Like a wheel within a wheel, Christian festivals are an idiosyncratic niche of an often already baffling subculture. Almost every wing of the Church has its own camp, conference or convention, mainly held over the summer months, and all of them offer their own peculiar version of the Christian 'bubble'. For a few days, attenders are immersed in a world where pastors and worship leaders become celebrities, swear words are banished, wine bottles last for days, and the usual rules of modern fashion take a beating.
Each year too, a few uninitiated souls find themselves parachuted into this strange and unfamiliar world. A friend tells them 'it'll be fun' (but doesn't mention the showering arrangements), and before they know it they've signed up for five nights camping next to Bertha the Olympic snoring champion in a community of people who go to bed at 9.30 pm. For these poor souls then, I've produced the following simple guide to surviving a Christian festival: a list of familiar sights and recurring pitfalls to watch out there. Follow them closely, and you should not only make it through in one piece... you might even want to go back next year.
Accommodation (aka tent envy)
Let's begin with the biggest problem with Christian events – you usually have to camp. Nothing else quite reminds you of your feeble humanity like crawling out of a tiny two-man tent at 7am, desperate for a pee and unable to locate your flip-flops as you splash around in the dew-soaked grass. Having spent a restless night at the wrong angle on a slowly-deflating lilo, you awake craving convenience in a world where everything is an effort. Then you look across at the family with the giant, standing room 12-man with its own portable generator and coffee machine, and all of yesterday's personal Christian growth is instantly dissipated. A version of this is also found at posher, caravan-based festivals when your two-wheel '60s throwback is dwarfed by a gigantic Winnebago with its own bar, roof garden and swimming pool.
How to survive: Unless you're one of those overgrown scouts who actually enjoys camping, there's usually a reasonably priced hotel within a few miles of any given campsite...
Navigating the programme
Like an early adopter's forerunner to Netflix, Christian conference programmes are so notoriously stuffed with content that one can waste hours trying to choose between options. Perennial favourites include 'Thriving as a Single Christian' (or 'thinly-veiled dating event'), 'How to have a Quiet Time' (or how to feel guilty about the state of your spiritual life), and sponsored talks about justice issues which are free to enter but can only be exited via direct debit. While most festivals orientate themselves around a central programme of 'big top' events, some have confusingly added secondary venues for people who like to feel a bit postmodern and edgy. Interestingly the split between these two congregations corresponds almost perfectly with the numbers of Mac and PC users on site.
How to survive: Relax – usually you can purchase (and then never listen to) recordings of all the talks afterwards. Don't try to cram as much as is humanly possible into each day, and you might actually enjoy being on holiday.
There are few experiences more unpleasant than taking a shower on day four of a Christian conference. Having begun so clean and full of hope, after a few days of hard use those once-pristine shower cubicles inevitably begin to resemble the Somme. There's so much mud in there sometimes that it's possible to leave the shower dirtier than you entered it, and even that is taking the hopeful view that it really is just mud. Even these feel palatial however compared to many conference bathrooms, which offer a window into how quickly human civilisation would break down in the event of an apocalyptic incident.
How to survive: Take your own loo tent, or plan a daily visit to a local pub, shopping centre or petrol station. Failing that, simply follow the advice of Deuteronomy 23:13, which says 'As part of your equipment have something to dig with.' I'll let you look up the rest for yourself.
With the previous topic still in mind, it's important to think carefully about what you put into your body during a festival. Most invite a variety of food vendors to pitch up on site, selling a range of non-nutritious meals at post-Brexit prices. They look and sound alluring. They smell good. The queues suggest they produce fine food of the utmost quality. THIS IS ALL A TRICK. That 'Beef-flavoured burger' might be okay once or twice, but unless you want to leave camp with the mighty girth of an Old Testament king, a little bit of campfire cooking is advisable.
How to survive: Embrace the biblical concept of fasting during your stay. Or bring a coolbox full of decent food.
One of the most nefarious tricks of the Christian event bubble is its ability to convince you that you need more Christian stuff in your life. Books, extra Bibles, CDs (seriously, CDs) and of course t-shirts with slogans like 'Ask me about my Christian faith – #UNASHAMED' emblazoned on them, all sell ridiculously well to consumers who are purchasing with utter surety that they'll occupy pride of place back at home. In painful reality, those books often join the ever-expanding to-read pile, the t-shirts are filed until you're next in the safe vicinity of only other Christians, and the CDs remind you that you've had a Spotify account for five years now.
How to survive: Ask yourself if you're ever going to wear that 'Free Hugs' Beanie Hat, and if not, put it back and give the money to charity.
I hope that little guide is helpful. If you find yourself lost in the strangeness of a Christian conference bubble somewhere this summer, just remember these simple steps. They could just save your life.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO ofYouthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders.