Should Church Be Like Summer Camp?

Christian summer camp is something of a sore point for me. I never got the spiritual high that all the other kids got when I went, probably because I was a very introverted kid with some medical issues that created a lot of embarrassment. Even beyond that, at a very young age I was very aware of the manipulative techniques used by so many in that industry. They were well-intentioned folks, don’t get me wrong; but there was just something disingenuous about corralling kids in small groups and using all kinds of weird reinforcements and rewards for their acquisition of Biblical information.

“Memorize ten verses this afternoon and you get a free soda at the snack bar!”

“If your team wins the Bible trivia challenge, your counselor will eat a goldfish!”

There was this one year – I think it was my last – when the speaker was exhausting himself on the sins of drunkenness and excess every night. On the final night, he called for all the campers to come forward and pray at the altar because “The Spirit is moving.”

Well, he wasn’t moving me. I didn’t feel any kind of spiritual prodding or emotional need to go forward. So I didn’t. Over the course of about eight hundred verses of “Just As I Am”, I sat there quietly with my head respectfully bowed while all of the other kids in the pavilion went forward. At least half a dozen adults tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to go forward. They looked genuinely frustrated that I wasn’t stirring.

The experience troubled me. I came from a home where the highest spiritual discipline was not emotional responses but in-depth study of the Scriptures. (The previous year, I had astounded my counselor by translating John 1:1 from Greek when he wrote it on a napkin. It never occurred to me that other kids couldn’t do that.)

In my church, we didn’t go up front unless God was convicting you of sin, so I would have been dishonest if I had answered that altar call. But everyone wanted me to anyway.

I stopped going to Christian camps around the age of ten and never looked back. I have been in a lot of ministries where camp has been a big deal, and I have supported the work. But deep inside, I know that most of those emotional appeals won’t last long. The message only resonates in the echo chamber of isolation. Outside of the campground, the kids will most likely lose the “fire” they acquired.

I bring this up because Tall Skinny Kiwi posted a thought-provoking article about a summer camp that has been converted to something of a monastery in New Zealand. He writes:

I also have very fond memories of New Zealand camps when I was younger.

Camps are where you can hang out late at night, dress badly, discover yourself, fight the giggles at 2 in the morning, watch the uninhibited speaker embarrass himself publicly, eat poorly cooked food, get up surprisingly early to pray, create and perform silly skits, pee in a freezing cold cement toilet block, and share your life-changing decision with your new friends as bonfire flames lick your eyelashes.

He goes on to write about this camp-turned-monastery and how it has become a big hit among the Anglicans. People travel from all over the islands to spend time there for renewal and retreat.

I guess that is good, and I am glad that people have found a way to recharge their spiritual vibe. Personally, I have a hard time with this idea of part-time monasticism that drives both summer camp and trends like the ones Kiwi is writing about.

Is there really such a thing as part-time monasticism? Can a brief period of “retreat from this world” really do that much good in someone’s life? Am I just quirky?

It just seems to me that this kind of temporary retreat doesn’t really fix anything. It just seems that for the majority of people, it gives a hit of “spiritual” crack without really creating life change.


1 thought on “Should Church Be Like Summer Camp?”

  1. Not saying anything about the usefulness of such camps, as I’ve never been part of one, I do find it useful to have a personal retreat of sorts to contemplate and reflect on really anything serious or deep. It could just be my personality, but I genuinely enjoy getting away and just being quiet. When I lived in the Karoo (kind of like the Arizona desert) I used to love climbing the small mountains and sitting on top, taking in the wide expanse while praying. I would think the usefulness of it would be determined by the individual approach to it.

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