Make church more like camp!
By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
As July turns to August, church camps across the nation are closing the books on another summer. I imagine equipment being cleaned and stored for the winter. I think of arts-and-crafts directors cataloging materials. I imagine the loneliness of the chapels and the more rustic worship sites as they sit and wait for the coming year.
Of course, my imaging’s reveal me to be a former camper of a certain age. At many camps, the sleep-away season comes to an end, but soon the adult retreat season begins. To meet fiscal responsibilities, many camps will open their gates to groups of all sorts: band camps and crafters of all kinds and people in search of autumn leaves or skiing.
I’ve been to church camps of all kinds, both as a camper who slept away for a week and as an adult. I admire the ways that church camps nourish so many. My experiences at camp also lead me to ask some of the same questions I ask at the end of every vacation Bible school: Why is there a commitment to camp that we don't see to church? How are they feeding different needs? Does the commitment point to a need to change the weekly approach? Or is it because camp and vacation Bible school only come once a year, and, thus, they feel special? Is it because they come once a year that the family is willing to make the effort and sacrifice the time and, in some cases, money?
A question that might point to the root that answers all these questions: Why do I feel so much closer to God at camp than I do in most church buildings? Do these camps become “thin places” as Celtic Christians might tell us? Is it something intrinsic to a mountain-top experience?
We talk about capturing children while they're young, and one way to do that is by giving children a church-camp experience. Study after study has shown that church camps foster a love of both God and the community of believers that will stay with a camper long into adulthood.
In fact, one of the variables that separates grownups who go to church regularly from those who don't is an experience at church camp. Many of us don't talk about making our weekly church experiences more like those that capture the hearts of children. Why are we so resistant to that? Why do we assume that camp is special and a place apart and that we cannot duplicate any of that?
I'm not saying we have to abandon our traditions. Most churches have room for more than one service, after all. Keep the traditional service for those who feel that church must be done a certain way.
But let's spend some time thinking about how worship and other weekly activities would look if we did it the way it's done at camp. Let's try to recapture some of the energy of church camp into our weekly traditions. Let’s do some arts-and-crafts projects together regularly. Let's look to church camps that do amazing community building in a very short time and see what techniques we can borrow.
Let’s make church more like camp.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college professor and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.