Of all my experiences in church life growing up, church camp was one of the most important experiences of my life. While I experienced a call to ministry in a worship service on a Sunday morning, and was nurtured in a congregation in that call, the memories that I carry with me over the years that were incredibly important in my faith journey are from church camp. Friendships were forged, fellowship and fun were had, and for many of my friends, church camp was the one place where church really and truly was fun—and camp was just for us, for that age group, for that week. Everything was about us in that place and time.
Since high school, I have been a camp counselor a few times and a camp pastor (and currently am getting ready for another stint soon). What has struck me recently are the many adults of all ages, but especially adults under fifty, for whom church camp has been one of the most formative experiences of their faith lives. In my current ministry setting I have a high number of young adults involved in my small congregation—all of them went to church camp. I have started meeting other young adults in our area who grew up going to church camp. Some of them are no longer attending church, but all of them had a positive experience of camp that has influenced them in their faith journey.
Church camps are places where friendships are made fast. Trust is built up. Faith is taken seriously but there is a good balance of irreverence and silliness. Camp is also the one place where we actually worship our Creator out in creation on a daily basis. The experience of God in nature, in creation, especially for youth who may come from urban areas and not have those experiences with any regularity is an opportunity hard to find elsewhere.
Having now lived and participated in camping ministry across the country—from Alaska to New England, to Oklahoma and now Washington—what I have found, in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the American Baptist Churches, USA, is the same trend you probably already know: funding for camps is running short. Scholarships aren’t as readily available as they once were. Sending kids to camp is not a priority for most churches. Property and buildings are becoming run-down from age and use and are not being repaired. The camp experience I grew up with may not be available for the next generation.
So, besides the obvious—giving money to our church camps—here’s what else we need to do: Send kids to camp. Make it a priority. I grew up in a small startup church—we maybe had twenty people at most on a good Sunday—but they made the commitment that every child associated with the church got to go to camp for free. The church paid our way, and one year there were nine of us—grandchildren, friends of friends—it didn’t matter—we got to go to camp for free. If a small startup church that could barely afford to pay rent with a very part-time pastor could send their kids to camp, imagine what you can do. Have a bake sale. Invite others in the church to sponsor a scholarship. Partner with another congregation to help send kids to camp.
Support your camps. They raise up our disciples. I know that few of my friends who went to camp with me as a youth go to church now, but camp was a vital part of their lives, something they have never forgotten. I know among the young adults I minister with and to, camp was where their faith emerged and grew. Our camps are an important part of who we are, and who we can be as the church, in making and nurturing new disciples.
*For another personal perspective on the importance of camp, please see Dr. Mark Poindexter's recent post on "Grandparent and Me" Church Camp.