As with their congregational counterparts, Christian camps differ widely in their ministry practices, theological priorities, and effectiveness. Through their many differences, Christian camps are united in their incorporation of the biblical witness and Christian faith practices into the camping experience (community living, away from home, and in an outdoor recreational setting), which provides fertile ground for Christian identity formation, spiritual transformation, and human flourishing. Anecdotal evidence for camp’s effectiveness is unreliable because it is easy to find someone who had an amazing, life affirming, faith forming experience at camp, and it is also easy to find someone else who had a horrendous time at camp. The question is not whether or not camp is effective in faith formation because it is both, depending on the camp and the individual experience. The questions to be asked are theological questions: 1) How is camp an expression of faithful living in light of the biblical witness to God’s activity in the world? and 2) What does camp offer to the life and ministry of Christ’s church?
The first question finds a robust response throughout the biblical witness. Community living, the first of the “essential trinity” of Christian camping, is the most emphasized and powerful aspect of the camping experience. The biblical mandate for human community flows from God’s declaration that it is not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) to the great multitude from every nation praising God in the heavenly vision of Revelation. At the heart of the gospel message is Jesus’ most basic command to his followers: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). In an increasingly individualistic society that emphasizes personal gain and personal spirituality, camp models community fellowship and the ministry of hospitality. Camp also attends to the experience of God in the wonders of creation, from which young people are increasingly estranged. Throughout scriptures, there are stories of encounters with God in the wilderness. God shows up in a burning bush on a hillside (Exodus 3:2), a still small voice outside a cave (1 Kings 19:11-13), a whirlwind (Job 38:1), a descending dove at the Jordan River (Mark 1:10-11), a voice from a cloud on the mountain of transfiguration (Mark 9:7), and a blinding flash of light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6). Besides offering extended opportunities for young people to enjoy and care for God’s beautiful creation, camp takes seriously the inbreaking of God, the possibility that God might show up at any moment.
The second theological question is, what does the Christian summer camp experience offer to the life and ministry of Christ’s church? The answer to this question is not as straightforward as the first. Certainly, there is strong biblical and theological support for the ministry of summer camp. However, people can envision other forms of ministry that incorporate the biblical mandates to care for the earth, love the neighbor, live in community, remain open to the inbreaking of God, and all of the other things that camp allegedly does so well. In fact, the church got along quite well without camp for 18 centuries. So the question is, what are the unique gifts and experiences that camping ministry has to offer the church of the 21st century?
The Christian church is going through a time of radical change, realignment, and transformation. Whether it is a “great emergence,” a new, improved spiritual awakening or something that researchers have not quite identified, it is clear that secularism is on the rise, long-established religious institutions are floundering, and new faith expressions are rising and falling almost as fast as the myriad books rushing to characterize the new movements. In the midst of the change, teenagers and emerging adults are largely unaware that anything is amiss. At camp, the worlds of children, teenagers, and emerging adults mix as nowhere else in society. With the incorporation of the word of God and practices of faith, the faith communities at camp become unique expressions of Christ’s church that are theological laboratories for the church of the 21st century. Christian camps are unique places for envisioning and modeling forms of faithful ministry that have the power to shape not only the lives of individual Christians, but also the church as it navigates changing times.