About a month ago, our family had one more chance to take a few vacation days. We decided to camp in Ohiopyle State Park. As the patriarch, it fell upon me to make sure the fire burned warmly as the family rolled out of their sleeping bags. As I tended it, I thought of how campfires are like the church (and individual Christians for that matter).
Of course, every analogy breaks down eventually. However, I will say that I have personally found this comparison to be helpful fodder for prayer--be it my own prayers or the prayers of my family and the church I serve.
Every good camp fire needs embers. More heat comes from embers than the actual flames. These are the ever faithful Christ followers. Paul said of the Philippian church, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents” (Phil. 1:27-28). He counted on their partnership of the Gospel. These “embers” may not be recognized publicly or up front, but faithful and consistent fellow soldiers keep the church burning.
My firefighter brother always said, “Fire needs fuel, oxygen, and heat. If you’re missing one, you won’t have fire.” (Yes, the analogy may be most extended here!) Christians need the Word, the Holy Spirit, and one another. If we are missing one, we suffer. We may even become apostate. Near the end of his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul mentions all three: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thes. 5:11, 19-21).
As I watched the fire, I saw it needed constant tending. Logs needed to be adjusted. More air would be needed. More fuel added. This is the role of leadership. First Peter 5:2 says, “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you…” Perhaps a faithful “ember” needs attention, or a bit of correction is needed in another area, or more “fuel” needs to be added. Church leaders need to tend constantly. Vigilance is the key. It’s easier to tend than make drastic corrections later on. We are called to keep the group and individuals on course.
This is the fire everyone likes. We become quasi-hypnotized by the dancing flames. Yes, it’s the part we see. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
We all want shortcuts to these glowing flames. I am willing to admit that I cheated with my campfires. I used fire starters and sometimes lighter fluid. I've found, however, that more often than not these flames burn out quickly. Enduring flames require the embers, fuel, tending, etc. Otherwise, our “fire” is just a flash in the pan with no substance. I was reminded that I want to be an enduring, healthy flame and not merely one that shines quickly with some church fad. And, I want my flame to point others to Christ that they may gather around with me and enjoy his warmth.
The fire ring restrains a fire so that it does not spread. Here, the analogy breaks down in a way. We do not want the fire of the church to be restrained. But sin, apathy, idolatry, misguided priorities, and love of comfort can all form metallic rings around a church. The flames do not attract others to Jesus. Rings are hard, cold metal. They are not open as to let others in either. Some Christ followers and churches are like that, too.
Logs burn better when they are close to one another. In fact, when we left our campsite, we would push the logs away from one another, so that the fire would go out. Our American culture thrives on independence. We like privacy. Church logs need to be close to encourage the heat and flame. When we let peripheral issues divide us, we will lose our “fire.” Jesus taught us to be unified when he said, ““I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). This unity is our light to the world.
If I were reading this, I would think, “Wow, really pushing the analogy.” Yes, but I found this parable of the campfire helpful in my prayer times. Pray for your embers. Pray for wisdom as you tend the fire. Seek deep, meaningful flames that attract people to Jesus, keep the logs together, and break out of the rings.
Joe Olkowski is campus pastor at Zion Church of Petroleum Valley in Karns City, Pennsylvania, where he has served since 2007. He graduated from Multnomah Biblical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He and his wife Trish love ministering in a rural setting. He's a bi-vocational pastor and works in local high schools as a substitute teacher. Joe & Trish have three adult children.