In Praise of Church Camps (and Conference Centers)

When I was 16 years old, I encountered the presence of God. At a weekend retreat held at a church conference center, I felt caught up out of my "normal" awareness into a place of almost ecstatic bliss, filled with a sudden recognition that God is real, God is love, and God is present, for anyone who truly seeks to pay attention. "Those who have eyes to see, let them see."

Call it a mystical awakening, a spiritual realization, or a moment of conversion. I don't think the words really matter. I saw light, I felt joy, and I launched on my lifelong journey of seeking to ever more fully give myself to the love of God.

This doesn't make me special; in fact, a therapist friend of mine says such moments of spiritual awakening are rather common among adolescents. My only reason for bringing it up now, nearly forty years after the fact, is because I want to say a word on behalf of the setting where my moment of divine communion took place. I could have had my "awakening" almost anywhere, but the fact that it took place at a conference center is meaningful. Such a setting certainly helped to make this spiritually meaningful moment possible.

Conference centers, retreat houses and church camps are found across our land, in rural settings of course, but even in suburban or urban contexts. Some are independently run; many are affiliated with a particular church or religious order. These days I often visit church camps, conference centers and related facilities, since I work full-time as a Christian speaker and retreat leader. Across denominational lines, again and again I am impressed by how important these kinds of establishments are to supporting people in their spiritual life.

Recently I led a retreat at an Episcopal camp/conference center near Jacksonville, FL, and had a chat with the center's director, Dr. Charles Wallace, about my appreciation for such facilities. We talked about how, for many Christians, the camp or conference center functions in a role similar to how monasteries or convents have functioned for Catholic or Orthodox Christians.

In other words, it provides a setting for spiritual nurture that is removed from the parish or congregation, without competing with the neighborhood church. Rather, by offering a place of quiet, of reflection, of unhurried time for prayer and contemplation, the camp or conference center (yes, they are different, although related) invites its visitors to a place where they can welcome God into their hearts.

So when you go to a church or a conference center, bear in mind that the staff -- the people who are serving you -- are there not only to serve you, but to serve God; and perhaps most important of all, to help you grow in your relationship with God. Its ministry in the deepest and truest sense of the word.

Today, many institutional churches face an uncertain future, as more and more people decide spirituality is best practiced in solitude rather than community. Not all churches are in trouble, of course, but it's still a huge shift that promises to change forever the public face of American religion. Likewise, many camps and conference centers are feeling the same squeeze: since most of their "customers" come from local churches, the decline of the latter naturally impacts the former.

If a town or city with 100 churches today only has 75 churches in fifty years, that's a loss -- but it seems to me that every single church camp or conference center that shutters its doors represents an even greater diminishment. For while the local church handles the daily grind of religion, the camps and conference centers represent the place where miracles can happen -- where significant commitments or conversions might take place, personal awakenings that can literally fill an entire life with meaning and purpose. The camps and conference centers represent the spiritual heart of religion. If they go, the neighborhood churches have lost an important resource for their own survival and spiritual health.

Even for those conference centers and camps that will remain open in the years to come, the changes in our society impact these ministries in very real ways. Wallace made this observation: "There was a time, say about 15 years ago, when conferees came to us seeking respite, release, from their world of day-to-day connection to, well, everything." With this in mind, many camps and centers provided no access to telephones or television (this was before smartphones and other portable devices were common).

But in today's hyper-connected world, many patrons of such facilities insist that they bring their phones, tablets or laptops with them. As Wallace lamented, "Any center that does not provide technology for digital connectivity will experience rejection from group leaders for that reason." In other words, the very notion of "making a retreat" has changed, even among churchgoing Christians. How can ministries that traditionally create a safe space for those who seek an intimate encounter with God, continue to do so in a world where increasing amounts of information and cognitive stimulation are not only accepted as the status quo, but even seen by so many people as a necessity?

I'm writing these words not to complain about social change or to lament a dying institution -- sure, some camps or centers may close, but many others will thrive (and some, God willing, will find new ways to invite people to temporarily abandon their connectivity). My purpose is to celebrate how important these hidden resources are to the spiritual health of our public life. If you are in a position to patronize a church camp or conference center, do so. You're not only supporting a worthy ministry, you are making an investment in your own spiritual wellness.

And for those readers who work in camps or conference centers, take heart and be mindful of what a vital, important ministry you provide to the church at large. You are helping people to pray, to grow spiritually, and to find rest, relaxation and silence in a world that is becoming increasingly indifferent of, if not hostile to, such spiritual nutrients.

Just as neighborhood churches are in the process of redefining themselves, certainly conference centers and camps must do the same in our time. But their essential purpose or mission will never change: to provide a safe place where people may nurture and cultivate their souls. I'm thankful that church camps and conference centers have blessed me in such a way. May they bless many more, for many years to come.