One of the most powerful aspects of the Christian camp experience is that young people are uprooted from their normal routines and then re-rooted in intentional Christian communities where they are challenged and allowed to ask critical questions about their normal routines. F. LeRon Shultz and Steven Sandage formulate a model that they refer to as “the cycle of spiritual dwelling.” While this cycle is associated with “comfort and safety,” it often leads “to boredom and disappointment as spiritual practices and experiences become too predictable or lacking in the vitality necessary for certain developmental challenges.”(1) Intense experiences away from home such as the camp experience can serve as what they call a “crucible,” leading to an awakening that facilitates spiritual growth. It is telling that they use terms such as “anxiety” and “challenge” when speaking about the crucible of spiritual growth, as these are concepts that are embraced in the camp environment through adventure-based learning, wilderness immersion, and challenge course activities. Studies confirm what camp experts believe about the effectiveness of challenge activities on spiritual growth. One study of 114 campers found that “Christian spiritual beliefs could be strengthened through a combination of explicit spiritual teaching and the ‘real world’ settings of group and personal challenges in the out-of-doors,” specifically highlighting challenge course activities and backpacking trips.(2)
Kenda Dean describes camp as a “liminal” place that “reminds young people that they are momentarily ‘suspended’ between daily life and eternal promises.”(3) Elsewhere, Dean likens camp to a language immersion experience. Campers may have received some level of instruction in their home congregations, and some may even be well-versed in theological language, but the immersion experience of camp offers “concentrated practice in the words and deeds that testimony involves.” Campers experience the daily life of faith and become “more secure in their faith identities, and therefore more confident and explicit in telling the God-story of their tradition.”(4) In the nurturing environment of Christian community, campers are empowered to ask difficult questions about their faith and life experiences. This allows for differentiation from home communities and theological traditions. While some congregations and families get nervous about this process, the model Shultz and Sandage offer demonstrates that it is necessary for theological development. Campers have an opportunity to step away from their faith traditions and find their own theological voices. Through the immersion experience of camp, young people are sent out to bring their new understandings to their home communities, which they now see in a new light as a result of their immersion in the place of camp.
Karen-Marie Yust notes that a common critique of the camp experience is that it creates a “mountaintop experience” that leaves the participants on a “spiritual high” that is not sustainable away from the community.(5) Certainly, the camp experience does not stand on its own and must rely on home communities to offer continued care and support to the camp participants. One of the great tragedies of the Christian camp experience is when an empowered young person returns to a home community hoping to have a voice and is instead stifled. Oftentimes, the young person is forced back into a cycle of spiritual dwelling that is no longer comfortable. Instead of acknowledging spiritual growth in the young person and their own potential for transformation in an encounter with that young person, adult leaders demand that the young person reintegrate. These adults, who may be church leaders, are operating under a theological anthropology that is constant and unchanging, which does not take into account an expectation for spiritual transformation and denies the research and theology that reveal human beings as always becoming. These families and faith communities are missing tremendous opportunities for spiritual growth, and they are inauthenticating genuine spiritual transformation in favor of the rigidity of the status quo.
(1) F. LeRon Shultz and Steven J. Sandage, Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 32-33.
(2) Jimmy Griffin, “The Effects of an Adventure Based Program with an Explicit Spiritual Component on the Spiritual Growth of Adolescents,” The Journal of Experiential Education 25 (2003), 351.
(3) Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 170.
(4) Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford: University Press, 2010), 154-155.
(5) Karen-Marie Yust, “Creating an Idyllic World for Children’s Spiritual Formation,” International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 11 (2006), 177-188.