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The Awkward Place of Camp at the NYWC

Oct 8, 2013 | Generalities

I had the opportunity to attend Youth Specialties’ National Youth Worker’s Convention (NYWC) this past weekend in San Diego. Besides enjoying the beautiful weather of San Diego with my wife and some great colleagues, I heard some excellent presenters, worshiped with a couple thousand youth workers, and had some great discussions about youth ministry. As a camp guy, I was hyperaware of any reference to the camp experience, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that camp was everywhere at the NYWC. In the exhibitor’s hall, there were many camps represented. While I was excited to see them there, I was disappointed that they were California camps promoting their specific camps rather than organizations promoting Christian camping in general. In the “big room,” where there were six large-group high energy gatherings with spectacular light shows and big name Christian bands with body-vibrating bass lines, several of the speakers talked about their camp experiences, at least in passing. From one perspective, it looked like camp was everywhere. Clearly, the keynote speakers and seminar leaders recognized camp as a common experience of the youth workers present.
But there was a troubling pattern that has become all-too familiar to me: camp experiences were used simply as anecdotes. At one of the seminars I attended, the presenter told a camp story to break the ice before getting into his presentation. Mark Yaconelli, in his keynote address, talked about camp as an exhausting experience for youth workers in order to illustrate that we have a difficult job. As a way of connecting with the experience of the youth workers present, the lead singer of Urban Rescue proclaimed that the band plays at a lot of camps and truly respects what the youth workers do. A lot of people were referring to camp, but nobody was really talking about it, analyzing it, or discussing its merits and drawbacks. The NYWC provides meaningful discussion and training on a myriad of topics related to youth ministry, and many of the presenters have brought deeper theological discussion to youth ministry and respect to youth ministry as a calling. Sadly, camp is not getting the respect and theological discussion that it deserves.
By way of illustration, we can look at the attention devoted to short-term “mission” trips. Of the 73 very diverse seminars offered at the NYWC, not a single one was devoted to camp, while 2 were devoted specifically to short-term mission trips. Nearly every major study of youth and religion includes an analysis of mission trips and their effect on faith formation, but camp variables are absent, even though more teenagers have attended a Christian camp than have gone on mission trips (1). Though youth mission trips get a great deal of attention in books and journals, a consistent theme among many of the studies is that these trips are not very effective tools for faith formation. In a long list of important factors for lasting faith formation, Christian Smith, citing data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, pointedly lists mission trips at the very bottom under the category “not independently important” (2). Similarly, the Sticky Faith study raises many cautions about putting too much stock in the annual youth mission trip (3). While plenty of data are available to intelligently discuss the merits of youth mission trips, considerable digging is required in order to find data on the impact of the Christian summer camp experience on faith formation. Maybe this is why camp is ignored as a “topic” at the NYWC. There are no books, articles, or reliable studies, so there is nobody to talk about the merits of camp. Everyone seems to recognize it as important, so they mention it anecdotally in front of 2,000 youth workers, but they are not quite ready to discuss it or study it. It is time for a deep examination of the Christian camp experience that can bring scholarly, theological discussion to bear on this important ministry.

(1) Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: University Press, 2005).
(2) Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford, 2009), 218.
(3) Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in your Kids (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 129-131.


  1. Avatar

    Good observation Jake. How interesting that the speakers and the design of the event were so out of sync with one another.

  2. Avatar

    Thanks for this Jake. I have sensed this real lack of respect for the camp experience for many years. Part of the problem may be ours. Perhaps we haven't kept pace with the most effective ways to tell the camp story. We've let others define us rather then the other way around. From my point of view, I think, more then ever, camp has a crucial role to play in the life of the church and the emerging church. We just need to keep telling and re-telling that story. People think they know what camp is. I don't necessarily think that's the case.


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