“Camp changed my life.”
I have heard this (or something similar) over and over again from staff members, campers, parents, and church workers. I have even spoken these words about my own camp experiences. Some camp professionals speak about camp as a “mountaintop experience” (see Mark 9:2-8) that sustains faith long-term, and they tell extraordinary camp success stories in order to inspire parents and church workers to send their children to camp.
But is life change really the norm?
We all know that not everyone has a life changing or mountaintop experience at camp. In fact, some young people have terrible camp experiences and never go back. The majority, however, have something in between. They have positive experiences that continue affecting them after they return home. For some, these impacts translate into lasting change. For others, most of the impacts wear off after a period of days, weeks, or months. Just because some impacts wear off, however, does not mean we should dismiss the whole experience as a camp high that quickly fades.
Some outcomes are not meant to be lasting. That does not make them less powerful or important. We can generally classify camp outcomes in four categories: immediate, subsequent, lasting, and life changing. Understanding these four types of outcomes can help us better understand the camp experience and adjust our expectations or program goals accordingly.
Immediate Outcomes: These lie at the center of the camp experience, and they generally do not continue after a camper goes home. Wait, you might say, why do we call them outcomes if they are not ongoing? Consider safety. Some campers have very difficult home lives, and others are picked on or left out at school. The physical, emotional, and physical safety they experience at camp is good in and of itself.
Fun is probably the most recognizable immediate outcome. I directed a camp in New Jersey that had two weeks set aside for a group of young people in residential treatment for delinquency and abuse prevention. At camp, they had two solid weeks to have fun and be kids. It was incredibly valuable for them, and whether or not these outcomes lasted, they were good in and of themselves. Our research has demonstrated that fun is the number one outcome that parents want from the camp experience.
One final example is new friends. Thanks to modern communication, some camp friendships continue after campers return home, but many do not. That does not change or cheapen the value of these friendships, as many campers have insisted to me about the friendships they formed in previous summers.
Subsequent Outcomes: These are the most noticeable of the camp outcomes because they impact family members and friends in the days following camp. They are also the outcomes characteristic of the so-called camp high. One of the key changes that my wife and I noticed this year in the days following camp was that our children did not ask to play their video games. Instead, they got out a stack of long-neglected puzzles and assembled them together. We did not expect our children to foreswear electronic devices long term, but we were able to build some memories together, along with the puzzles.
Other parents note such things as their children being more polite, more helpful around the house, nicer to other people, and generally happier. These feelings of overall positivity tend to fade over time, which does not negate their significance for the families affected. Even a few days of improved dialogue and happiness can be tremendous gifts.
Other common subsequent outcomes include less dependence on electronics, an increased interest in worship services, and faith conversations. Young people saying that they never have faith conversations with their family members reported having multiple conversations about God and faith in the days and weeks following camp. If this subsequent outcome is nurtured, it can become lasting. So can the increased interest in worship. Unfortunately, many of the young people involved in our studies went home with an increased interest in attending and a hope for increased agency only to find that worship services away from camp were just as boring and non-participatory as they remembered.
Lasting Outcomes: These are the camp outcomes still evident months after the camp experience. The euphoria and emotional boost of camp has faded into memory. Worship services are boring again. Learning once again involves lots of sitting still and being quiet. It is once again difficult to believe in this crazy God-story, which seemed so immediate and obvious at camp. What is left? As it turns out, quite a bit!
Self-confidence, connection with Christian community, and the conviction that faith matters in daily life are a few key examples of camp outcomes that persist months after returning home. More than two months after camp, participants were also praying more frequently than before camp and reading their Bibles more. Their excitement about worship may have worn off, but they were attending more frequently and seeing more value in connection to Christian community. They may not have been as sure (or “on fire”) about God as they were at camp, but they were willing to say that faith matters in their lives and that they want to know more.
Isn’t this what discipleship is at its core? It is not about knowing the right stuff or feeling excitement, but rather seeking the faith and following Jesus Christ. These are the lasting outcomes of the camp experience.
Life Changing Outcomes: So what factors transmit these lasting outcomes into what some call life change? First of all, we must recognize that this is Holy Spirit territory. However, we can also recognize that the Spirit works through us to encourage and empower these young people in their lives of faith. When they are surrounded by faithful people who genuinely want to know about their camp experience, the outcomes are more likely to last. When they come home excited about worship, they are more likely to stay excited and engaged if they are given agency and allowed to lead or actively participate.
We are doing the campers a great disservice if they come home from camp and the best we as parents and Christian leaders can come up with is, “Did you have fun?” Surround them in Christian love, discover what they learned about God, and find out how they want to participate in God’s Kingdom breaking in on this earth.