In diverse studies on emerging adult religiosity, three essential factors consistently rise to the top as important for lasting faith formation: relationships, internalization of faith, and incorporation of faith into daily living. These factors align remarkably with the “essential trinity” of camping: community living, away from home, and in an outdoor, recreational environment. This alignment demonstrates why Christian summer camps are vibrant expressions of the church and tremendous laboratories for emerging adult faith formation.
Community Living: The Power of Relationships
Given that Christianity is necessarily a communal religion, it is no surprise that the most consistent finding among the diverse studies on emerging adult religiosity is that relationships matter. As the notion of “individual spirituality” becomes increasingly popular among young people, they are encouraged to find their own spiritual path. Camp provides a radical alternative. Community living is the first and most important of camping’s “essential trinity.” Relationships form around daily practices of prayer, worship, and scripture reading to create intentional Christian communities. Over the course of the summer, emerging adult staff members support one another through physical and emotional exhaustion, personal crises, and a variety of new experiences. They share moments of intense joy and deep sorrow. As the community encounters conflict, they forgive and work through their differences rather than turning their backs on each other or “unfriending” someone. They bond in such an intimate way that at the beginning of each camp session during the summer, young campers are welcomed as honored guests into an already thriving Christian community. With the overall picture of emerging adults characterized by disengagement from religious communities, summer camp communities serve as bastions of hope and possibilities for the church of the 21st century.
Away from Home: A Chance to Own the Faith
The second essential aspect of emerging adult faith formation that researchers consistently identify is internalization of faith. Young people need to “own” their faith. Upon entering emerging adulthood, those who have not thought critically about their faith and identity are suddenly open to new possibilities and allowed to “be themselves” for what they perceive as the first time. Without the benefit of a supportive community as they are facing these difficult transitions, it is no wonder that so many emerging adults stray from the faith of their childhood.
The second of the “essential trinity” of camping is away from home. As set-apart communities of faith, Christian camps are ideal incubators of vocational identity. Away from the expectations and fixed judgments of school peers and family members, camp participants are able to deeply explore their identities in a safe, caring environment. They are given space for the essential task of differentiation, and they are encouraged to take risks. As the staff members explore and even experiment with new theological ideas and consider their vocational calling, new summer campers arrive each session with their own doubts and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, are able to express them openly without fear of judgment as a loving community proclaims the nature of their true identity through words and deeds: “You are a beloved child of God.”
An Outdoor, Recreational Environment: Living and Breathing the Faith
Finally, the emerging adult studies identify incorporation of faith into daily living as essential for faith formation. An intense focus on “right belief” is ripping the church apart and contributing to the estrangement of the majority of emerging adults, for whom Christianity has become defined by hypocrisy and rejection of others with different beliefs. Camps are effective places of emerging adult faith formation, in part, because they are focused on Christian action. Camp is experiential, as the third of the “essential trinity” of camping indicates: camp takes place in an outdoor, recreational setting. Didactic sermons are replaced by a theological playground in which young people are actively participating in faith practices, reflecting theologically on everyday occurrences, and holding one another in a community of love. For young people accustomed to compartmentalizing their experience of God at church as separate from their everyday lives, the camp experience offers a radical recentering of their lives as caught up in and dependent upon the activity of Christ. Camp participants are open to the possibility, or even probability, that God will show up in some unique, unexpected way.
As vibrant, faith-formative expressions of the church, Christian camps deserve a fresh look by scholars and church leaders as we seek to minister with emerging adults in the church of the 21st century.