Brand new research shows that the summer camp experience has a lasting impact on communal religious practices. With the increased focus on individual spirituality, should we pay attention to this new evidence? Bonhoeffer says we should.
Have you done your devotions today? How is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ? These personal spirituality questions are used as a sort of barometer for Christian commitment and faith maturity. My prayer life is between me and God. My sins are between me and God. Religion, along with politics, is often banned from the family dinner table for fear of controversy. Even in corporate worship experiences on Sunday morning, I often feel alone. Babies and young children are shushed so as not to disturb individuals who are praying or worshiping. The scripture readings, sermon, and prayers are given to worship leaders so that I, as a worshiper, can sit passively and let them wash over me. Even the worship music often feels like a performance that I listen to. As young people often point out, church is full of a bunch of hypocrites anyway. I can have a relationship with God without all of those phony church people, so I will just worship God in my own way. Is this how it ought to be?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer disagrees. Christianity, according to Bonhoeffer, requires community practice and support because it is in the sacred community that Christ is bodily present in the world today. In his classic Life Together, Bonhoeffer describes what intentional Christian community looks like. He does not neglect personal time for prayer and meditation, but he insists that this personal time is for the benefit of the community. “Only in the community do we learn to be properly alone; and only in being alone do we learn to live properly in the community. It is not as if the one preceded the other; rather both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ” (p. 83). Importantly, Bonhoeffer places the reading of scripture primarily in the day together, emphasizing that scripture should be heard and discussed in Christian community. The solution for different understandings of scripture is not to ponder it on our beds and keep silent or make it anathema at the dinner table. On the contrary, the day together as Christians involves discussing, hearing various viewpoints, and even disagreeing with one another. We do this as a Christian community that has mutual trust and love for one another. We do this as a Christian community that also bears one another’s burdens and breaks bread together. Christian community is not clean and tidy. It is messy, and that is okay.
The Christian camp community offers a radically different mode of living as a Christian than the typical pattern of Christian living in today’s society. In similar ways to what Bonhoeffer describes, the camp community gathers together for morning prayer and worship, has group Bible study, participates in the day’s work, gathers together for meal times (which include faith discussions!), provides opportunity for personal prayer and reflection, and gathers again at the close of the day for worship and prayer. The camp community even practices forgiveness and reconciliation.
Researchers today are exploring ways to make religious commitment last through the turbulent adolescent years. When they measure religiosity, they often focus on questions that relate to personal religious practices, such as frequency of personal prayer, frequency of reading the Bible alone, and how important faith is viewed in daily life. The only communal religious practice that is usually focused on is frequency of attending worship services, which, as noted above, often cater to a more individualized worship experience than a sense of community as Bonhoeffer describes it. What about small group ministry, Bible study groups, and prayer circles? Aren’t these better indicators of Christian commitment and involvement than monthly worship attendance and occasional personal prayer?
Secondary analysis of the National Study of Youth and Religion data provide a new picture of camp’s long-term impact on faith formation. The new study is published in the fall 2014 edition of the Journal of Youth Ministry. After five years, those who attended religious summer camp as adolescents show no significant difference from non-attenders in the typical measurements that focus on individual spiritual commitment (personal prayer, personal Bible reading, and reported importance of faith in daily life). However: “on measures of communal spirituality (frequency of religious service attendance, college campus ministry participation, and participation in religious small groups), a significant positive effect is clearly evident in the five year follow-up, even when controlling for seventeen different variables” (p. 28). The study goes on to say that the ongoing effect of camp attendance “is most pronounced on their likelihood of participation in religious small groups such as Bible study and prayer groups, in which camp attendance has a statistically greater independent effect than any other variable measured” (p. 28). Those who attended camp are almost 4 times more likely to participate in a college religious group or a small group ministry than those who did not attend. This has tremendous implications for Christian camping ministry’s role in faith formation! One of the main things the younger generation as a whole lacks in terms of faith formation is an understanding of the importance of Christian community. We cannot exist as Christians in a vacuum, relying on some personal connection with Christ, because Christ exists in community.
We need points of connection and places where young people experience the power of Christian community so that they may better understand the importance of community to their lives of faith. We need small group ministries. We need inter-generational Bible studies. And, as the new research demonstrates, we need camps.
Sorenson, Jacob. “The Summer Camp Experience and Faith Formation of Emerging Adults,” The Journal of Youth Ministry 13 (Fall 2014), 17-40.