What was the most significant institution in my faith development? The obvious answer would be Sunday School and church youth group, or perhaps, my college chaplain's office. You might think it surely had to be the venerable Princeton Theological Seminary. Nope. The answer: Camp Dudley, a YMCA camp located on the banks of Lake Champlain in the Adirondack Mountains baring the slogan, "The other fellow first."
There were no testimonials, conversions, or baptisms. But every morning began with a prayer and a chapel talk. Every night ended with an evening reflection that we called Vespers. The highlight was and still is a Sunday night hymn sing where hundreds of young kids yelled their hearts out. Christian community was synonymous with everyday living at camp. I didn't have to sit still, dress up, listen to organ music, or sing in youth choir. Instead, I lived in a community with others where:
• The Golden rule made sense -- if you were going to live inches away from a dozen other campers, you'd better figure out a way to get along
• If I got out of line there was someone there to walk me through it and help me learn from my mistakes
• Bullying was dismantled, cliques didn't exist, and I found myself in fellowship with friends from the time I walked on to the camp grounds until the time my parents picked me up on the last day
The beginning of the migration from college to camp
This week thousands of college students who have moved out of their residence halls are headed to camp cabins or tents to serve as camp counselors. Some of these individuals have not been to church during the school year but will soon be working for the church, (albeit camp), for the next twelve weeks. And, those who complained about how hard they had to work at school can't wait to arrive at camp where they will work twenty-four/seven week after week with hardly a break.
These college students, soon to be camp counselors, who may have felt lost and without a purpose in college, will now step into leadership roles where their every move is watched and every action means something to an impressionable camper. There is a powerful, unique, and, I dare say sacred, bond that grows between the twenty year-old camp counselors and thirteen year-old campers. It was as true for me as my first year at camp as it was for my son Zac who attended camp last summer.
Camp as the new church
At camp, you:
• Experience God in new and powerful ways, through friendships, through nature, and through self-awareness
• Interact daily with fellow campers who turn into lifelong friends that stand by you when no one else does
• Feel loved and adored by a community that is not your own family
• Are accepted both in spite of who you are and because of who you are
• Get to dance around and sing out of key rather than sit in a pew and get scolded by a choir master
• You fall in love
• Live simply and people pay attention to you
• Have fun, and act silly, and try new things
I always wondered why I felt so spiritual during the summer, but so uninspired and disconnected when I came back home to church. If a local church advertised and could deliver on the same things that camps do, the place would be packed on Sunday mornings and vibrant, relevant, and powerful every day of the week.
Summer Camps: The Minor Leagues of the Church
Summer camp is the most significant institution in making the church relevant to the lives of young people and for identifying leadership for the church. It is the minor leagues for church membership and leadership. Anyone with even a vague understanding of baseball knows that championships are won and dynasties built through the farm systems and the minor league infrastructure. Summer camps serve a similar function by inspiring, identifying, and training future leadership for the church. In a day when the church is struggling to find relevance and a foothold in the lives of young people, it is missing its greatest strength: summer camp.
Brian Frick, from the Camp and Conference Ministries of the Presbyterian Church notes, "This year alone, 15,000 young adults will work at or attend programs at Presbyterian camps. We know that their time spent at camp will be both fun and transformative. In a recent survey, nearly 200 Presbyterian pastors point to camp as the single most impactful faith experience. Camps are the catalysts for a new future of faithful Christians."
Summer camps, as much as any other church activity, inspire, seek out, identify, and bring along individuals who can play significant leadership roles in the church. At a time when the church is being criticized for failing to attract and retain strong leadership, it would behoove those who care about the future of the church to think back on where they spent their summers.
This is why ten seminaries and divinity schools have come together to sponsored the New Faces of Ministry Tour where current students and recent graduates to go out to visit summer camps and share their stories and their vision for ministry. Students from different schools are pairing up, renting cars and driving around to visit and present at camps in twenty-one day intervals. Students will do everything from make formal presentations to listening about community work that is already happening to informal conversations. The intent is to help camp counselors connect the important roles they already fill to potential leadership roles in the church. The seminaries and divinity schools that are sponsoring the tour include: The visionary institutions that worked together to create the program include McAfee, Princeton, Wesley, Andover Newton, Earlham, Columbia, Christian Theological Seminary (IN) McCormick, University of Chicago, Luther (MN) , Austin, and Union (NY).
As part of the New Faces of Ministry Tour, students will be researching and identifying exemplary camps to be selected for the upcoming list, Summer Camps that Change the World. Like the lists that have been created for seminaries and service programs, the Center for Faith and Service will be looking to lift up and affirm these important institutions that often go unnoticed but are playing a key role in faith formation and leadership development.
To nominate your camp to be selected as a "Camp that Changes the Church" go to the nomination page at: faith3.org/camp-nomination/ Camps of all faith traditions are eligible to be nominated and recognized.
It's time to bring life, joy, and young people back to serve and lead the church. Just like Summer Camp.