Remember, these five characteristics have no particular order, but I thought it poetic to cover this one in the middle. This is the characteristic that sets Christian camps apart from all other types of camps. Every well-run camp in the country has the other four characteristics. To this mix, we add faith. However, faith is not simply an extra program. We are not talking about secular camps with a spiritual gloss or optional worship service.
Faith is at the center of every program and activity at camp. This means that the other fundamental characteristics are transformed. All camps are relational, but only Christian camps are formed around intentional Christian community. All camps are participatory, but only Christian camps structure all activities as living out the Christian faith. A camper from the Effective Camp Project explains:
“No matter what we’re doing, they intertwine the Christian stuff into it. When we’re canoeing or swimming, it’s about God’s water. When we’re doing the high ropes, it’s our trust that God won’t let us fall and our teammates won’t let us fall. Wherever we go, we try to see God in whatever we’re doing.”
In a nationwide survey of more than 300 Christian camp directors, almost 90% agreed that faith formation and practices should be incorporated into all aspects of camp life. These are not siloed ministries in which there are some religious activities and some non-religious activities. Everything is centered on faith. Participants get the chance to experience the daily rhythm of Christian living. This immersion experience allows them the chance to consider all of life as caught up with and dependent upon the work of the living God.
Young people are seldom afforded this opportunity away from camp, even if they are regular church attendees and consider themselves faithful Christians. Of more than 2000 campers that have participated so far in the Effective Camp Project, about 60% attended church at least twice per month and only half prayed with their family more than once per week. Camp provides these young people a new way of living. Faith is no longer compartmentalized from other parts of life. It is no longer one of many things. At camp, faith is the very center. A camper explains:
“At home, you basically only go to church once a week. Here, you’re constantly learning about God.”
Not only is there increased frequency and intensity of faith experiences – these experiences are also different from home. At camp, faith is participatory. Faith is highly relational. It is safe to express doubt and ask questions. In a word, faith is relevant.
But wait, some folks say, won’t these highly relational, participatory faith experiences ruin kids for church? Isn’t there a danger of them picking up bad theology?
In fact, our research has demonstrated that young people return home with a greater desire to attend church and a greater sense of belonging to Christian community. As for individual belief statements concerning theology (e.g. God created the world), campers generally have a slight increase in agreement with these statements followed by a regression to their pre-camp beliefs a few months following camp. They are still forming their theology, and individual doctrines tend not to stick. What lasts is the understanding that faith is relevant in daily life and that participation in Christian community matters.
And remember those faith practices that they were immersed in at camp? Those tend to last, too. At least 2 months after returning home, campers in the Effective Camp Project were praying more, reading their Bible more, having more frequent faith conversations with family members, and attending church more than in the months before they went to camp.
Let’s finish with one more camper from the Effective Camp Project:
“I feel as though praising God isn’t a thing that I hate doing anymore. It’s a lot more fun. I haven’t been doing it, really going to church. I see why we do it now.”