I am sitting and listening to the morning stillness as the waters lap against the short at Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp near Lakeside, Montana. This is our congregation’s local Bible camp which just so happens to have a million-dollar view of Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains which surround it. It is a wonderful place with wonderful people.
Yet, it is just one such camp out of thousands which many describe as a wonderful camp with wonderful people. I have spoken with several people my age who say that when they think about their connection to the church, they think about their time at summer camp. Often, these conversations are in the midst of them explaining that they don’t go to church anymore but are still fond of some of the things we do… like support Bible camps.
There seems to be something about the Bible camp experience, especially for those who work at camp during their college years, that helps youth and young adults connect to their faith and dive deeper into their relationship with God than by simply being a part of a local congregation.
It is worth thinking about the question, are there things that the church can learn from its camps? Here are seven answers to that question:
1. Camp is FUN!
Sometimes, when we are stuck in church council meetings, feel compelled to stay for the entirety of a boring, meaningless sermon, or stay sitting in the pews and listen to old hymns that we really can’t stand anymore, we tell ourselves that we are doing the Lord’s work by enduring things that we really can’t stand. It is as though we are silently making a pact with Jesus to ensure our salvation saying, “You better let me into your eternal paradise Jesus, because I suffered through our congregation’s annual meeting!” Don’t get me wrong, there are many aspects of church life that are supposed to be boring. It is not always exciting to pray quietly in the corner or patiently wait as Holy Communion is distributed to everyone. But must the church always be boring?
Summer camp gives many kids and adults the Christian alternative they are looking for. At camp, kids get to sing new songs, play games with their fellow Christian brothers and sisters, and do group building activities like high ropes courses and jumping in the lake together. Whereas many congregations operate from a sense of obligation – continuing to do things because they have always been done before – camps do things because they are engaging, exciting, and, above all, fun! Themes are picked because they are fun and relatable. Songs are sung because they get people moving and singing in new ways. Programming includes anything from field games to whitewater rafting, all supported by the belief that our Christian faith does not need to be restrained to the boring – it can simply be fun to be faithful.
2. It's fun because people get creative
Camp is fun because people get creative. Campers and counselors pray and worship in ways that are very ancient. These simple acts of piety toward our Creator go back to the beginning of human memory. At camp, though, one gets to engage her or his faith creatively. Camps do not force worshippers to sit still, dress a certain way, or even stay silent when they pray. At camps all across this country, staff and campers make up and learn new games, songs, chants, costumes, and do many more creative things – all of which make the Bible camp experience interesting, engaging and fun! It keeps you on your toes because many of the things you do at camp have never been done before.
3. Camp is worry free
When you come to camp you bring your bags but you leave your baggage. Perhaps this is hard to replicate at home, but Bible camps hold an important place in many people’s lives because they are places where people can leave their worldly worries behind and experience something different. In outdoor settings where it seems there are a million ways for campers to get scrapped up or break an ankle, camps still work hard to be places where staff and campers can find peace in the midst of a busy, chaotic, stressful world. The Bible camp that I grew up attending claimed to be A Place Apart. It was, and I will always be grateful for the experience of leaving the stresses and concerns of home behind, if only for a week’s time.
4. You can be yourself at camp
Bible camps sure can draw some zany weirdos. There. I said it. Camp counselors are rarely required to wear a work uniform and it shows! With the creativity and press towards faithful fun, comes antics, inside jokes, and a whole host of handshakes that can get a little weird. But, they are a beautiful kind of weird, because with the weirdness comes the freedom for campers and staff to be themselves. They do not need to fit societal modes or expectations on how they should act. We should all be free to come before the Lord as we are, and camp encourages people to let loose so they can.
5. You Commit to camp on your own terms
Not everyone loves camp, probably in part because of the crazy ways it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Those who love camp, though, come back because they want to and work at camp because they want to. Working at camp is not the most lucrative job, nor is it the cheapest way for campers to spend a week of their summer. Campers and counselors keep coming anyway, for no other reason than they want to. The church should pay attention to the fact that people just like being a part of camp and are active at camp because they want to be. Unfortunately, many of us in the church think that others should join us, even if they do not want to. The church is far too slow to pay attention to what people desire from their faith experiences because we believe that the church should talk about the faith and everyone else should sit there and listen. In my experience, young adults are far more receptive to engage with and actively participate in things they want to do more than things other people feel that they should do. If the church gave young adults more freedom to connect to our communities on their own terms, then maybe, just maybe, we might be surprised with how people show up in their own ways.
6. At camp, young people lead and young people are heard
I graduated high school, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree after four years of study, worked for two years, completed a Master of Divinity degree as well as a year of church work before the church would let me preach. In our tradition, we value education… which is another way of saying that we give authority and preference to age and experience. There are many good and great reasons for this, but, unfortunately, it often can come at the expense of lifting up younger voices.
At camp, I was encouraged to speak, lead worship, lead prayers, discuss scripture, and articulate the faith from the time I was a third grader on. Many of the ways I articulated the faith back then were just as ill-defined and awkward as you might expect. Still, the Christian leadership I attempted was as sincere, if not more, than the leadership I command as a trained and ordained pastor 25 years later. If the church is willing to risk letting older pastors lead, who show little more sincerity and far less aptitude than a third grader, then why not empower our younger members to join the great cloud of witnesses who proclaim the faith? Camps empower young people to lead and are benefitting as a result. The church actively discourages the young and inexperienced from leadership and is hurting as a result.
7. At camp, people bond with new people they don’t know
Every week at summer camp, people come and make new friends with people that they do not know. This is true of campers, counselors, support staff, kitchen crews, and camp directors. A central, significant aspect of camp community is that it is remade and reformed each and every week. Some relationships are far stronger than others, but an essential aspect of the camp experience involves regularly meeting new people and forming strong, supportive friendships along the way.
I would say that most churches desire to be welcoming of guests and new people to their communities. Christians at least say that they want to be hospitable to others by welcoming strangers and guest. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done in many church communities. Unlike Bible camps, church communities are not entirely reformed every week. A consequence of this is that church-goers have the option to rely on familiar bonds with people they know, instead of reaching out and making new ones with their guests. We could learn from our camps in this regard, because not only are we missing out on potentially strong bonds when we keep to ourselves in church, we also miss out on opportunities to be made new by those who have interest in joining us.
At the end of the day, there are many things that are hard to translate from our Bible camps back to our churches. Camps are generally set in out of the way places with seasonal schedules that cater to free times in the lives of our students. Many aspects of the church are just fundamentally different than our Bible camps and the differences cannot really be reconciled.
However, it is not too far-fetched to envision that our churches become places where people have fun by creatively engaging with their faith experiences. It is not too off the wall to hope that people can come to church feeling free from judgement and worry. It is not fantastical to think about church as a place which equally values and encourages the perspectives, concerns, and experiences of its youngest members on up. If our churches focused on learning from our Bible camps in these areas, then maybe our young adults would think about our churches with the same sort of longing that they have for the Bible camps where we send our young - the same Bible camps that even non-church goers remember fondly.
- Rev. Seth Nelson
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Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.