Is Christian camping ministry done?
In the grand old days of many Christian’s experience, one week during the summer was devoted to a church camp experience. We roughed it in a cabin, endured the smell, survived the camp dining hall, and somehow left that place anxious to return next year. In a post-COVID 19 world, though, sending kids and teens to sip soft drinks together and play “pass the donut” seems to many unwise at best. The pandemic is only the latest blow to an industry already in decline. Once a flourishing ministry, Christian campgrounds are either closing or being repurposed. Are we seeing the end of an era? Are these mountaintop experiences only memories or can the concept of retreat and camping be salvaged?
In theory and practice, retreating to a camp facility for a concentrated time of spiritual renewal has merit. But logistically, new realities for the Christian campground have emerged. Insurance liability, child safety rules and regulations, camper/counselor ratios, accommodations for the special needs campers, medication management, and facility safety requirements all stretch our resources to the breakpoint. Plans to accommodate the best interests of campers become more problematic each year. Moreover, the concept of actually ‘camping’ no longer suits the tastes of many students. Roughing it in a cabin without air conditioning, phones and video games seems more like a punishment than a privilege. Camp facilities offering bare bone cabin arrangements and basic meal provisions are bypassed in favor of venues offering thrill seeking amenities like zip-lining, water slides, rock walls, and high ropes, all at a significantly greater cost than Capture the Flag and water balloon wars. And while the shift continues, the original concept of getting out of doors to hear God has become so costly and resource intensive that the very ground of Christian camping ministry is at risk.
Many camp operations have adapted to the new reality and delivered upgrades in hopes of maintaining viability in the market. For example, Camp Pinerock in Prescott, AZ raised funds to construct a large recreational pool. Many of Pinerock’s cabins underwent significant upgrades to better accommodate campers. Camp Pinerock’s once remote location is now annexed into the city limits, demanding stricter compliance to building codes, occupancy requirements, and security review. It’s a far from cry the humble beginnings of the camp, where some campers bathed in a nearby lake.
Modern camp conveniences arrive with a hefty price tag and considerable changes to programming. The days of operating on volunteerism and funding from denominational church apportionments are over. Camp facilities demand full time professional staff and year round occupancy in order to generate funds to operate in the black. Some camp facilities have adapted, but many others have not. These changes were in full swing before the pandemic. I am not suggesting these adaptations are ill-advised or wrong. In many cases, they are called for and beneficial. Camp Pinerock is among the survivors that are successfully adapting to new realities with new hope and creativity.
But is adaptation enough?
My answer is qualified. If nothing changes and the current trajectory holds, Christian camping will likely become a relic of the past. Perhaps small pockets of interest will remain, or the novelty experience will find demand, but camp as a major element of youth programming will likely not survive. Some churches will fill those gaps with conferences, festivals and other activities more suited to the tastes of youth in the 21st Century. Large churches often migrate to resort-like, recreation-oriented, professionally staffed campsites in tourist areas instead of being part of denominationally sponsored camping experiences. Smaller churches struggle with camp funding issues. The rationale cuts along two paths: 1) Attending a camp program offered by my denomination is too expensive and demands resources beyond those we have at our disposal; 2) Attending a camp program offered by my denomination does not meet my expectations and therefore is not worth the investment. One is an economic viability issue (camps are very expensive to fund) and the other evidences consumerist stewardship (I get more bang for my buck elsewhere). In both cases, localized camp models are losing ground to camping as a market driven industry.
The threat to traditional camps also comes from diminishing returns. Some church districts have condensed two programs into one (Jr. High and Sr. High) to ensure a camp can attract enough attendance to break even, or at least to minimize losses. Scaling back contributes to a perception of reduced quality. Family Camp meetings with a revivalist emphasis have also declined which impacts revenue. Increased costs and reduced attendance contributes to a downward spiral of perception in a world glutted with activity options.
On the other side of the issue, there are reasons to believe that Christian camping ministry is not over for those who dare to redefine it. I believe there is an exciting new frontier in camping ministry waiting to be explored. I have met many who are weary of consumer expectations and funding issues associated with large-scale Christian camping and the incessant need to “top that.” So perhaps it is not about competing or having the latest thrill, but life impact.
What else is there? Might I suggest rediscovery of “retreat” as a spiritual formation model in the camp setting? Instead of large scale activity-driven/speaker-centric youth camps, consider the value of programming on a smaller scale with a focus on relationships and spiritual mentoring. And what if those program venues addressed the very real need of humans to get in touch with God through creation? Consider what God could do under the stars of a moonlit sky as students join together in prayer, contemplating the Psalms. How might God speak and demonstrate eternal power through the crash of waves on a sandy beach? What about the formation of relationships around shared meal responsibilities and camp communitas? Is it possible to do this without the distraction of cell phones and other electronic devices? I think so. Will it be popular? Perhaps numbers and dollars should not be the determining factors in our decision making. Instead the emphasis might shift to increased potential for lasting spiritual impact with less hype and a lower price tag. What if we make the most of valuable spiritual lessons that can only be learned away from the domesticated bubbles in which we live our daily lives? I contend we need to remember some of the simple ways of connecting and living together in community without modern conveniences. Christian camping ministry is not over unless we want it to be.
In our ministry, Rip’d 4 Life, we create scaled down camp experiences aimed at shaping young men. Exercise routines, spiritual disciplines, meal sharing, service projects, hiking, and kayaking are the backbone of the schedule. We set up tents, conduct solo nights in the woods, observe the Daily Office and teach life skills, like how to change a flat tire. Life-on-life mentoring happens best in these settings, especially when there are no electronic devices competing for attention. We still struggle to connect with digital age youth who prefer the comfort of a screen over what they perceive as “hard core roughing it,”(which is almost comical because our programs hardly resemble actual “roughing it.”) and the struggle becomes part of the journey. In one of our programs, we held a phone burying ceremony where we actually buried phones in the dirt for a week. Instead of making it a bad thing, we played it up and exchanged light hearted jabs with each other. No one complained!
Why boys? We asked for a sampling of numbers from among fifteen churches of various sizes that offer co-ed camping programs. We found youth camp retains greater popularity among girls (491 girls attended to 369 boys). Among the boy population, junior high boys far outnumbered senior high boys. It is safe to conclude, youth camp programs are rapidly losing ground with senior high boys and boys in general.
I’m sure there are other ways Christian camping can be re-imagined that are yet to be considered and I invite you to use our ideas to stir your own holy imagination. Ask yourself, how could scaling down be a viable response to the challenges of an upscaled world?
If things remain the same, it’s likely that the current trajectory of decline in Christian camping will continue. Participation has waned, facilities have closed. But the need for our youth to have memorable formative experiences continues. Now is the time to make your move for renewal. Now is a time for hope.
Rev. Dr. Robert (Bob) Hunter
Rip'd 4 Life Ministries, Inc.