): How Student Ministries can Pursue Experiencing God’s Presence in Worship, Without Emotional Manipulation


Our teens don’t just want to know God, they want to experience Him. And they’re not wrong for wanting that. Even though most of my teens do not say it this way, they pray with David a very biblical prayer, “Earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

As faithful youth pastors we must ask ourselves, “What does it mean for us to provide true experiences with God for the sake of our students’ thirsty souls?” If we don’t guide them, they will find counterfeits.

Youth pastors often like to point to the “camp high” as an example of a counterfeit experience – nothing more than emotional calculus. Take the number of students, add the numbers of hours spent outside in the hot sun, to the hours of sleep lost; and multiply all that by the darkness of the room, the volume of the music, and the number of times the chorus was repeated. And voila, X = the presence of God, and every hand raised. But I would argue that we need to be less skeptical of God moving in emotive and experiential ways and more sympathetic to our students’ desire for something felt and subjective.

After all, David looked to the temple of the Lord to “behold God’s power and God’s glory” (63:2).

We’re told that as we approach God in worship there is “fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (16:11). And both Matt Redman and David have said that one day in God’s courts is better than thousands elsewhere (84:10). Scripture is full of experience-desiring worshipers. It is not wrong for our students to look to our youth group and summer camps to do the same. As faithful pastors we should want our students to experience, like David did, a satisfaction in God that is better than rich foods (63:5).

But as faithful pastors we must also be watchful for counterfeits. We do not want our students to settle for emotional manipulation when the Spirit can enlighten their hearts to know the length, width, height and depth of God’s love (Eph 3:18). As guardians of our young flocks, we must lead them away from tepid swamps of false affections and lead them towards the cool waters of God’s Spirit calling them sons and daughters, and their spirits calling him Father (Rom 8:16, Gal 4).

We’re used to thinking that “experience” is opposed to “truth,” but that is a false dichotomy in this conversation. Real experiences with God exist. So the line we need to draw is between “true experiences” and “false experiences.”

Let me start with a presupposition about experience before offering four ways we can pursue true experiences with God, specifically in worship.

Presupposition: Emotional Experience is Vital to the Christian Life

We are embodied souls. So spiritual truth leads to physical (and emotional) responses. Jonathan Edwards says this is because there are laws of union “which the Creator has fixed between the soul and the body.” More concretely that means God has designed humans so that when the Holy Spirit abides in us, spiritual reality expresses itself in our bodies, minds, neurons, and hormones. Emotional experience is necessary to the Christian life. And if we separate our souls from our bodies we come under condemnation from Matthew 15:8–“This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” True worship involves the emotive, feeling, believing heart.

I know what many of you are thinking: “Emotions are too finicky. We can’t trust them.” But not trusting emotions to determine truth is different than purposely engaging the emotions to truly worship God. True worship stuns us into silence (Ps 46:10) and forces us to bow the knee and to fear God (Ps 5:7). True worship “revives the spirit of the lowly and… revives the heart of the contrite” (Isa 57:15). True worship drinks its fill of God and says that I have delighted myself in the Lord (Ps 37:4). Emotional experience is vital to the Christian life. As faithful pastors, we must actively pursue emotional experience for the sake of our students’ souls.

In the second part of this article (on the Rooted blog tomorrow), I will suggest four ways we can pursue experiencing God’s presence while avoiding manipulation.

Seth Stewart is a husband and a dad, and after a decade in student ministry is now working as the Editor-in-Chief at Spoken Gospel. Spoken Gospel creates online resources that point to Jesus from every passage of Scripture. Seth spends his day writing, speaking, and being his family's chef.

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