(Dr. Jake Sorenson’s blog post to VibrantFaith.org, August 19, 2016)
Another year of summer camp is in the books! Somewhere around 10 million American children went to camp this summer, and roughly 2 million of them attended a Christian camp. The numbers seem impressive, but many of us continue to ask the question, does any of it make a difference? We have all heard stories from young people who had significant or even life-changing experiences at camp. But we have also heard horror stories or theology in the camp setting that make us uncomfortable.
There are so many other options for young people these days. Do we really need camping ministries, or have they outlived their usefulness? Are we, as one Lutheran pastor from Pennsylvania bluntly put it, begging for money to save the dinosaurs?
An exciting new research project has set out to address these questions. For the first time, we have data about the effects of the Christian summer camp experience that go beyond anecdotal evidence. We are discovering how and why camp is effective for faith formation, leadership development, boosting self-esteem, strengthening congregations, and much more.
Camp is not obsolete, and it is far from extinct.
We know this because we spoke with camp directors, summer staff members, camp participants, camper parents, and church leaders. It is abundantly clear that the Christian summer camp experience directly impacts participants in positive and recognizable ways, and these impacts extend to their families, congregations, and others in their supporting networks. Fully 92% of responding parents agreed that the camp experience clearly had an impact on their children. They described how their children came home singing camp songs, asking to pray at the dinner table, full of self-confidence, and simply happier than before they went to camp. Another 89% said their child learned something new, and 90% of parents agreed that their child grew in faith at summer camp. ”
We know that camp is not obsolete because our research reveals that it offers a unique blend of five fundamental characteristics: intentional relationships, emotional/physical safety, distinct differences and separation from the home environment, active participation, and faith interwoven throughout. Our young people need these characteristics of camp more than ever as faith becomes more compartmentalized from everyday life, relationships become increasingly indirect or mediated through technology, and people spend more time inside and sedentary.
We expected to hear that campers struggled with separation from technology. We discovered the opposite. Six camper focus groups at three different camps were in agreement that being away from their phones, computers, and TVs was actually a good thing. Some even said that they were happier without them. Why? They were with friends, interacting with nature, experiencing new things, and growing in their faith.
It is not like camp is some sort of magic formula. Not everyone has a life-changing experience. But the vast majority of participants have an overwhelmingly positive experience and identify clear ways that camp has impacted them. It is simply not enough to say that camp is generally positive and probably has a role in the 21st century church. The evidence is overwhelmingly positive. Our research shows that the effects are clear, measurable, and remarkably consistent. Stronger faith. Increased engagement in congregations. More self-confidence. Willingness to try new things. Faith conversations in the home. The list goes on.
Camps are filling needs that no other ministry is addressing with this level of effectiveness. Not only is camping ministry here to stay. It is an indispensible ministry capable of informing other ministry practices as they seek to navigate the changing realities of 21st century Christianity in America.