Church leaders often describe their own experiences of summer camp with fondness, respect, and a large dose of nostalgia. We tell colorful stories about campfire traditions, sneaking out of cabins, and candlelight services on the beach. There is no doubt among camp enthusiasts that our own lives have been positively impacted by sleep-away camps, and that we are eager for others to experience the wonder.
But what actually makes a Christian camp (or retreat or conference) distinct? How is it similar to and different from a quality YMCA camp, or a great summer residential soccer program?
These were some of the questions that led me to design and offer a seminary course called Camps, Conferences, and Retreats: Experiential Learning to Transform Faith and Church. Having now taught the class twice and received very positive feedback from my students, I am more convinced than ever that intentional immersion experiences in Christian community offer a unique window into the Reign of God.
Individuals often have life-changing encounters with the Divine at a summer camp or during a retreat. Too often, however, these experiences are episodic and disconnected from ongoing Christian formation in local congregations. Individuals may be left with memories of “mountain-top” experiences or moments of awakened spiritual hunger, but disperse without carrying back these sustaining relationships to local churches. We have an extraordinary opportunity to form disciples with well-designed, holistic Christian camp programs. I am committed to equipping church leaders to do just that.
One of the assignments in my course that students enjoy and that consistently produces impressive results is their creation of “Criteria for (W)Holy Camps or Retreats.” The prompt is straightforward:
Make criteria explicit that you now understand to be essential for healthy Christian camps or retreats (pick one). Based on course readings, discussions, and your own experience, what is the purpose of Christian camping or an intentional Christian retreat? What is necessary on the part of the host institution and/or leadership to accomplish that purpose?
The annotated lists I receive result in explicit structures and processes that create an immersive experience into the metabolism of the Reign of God. The lists can easily become the basis for camp staff training or the framework for a staff covenant.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Spring/Summer 2017, Vol. 29, No. 3, page 10-11