I have been involved with various Christian camps—mostly ACU’s Leadership Camps—for a good chunk of my life. In the summer of 2009 I was a counselor for ACU’s camps. In the summer of 2010 I became a head counselor for ACU’s camps. And, this past summer, I reprised that role. Additionally, I attended ACU camps in elementary and middle school and, the summer of 2008, I returned as a camper one last time. Even in the summer of 2011, when I was an intern for First Colony’s Children’s Ministry, we spent one week at camp. I have written curriculum, taught, led devos, organized programs, walked campers through daily life at camp, supervised a staff of counselors, been in on planning and vision-casting meetings, led a small group through a week of camp, debated method, vision, and theology, loved on kids, and so much more. And, yet, I am not sold on the idea.
It’s not that I think camp is particularly harmful or bad, and its not like I don’t think it does a lot of good for the participants. Rather, it seems that camp may contribute to the problem—lack of spiritual depth—that it seeks to address.
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Camp—at least the modern professional camp—is a contemporary innovation. Christian camping has been around for a while—at least since the Great Awakenings when revivalists held tent meetings out in the country. However, such “camps” were almost always attended by families or, at the least, attended by churches. Modern Christian camping, however, reflects the rise of niche ministries in the church. That is, Modern Christian camping is, essentially, a consumer driven service
But let’s back up.
Being a rather wealthy society, we would almost always rather pay someone to do a professional job than do it ourselves. This is why auto mechanics, pest control people, maids, corporate farms, grocery stores, cable and satellite technicians, masseuses, waiters, chefs, dry cleaners, yoga instructors, financial advisors, teachers, and any other person paid to do a task for someone else exists. As soon as we have the money to do so, we tend to farm out unpleasant or complicated tasks to others. My parents have a maid that comes to clean the house every two weeks. My grandmother pays a man to mow her lawn every week. My granddad has a computer technician on retainer. I owe a good amount of money in student loan debt because I contracted a university to teach me and was ultimately awarded a marketable degree. See the pattern? We—none of us—provides directly for ourselves. We are all caught in a complicated web of inter-related services called the economy.
None of this is bad in and of itself. Contracting and paying others to render services is the way an economy works. A complicated economy, like the one in the U.S. has many, many layers to it. But, when it comes right down to it, we pay other people to do stuff for us. The result, in an advanced economy, tends to be a specialization of knowledge. My mom is a professional teacher. She has a Master’s degree in Education. She is far more qualified to teach kids than, say, my sister. My dad is a chemical engineer. He is far more qualified to make chemicals than, say, I am. I am a tutor in ACU’s writing center. I have a degree in English and I am pursuing graduate studies in Composition and Rhetoric. I am far more qualified to tutor others in academic and professional writing than, say, my dad is. But, the sacrifice my mom has made to gain her specialized knowledge has meant that she lacks other essential knowledge, which is fine if she is able to pay others to perform for her the necessary services.
The church is no different. The church has its own professionals with specialized knowledge: priests, vicars, pastors, reverends, ministers, bishops, etc. They also provide a professional service: they give spiritual direction. They preach, counsel, teach, and facilitate environments in which people can gain spiritual “goods”, whatever those may be. And there is a market for this. People pay churches to provide certain services. They pay for knowledge of God, assurance of salvation, the Truth, spiritual formation, etc. They also pay the church to be their proxy in helping the poor, feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick, educating their children, etc. But, since the market is driven by consumer desire, churches have adapted.
For instance, in the 1970’s Young Life and other similar organizations were created in order for the church to reach youth. These organizations existed alongside individual churches. Soon, churches started hiring ministry professionals to reach “youth”. As time has gone on, ministry has specialized to include “youth”, “children”, “singles”, “college”, “men”, “women”, “young adults”, etc. In the case of youth and children, parents have been quite willing to cede over to ministry professionals the primary responsibility of discipling children. In fact, this works so well that parents can go to “big church” while children go to “children’s church” and youth go to “re-charge” or “lightening” or some other hip word that just means “youth church”. The only places that families interact is in the parking lot.
This reflects the broader “drop-off” culture present in the U.S. at large. We send our children to schools divided by age to be taught by professional teachers. We put our kids on sports teams or in band to be trained by professional coaches or directors. We have “drop-off” daycare, soccer, ballet, and school. During the summer, parents often send their kids to camps in order that their kids’ competencies in particular interests be expanded. So, as a high school student, I attended three different debate camps to expand my debating ability and therefore increase my success as a member of the debate team at school.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Christians began to offer their own versions of summer camp. The Christian sub-culture has tended to offer an alternative to the secular world. There are Christian movies, music, art, novels, and businesses. These Christian alternatives exist because there is a market for them. There are millions of evangelicals in the U.S. who want the music they listen to, the books they read, the movies they watch, the art they hang, and the businesses they shop in to be distinctly Christian. If this were not the case, they market would have insured their failure.
Christian camping, then, is a market response to the consumer need to provide Christian children and youth with an alternative camping experience. The intent of Christian camping, at least at ACU, is to provide campers with deeper spiritual formation than they have yet received. The result is a professional camp—directed by people with degrees in ministry—that specializes in spiritually transformative summers for individual children and youth.
Hear me: this isn’t a bad thing! It is WONDERFUL that so many campers are able to come to a better knowledge of God. Yet, such an environment—whose goal is to provide the spiritual direction so often lacking in households and churches—results in the mistaken belief that kids and youth are spiritually fine if sent to camp and fed through a children and youth ministry program at a church. This belief is mistaken because it fundamentally misunderstands God’s vision for the church and for the family.
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God invented the family. In the Fall, the family was one of the things that fell. Fathers embitter their children and children disobey their parents. Husbands rule over their wives and wives disrespect their husbands. Yet, the family is the most ancient of all cultural structures. All cultures everywhere at all times have had a family structure. In most societies in the past, the family included extended family, but even in Western countries the basic family of a mother, father, and children is considered ideal, even if not the norm. Everyone at all times in history assumed that parents have the job of raising their children. The Bible is no different. Parents are told to raise children—in fact raising children is a sacred task—and children are told to obey and respect parents because the wisdom of parents is a light and lamp. The same metaphor is used to describe the commands of God.
And yet, many parents in American Christianity have other more pressing concerns than providing spiritual direction to their children. Many parents have careers which eat much of their time. They pursue professional goods designed to further their own—either good or bad—ambitions. Additionally, many parents feel ill-equipped to spiritually form their children. This makes sense. Many parents of high school children and younger were, themselves, raised in the age of youth groups and Young Life. They recognize that a professional—here remember the above discussion about the market’s belief in professionals—is better equipped to provide spiritual direction to children. And, to gain the patronage of such parents, churches offer increasingly professional ministry to children. And, since the church puts forward professional children’s ministry as an important feature of the life of the church, parents embrace it. What they lose, however, is the responsibility for raising their own kids.
Since families are not pursuing God as families, then the church feels obligated to facilitate more events so that the kids get more exposure to the things of God. And, since the summer break affords families more freedom, they also send their kids off to church camp to further inculcate the things of God. But few parents come to camp. Few parents actively participate in the moments in their children’s lives when the things of God are truly apprehended.
In any case, parents feel relieved of responsibility to raise their own kids in the faith. Since they are not participating with their kids in what they are learning, they cannot interact with their kids on those terms at home. Bible class teachers and camp counselors cannot model the Christian life for their students; they can only teach. They cannot be parents.
And this contributes to the breakdown of the church. The church goes from being a family of families to being a business with several departments. The departmental model—with ministries for every sort of niche group—divides the body of Christ and robs the Gospel of its power to break down the barriers that our society promotes. Children are not viewed as full members of God’s community, so shunting them off to the side makes sense. Church is “for adults”. And, let’s face it, kids think children’s stuff with flashy activities, cool videos, and snacks is much more fun than “big church”. This, of course, encourages the view that the sacred assembly on Sunday morning is boring. Rather than teaching our kids about our heritage of faith, we tell them to leave us alone until they are 18. And, once they are 18, I can’t imagine that many will suddenly want to start going to “boring church”.
But the problem gets more complicated.
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Professional children’s ministries and professional Christian camps for children are almost exclusively the domain of the middle-class (a few campers do come on scholarship). It costs hundreds of dollars to send children to ACU’s camps. And many of our campers come from across the state, so there is even more money required for travel. Only a handful of our campers are not white. The principle concerns of our campers are typical middle-class concerns. The stories they tell, the questions they raise, the context into which they want to apply the teaching are all framed around the sort of world I grew up in. A world of two parents (although many kids do have non-traditional homes), of a backyard, of baseball games, of birthday parties, of vacations: essentially, a comfortable suburban world.
And this is not wrong in itself. Middle-class suburban children need God as much as anyone.
The problem is that camp is a market response directed to those middle-class Christians who can pay for its professional services, with the result that middle-class Christianity successfully insulates itself from the troubles of the world. And the Gospel that the campers learn about fails to turn the world upside down because it fails to challenge the status quo—the status quo of the middle-class white Americans who send their kids to camp.
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The Gospel is the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord over all things. He lived a perfect life to be emulated. He died a sacrificial death on the cross—absorbing the sin, evil, pain, and suffering of the world unto himself. He was raised from the dead—conquering sin, death, and Satan forever while reconciling all things to himself by the blood of his cross. He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He rules over everything.
He sent the Holy Spirit to his followers on earth. The first big act of the Holy Spirit was to draw people from every nationality into God’s sheep fold. The Gospel is for everyone. It breaks down all barriers.
Those of us who are in Christ are dead to our old sin nature and made alive in Christ. Everything we once were—sinners of every kind seeking only self-satisfaction—was crucified with Christ. We have taken his command to take up our cross and follow him quite seriously. Everything we had we gave over to the cross. We were then entombed with Christ. Then, the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead also raised us from the dead. We owe our lives to Christ. We owe everything that we are to him. Everything that we have must be given in service to him. For “I was crucified with Christ, but nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ, lives in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ bids a man come, he bids him come and die.” The Christian cannot legitimately hold on to anything.
But the Gospel is NOT solely individualistic. The Gospel, falling within the tradition and history of Israel, calls out of the earth a holy Kingdom. A holy Family of faith. This family of faith is drawn from every tongue, tribe, nationality, age, and gender. For “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female.” Israel viewed itself as a holy nation. So they were. We are Israel’s heirs. We, too, are a holy nation—a covenant people—with whom God dwells. We know that at the last day God will perfect us, but we get live now in a tension between the already and not yet. Community is a way for us to join the trinity in the dance of love. The Father, Son, and Spirit have, for eternity, poured out infinite love and affection on each other. We were created to feel that affection, and not only feel it as individuals, but as a family.
The cross reaches in both vertical directions forever, thereby uniting Heaven with earth. The cross also stretches forever in both horizontal directions, thereby uniting “In the beginning God created Heaven and earth” with “Behold, I am making all things new”. As Matt Chandler has said, “From the moment the godhead said ‘let us make man in our own image’ the shadow of the cross has stretched across eternity.” The cross takes all of our sins, both personal sins like lust or greed and corporate sins like racism and sexism, and kills them. We are personally reconciled to God and reconciled to each other. The breaking of Shalom that occurred in the Fall is reversed in Christ.
The cross does not offer a behavior modification plan, a system of belief, a program, an event, or a mission statement. The cross offers a way of life, and that way of life is lived out through real gritty relationships with other people.
And I am convinced that niche ministries do not reflect the family of God. The old should teach the young. The “young marrieds” should hang out with “old marrieds”. Teenagers should be with their parents and grandparents—learning the heritage of faith and working for the healing of the nations. The black church and the white church should not exist. The college students who are away from home should be taken in by empty-nesters who have room to spare. The poor and the rich should co-mingle.
And I suppose this vision of mine is not particularly realistic. And that might be the case. And yet I am convinced that that is the picture of the family of God we should be working towards. And, at the very least, we should recognize—and avoid—those moves we make toward division and exclusion.
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So what am I saying? Am I saying that camp is bad? Am I saying that a youth group is a bad thing?
No. I don’t think I am, at least I don’t think these things are innately bad. I think what we need to do, as the church, is do some serious soul-searching about the status quo. We need to recognize when certain methods of ours tend toward impeding the Gospel. And we need to take the good present in so many of our systems and work toward renewal.
And since I don’t want to leave this discussion without putting forward at least the beginning of a suggestion, I will do so here:
Camp, I think, should look similar to what camp looked like for me last summer when I interned for First Colony’s Children’s Ministry. All kids 18 and younger—and their families—were invited to join the church for a week of camp. Many parents came with their kids (while a good amount did not, which saddened me, though I understand obligation to work and such). And we had a large church-wide camp that included the youth group, children’s ministry, parents, and other volunteers. It was complicated and messy and beautiful.
And the body of Christ was one.
I suppose that is my hope. That we can work toward a better model of ministry wherein the church is one. Where the family members—though they squabble—love and are loved without condition.
May Christ be in our hearts always.