Those of us who love camp think we know what it’s all about. The camp critics think the same thing. Ask around and you will hear all sorts of things about camp. Camp is life-changing. Camp is theologically shallow. Camp is a mountaintop experience. Camp offers a brief high that quickly fades. Camp is the only place where faith makes sense. Camp ruins kids for church. The list goes on. What if we laid aside our assumptions and seriously asked the question, what is camp and what does it do? Maybe we could get away from our bias that the camp we love does it better than all others. Maybe camp detractors could be convinced that one negative experience is not indicative of all camps.
A team of people on the Effective Camp Research Project got together to dig deeply into the camp experience. Our question: What is the impact of the one-week Christian summer camp experience on the lives of the primary participants and their supporting networks? The initial findings are encouraging, challenging, and illuminating.
We are finding that the camp experience has many positive impacts on participants and that these impacts extend to their supporting networks! Even more intriguing, we have isolated 5 characteristics that seem to be fundamental to the Christian summer camp experience. When these characteristics function together, we call it the camp model.
- Camp is RELATIONAL
- Camp is PARTICIPATORY
- Camp is DIFFERENT FROM HOME
- Camp is A SAFE SPACE
- Camp is FAITH CENTERED
These have no set order or direction of influence. There is not one characteristic that is more important than the others. They function together in a dynamic interplay for each unique individual. A breakdown in a single characteristic is a breakdown of the entire camp model, and this can lead to interpretation of the entire experience as negative or even harmful to the camper.
Here is how the camp model functioned for one individual in our study:
“Her mom is going through a divorce. She was sad and anxious but wanted this camp experience. She made friends, learned how to pray, learned about faith and was uplifted and healed throughout the week. It was one of the best weeks of her life according to her: “I’m not depressed, my appetite is back, I believe I can make friends in a new school, I am closer to God.” This camp experience for her was the best!” (Camper parent)
Notice how this camper’s unique life circumstances combined with the camp model to facilitate the incredibly impactful experience that the parent describes. All 5 characteristics are present here, and if one had broken down, the entire experience would have affected her differently.
Some of the camp supporters out there might be simply nodding their heads and thinking that they already knew this stuff. If that is the case, GREAT! This should look and feel authentic to you. It is not new stuff to camp people who have been talking about these characteristics (or something like them) for years. However, we have never quite been able to articulate it this way. We can learn a great deal by stepping back and observing. Some would simply say of the above camper: “She had a life-changing experience!” Did she? Maybe, but those are our words, not hers. The experience clearly affected her in very significant and positive ways. We can say she grew in her self-confidence and sense of worth. We can say that she grew in her faith. We can say that she grew in her social confidence. These are real and incredibly significant impacts.
Only some of the campers have an experience that they might consider life-changing or a mountaintop experience. We do not need to promise that kind of an experience. In fact, it is misleading to do so. Our findings make it clear that the camp model does not cause change. Camp is not a magic formula! What camp does is facilitate positive impacts and open the possibility for changes.
We are learning so much about camp, and there is much more to come! Our research continues this coming summer, as we survey more than 1200 campers to find out more about the camp model and the impacts of the camp experience.
Follow the research and join the conversation: www.effectivecamp.com!