Summer brings with it few consistencies (Wimbledon is one, good weather is not) but there is one that has endured over the years: the youth summer camp.
A chance for children to get away and for parents to be set free, the Christian summer camp adds the unique element of faith and spiritual excitement, perhaps re-igniting one's religious sense, or sparking it for the very first time.
But summer camps can get a hard time. Are they old hat for a digitally saturated generation? Are they just a reckless spiritual high, providing no long-term discipleship? An article by the satirical site The Babylon Bee took aim at the short-term frenzy with the sarcastic article: 'Teen At Summer Camp Rededicates Life To Christ For Next Two Weeks'.
For the volunteers who lead and make these camps possible, the adventures with wild and unruly youth can also make incredibly hard work. Is it worth it?
Having spent more than half of my life's summers attending or leading such ventures, I'm here to make their case. Whether you're young or old, summer camps could save your life.
1. The spiritual getaway
Even for those who grow up going to church, Christian camps spark the beginning of faith for many. Perhaps it's travelling to a new place, or hearing faith talked about through songs you hadn't heard before and in ways you hadn't imagined.
Despite a Christian upbringing, my own faith only really 'came to life' at a camp. For many who grow up well acquainted with ministry, these events provide a crucial 'spiritual getaway' which allows you to build a faith apart from the baggage of your family. Not that one's upbringing should be ignored, but finding one's own understanding of faith on a personal level is surely crucial.
And for those who grow up outside the Church, camp could well be their only interaction with Christian religion in their entire year. One camper on a venture I led this year said exactly that: they didn't go to church, and had no Christian family or friends that they knew of. It might be hard to believe, but in an increasingly post-Christian Britain, it's simply how it is. Camps make the connection.
2. Get (dis)connected
Another grace of the summer adventure is of course the fresh air, in several senses. Camp leaders may well look after mobile phones for the duration of the week, liberating campers from the lure of the digital screen. Of course, such tech isn't evil, but it is addictive. Why not gift your child with the knowledge that there's a little more to life?
It's not every week of the year you face a flurry of wall-to-wall drama, adventure, dress-up, and caffeinated absurdity, all tied up with an emotional farewell round a campfire. A misjudged fancy dress choice I once made at camp genuinely ended up attracting the local armed police. Shouldn't everyone get that opportunity?
If it's true, as researchers are suggesting, that the social implications of the smartphone are wiping out the next generation, then a week apart from it, in the glorious outdoors alongside a host of new faces, new ideas and a ton of joy can only be a beautiful thing.
3. Faith like a child?
As Jesus famously said: 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these' (Matthew 9:14).
He called his disciples to have faith like a child, and indeed young people often understand faith better than most. This is why camps are not just a gift for the kids who are sent there, but for those who choose to lead them as well.
They offer a special, profound and more innocent lens on reality. Not yet wearied by the cynicism of adulthood, they're often full of the kind of hope that we all need. It's not that they don't have doubts or difficult questions – which can be essential to a healthy faith – but they nonetheless invite older folk to see the world anew.
When you see people hearing about Jesus for the first time, being moved by it all for the first time, you may remember when it happened for you. Or maybe it never happened or is long forgotten – in which case you get to start again. Get back to the basics, the beautiful essentials of following Jesus, and wonder why you ever made it all so complex.
Leadership on camp is also a chance to experience the blessing of serving, of investing in the part of the Church that is, in case you'd forgotten, the future. It isn't always easy, it can be full of frustration and disappointment, but it can also surprise you. It can lift you up, and we all need that sometimes.
This year I spoke with a camper who towards the end of the week told me he was 'thinking about becoming a Christian'. Usually reactions to Jesus are a little more dramatic, so it was refreshing to see someone weighing up Christianity like they were contemplating the latest Windows update.
'Oh right,' I said in response, 'Well what are the pros and cons?'
'Well,' he said, 'you get to be a part of this amazing loving community [the Church], and you get to live your life knowing that no matter what you're never really alone.
'...And I can't really think of any cons.'
So take it from him. Sure, maybe you grow up and faith isn't always so simple. But also, maybe sometimes it is.
It might be over as soon as its begun, but what starts at summer camp can last a lifetime. They need you, and admit it, you need them.
I can't really think of any cons.
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