Reimagning Church Camp

Imagine this: there is a place where you can be completely yourself, and be loved for everything you are. In this place you can sing, dance, laugh, pray, play, run, create, explore and live more fully than you do in your every day life — possible live the most full life you can. This is a place where you can ask questions you may be afraid to ask in your every day life and those questions will be explored, not ignored or put down. This is a place where you feel God as a real, living presence and become more aware of the value and example of the life of Jesus and of the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life. When you leave this place, the relationships you have formed will support you throughout your life. When you experience crushing loss, these friends will be there to carry you. When you experience immense joy, these friends will show up to celebrate with you. This place will feed your faith in God, in others, and in yourself.

This is how I experienced church camp. Sure, there was teenage drama — the boy I liked who didn’t like me back (oh, Cory… sigh…). But I don’t remember there being cool kids or losers like there so often are in teenage life. I do remember learning to love people I never would have talked to in my daily life and being loved in a way I never thought possible. It is the experience of Camp Mowana that grew my faith as I spent most of my teenage years at punk shows with Atheist friends. It is the love I felt at camp that lives in my heart and reminds me of God’s love when I feel unloveable and worthless. It is the friendships that I made at camp that kept me faithful during the lean years, the times when it seemed like everything was dark and God was nowhere to be found. I have said many times that my camp experiences and relationships have possibly saved my life — and definitely saved me from myself more than once. I am not the only person who can tell this story about church camp (I recognize that there are some awful church camp stories out there, that’s not what I’m goin’ for here).

There is a whole lot of happiness in this picture. You have no idea. Unless you are in it, then you do.

And yet traditional, cabin in the woods church camps seem to be dying. This makes me so sad — not just because I am so attached to my beloved Camp Mowana, but because losing camps will mean losing an amazing way to foster and feed the faith of young people. We are losing the very people we need to reach the most. The problem is, we are trying to reach them by going to places they aren’t. If our churches are shrinking and youth involvement is particularly struggling, how does it make sense to depend on local congregations to  fill the cabins? Why are camps fishing in ponds that are, by and large, dying?

The big question here is this: How can camp be missional?

What if, instead of focusing on the people in the pews, we focused on the people in the surrounding towns? What if we made camps a place where people could explore faith, not just a place where it was fed to them? Would it be possible to be open to the “spiritual but not religious” and yet retain Christian (Lutheran, in my case) integrity? Can a camp be Christian “under the hood”?

What if our camps were also vibrant spiritual communities where regular worship happened once a week? What if we invited the community in for weekend meals? Or, even crazier, what if we invited local bands in to perform, hosted yoga retreats, provided levels of Christian experience for people who weren’t too sure about church? What if we had weeks that taught farming or primitive skills or computer skills with a side of Jesus? Is any of this possible?

I’m scheming and dreaming new ways we can do church camp. Help me out. What is being tried? What is working? What isn’t? If any of my non-Christian friends read this – could anything draw you/your children/your family to a camp that was identified as Christian? What can we do to revive or rebirth outdoor ministries?


About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

8 responses to “Reimagning Church Camp

  • abstyles

    As a person who believes that camp is an essential experience for children, I think you’re asking the right questions. I never went to church camp, and that wouldn’t have been the right fit for me, but I think that I learned a lot of my values at camp, and since they are the same values that you would actually be trying to impart, I think there is a way to have a Christian camp under the radar. My camp is a Camp Fire camp, and one of the laws of Camp Fire is to “worship God” – but we don’t say which God. We are inclusive and nondenominational. But I think that, to me, it gets down to the values that you want to instill in kids. And if you can instill those values without singing Jesus Loves Me, then you can attract a wider audience. But it depends on what you are after.

    • ERW

      I’m trying to figure out where that line is — how we can be a place that spiritual seekers would find interesting while staying Christian. What does that look like? I don’t know. Would it even be possible to attract people like you and your wife to come to or send your children to a vaguely religious camp? All things I am playing with. Cause, you know, I have so much free time 😉

  • biblicalmasculinities

    I had negative experiences at camp, as both a camper and a counselor. Two things stick out.

    First of all, the counselor culture at many camps needs to change from one of exclusion to one of inclusion. Camp staffs are very often cliquey. They tend to center around an “in” crowd you returns to that camp, year-after-year, essentially forming a core staff. Because they are so close, and this seems only natural, they exclude newer staff from leadership and social opportunities. The result? Lost talent for the camp.

    The second phenomenon I noticed (and I think this might address the above comment) is a tendency to think the camping experience is essential and universally “good” for all kids. This is not the case. Some kids have a hard time forming relationships in the span of a week. Others might be bullied by their church group and feel insecure in that environment. Whatever the case, there will always be some kids for whom camp is a frightening place, one in which God seems hard or impossible to find.

    • ERW

      I’m really sorry you had negative experiences — I know many who have and it breaks my heart.
      I feel like both of the examples you provide are examples of an unhealthy camp culture — something that is prevalent at so many organizations. There are ways to create a culture that doesn’t have an “in crowd” — but it has to be very intentional and consistent. It also is something that is shaped by who you hire. I am someone who believes that a camp experience is something that all kids should have, but, clearly, there are a lot of camps out there that are unhealthy or that aren’t well suited to different types of kids. I actually can’t stand it when church groups come to camp together. It often brings the cliquey-ness of some churches (again, a culture created by youth directors, pastors and other leaders) into camp. My worst camp experiences involve church groups that come together.
      It probably all boils down to the fact that I wish everyone could have my camp experience, which I really truly do feel was broadly inclusive and worked hard to bring in kids who were on the outside — as well as provide a balanced experience for the staff.
      One of the reasons I feel that the camp experience is so important is that it provides kids an opportunity to unplug and experience the wonders of the natural world. Not every kid may be into backpacking or capture the flag, but I’m hard pressed to think of a kid who wouldn’t find something to enjoy at camp. Often, by the end of the week, the kids have stopped thinking about all of their electronics and are able to appreciate the sounds of nature. As a day camp director this summer, I revel in the short bursts of enthusiasm I see in the kids when they are away from their XBoX systems and experiencing nature. I also mourn the kids lack of physical fitness and lack of knowledge of the outdoors.
      I also think that finding ways to form who you are away from your parents is an integral part of growing up — and good camps can provide an excellent place to play with what that looks like.
      Thanks for reading!

      • biblicalmasculinities

        I think you’re right about giving kids a “chance to unplug,” but the fact that you’re hard-pressed to think of that kid who might not enjoy camp is part of the issue with camp culture. Camps, in general, are staffed and run by people who LOVE camp! And that’s great! Yet, off the top of my head, I can think of a healthy number of friends who disliked camp. The trouble is, their voices are often not heard; they’re the quiet ones, those who don’t speak up when they’re in the midst of a bunch of kids having a great time.

        I realize this is a minority opinion, but my major point is (and I should have clarified this above) that when you are looking to improve the camp experience, just remember that you can’t reach everyone. In fact, you may very well turn a lot of kids and staff off. This is not fault of the camp culture or camp staff, it’s just a reality of living in a world with different kids from different families.

        Still, I’m behind you 100%. Anything that can make camp a better place is a cause worth supporting.

  • Katie

    I do know the happiness because I am in the photo. Ah! That was one the THE BEST weeks of my life!! This makes me want to work at camp again. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to work at Mowana but if I ever get back in to camp again, I would totally go the Mowana model. I’ve worked at a few camps with BIG staffs and those are usually the more ‘clicky’ ones.

    When I get back from my next adventure, perhaps I’ll get back into camp again.

  • Sharron Blezard

    Hi. I agree that camp is an important experience that can be a formative and good one for most youth–and many adults. And, I agree that like many traditional mainline congregations, church-affiliated camps need to think outside the box and “re-form.” I’ve had the distinct pleasure to be involved with half a dozen church camps (all but one are Lutheran and each has its own distinctive personality.

    The ones that seem to be doing the best are the ones that are getting the most creative about opening up use of the space to outside groups and offering themed camps.

    Some other things that occur to me as being worthwhile might include developing high school or middle school semesters in the wild. Many of our camps would have to be updated, but the opportunity is there to collaborate with educators and private schools. Collaborating with local school districts to offer an environmental science or indoor/outdoor school is a distinct possibility, too. What about seminary semesters? Working with colleges and universities? Looking at interfaith learning experiences or “peace and justice” camps that would attract a variety of folks are other paths.

    The space and location smack dab in the middle of creation has a sacred quality to it whether one is overt in doctrine or subtle in exploration. What is definitely clear is that these spaces are too precious to let them go down the tubes or be sold for development.

    What about finding a camp that’s willing to host a visioning and creative experience for “camp folk” to come together and share ideas and dreams?

    Thanks for raising the issue! Peace and blessing.


  • Sarah

    I’m in the picture!! And it truly was a wonderful experience!! Mowana is a special place. You are a beautiful writer.

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