Christian camps get creative to attract youth in a tech-distracted age

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Nearly half of the estimated 14 million American youth going to camp this summer will be attending Christian camps to escape from home, play games with new friends, unplug from technology and seek God in nature.

Fun and faith formation remain the foundation of Christian camping. But kids now enjoy a greater range of activities, including motocross, robotics and theater. At least one camp hosts a weeklong session for kids undergoing gender transitions.

“Christian camping gives kids the opportunity to get away, clear their heads, unplug from tech and hear a message of God’s love for them,” said Gregg Hunter, president and CEO of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Hunter said that CCCA’s 860 member camps will host approximately 5.5 million kids this summer, a slight increase from 2017.

Creative programming, promotional efforts and an improving economy help attract campers to CCCA camps, which range “from camps run by one or two staff people for a few dozen campers, to camps with 100-plus staffers that serve more than a thousand guests at a time,” said Hunter. Current camping options include:

  • Horsemanship camps at Miracle Ranch in Washington state
  • Redwood Canopy Tour in Mount Hermon, Calif., which transports campers on zip lines 150 feet above the forest floor
  • Character Camp, which offers robotics camps for mostly African-American campers in Texas
  • Deerfoot, an all-boys camp in the Adirondacks, which focuses on outdoor skills and canoe-building.

Churches and denominations operate hundreds of camps across the U.S., and attendance varies widely in various faith traditions.

The National Study of Youth and Religion’s 2004 research found that nearly 40 percent of U.S. teens have attended religious camp at least once, with Mormon teens most likely to attend (78 percent), followed by conservative Protestants (53), mainline Protestants (48) and Catholics (24).

Even as they try to adapt to changing times, some Christian camps are not thriving as they once did. Pilgrim Lodge, located on Cobbosseecontee Lake and operated by the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, was founded in 1956, but the camp has been struggling to fill its 120 beds for the past few years, said interim director Melinda Trotti, who previously worked at United Methodist camps.

“From the 1950s through the 1980s, our churches were filling our camps,” said Trotti. “It was assumed that children would be in Sunday school, be confirmed and attend camp. Spaghetti suppers and women’s guilds helped raise money so anybody from church who wanted to go to camp would go to camp.”

But Trotti said many mainline denominations are witnessing a decline in the number of children in church. “Some churches don’t even have Sunday schools for children,” she said. “Our churches are not filling our camps the way they once did.”

Working from a consultant’s sustainability plan, Pilgrim Lodge is continuing to reach out to new audiences. In addition to hosting camps for families, grandparents and their grandchildren, and a camp for those 55 and over called Vintage Ventures, they have also launched Camp Pride for high school students who are gay, lesbian, transgender or transitioning. “They come here and are not just welcomed and understood, but are affirmed,” said Trotti.

Pilgrim Lodge is also partnering with other organizations to offer camps to serve children of refugees and migrant farm workers, adults with AIDS and groups leading anti-racism training and education.

“People need places where we sing together, eat together, serve food to each other and participate in worship together, especially at a time when we see increasing social media use and greater loneliness, anxiety and depression among young people,” said Trotti.

The grandeur of creation remains a big draw at the 37 camp programs operated by the evangelical youth ministry Young Life, which served more than 66,000 campers last year and expects a slight increase this year.

“Our goal is to create an environment where kids can experience Christ,” said spokesman Terry Swenson.

Most campers at Young Life’s camps are members of local Young Life groups. “Young Life camps are an extension of Young Life area ministries,” said Swenson. “Leaders take kids to camp, and they come home with their kids.”

Young Life operates outreach camps, discipleship camps, wilderness camps and sessions for children with disabilities. Swenson said LGBT youth are welcome at Young Life camps.

Both Young Life and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes report recent growth in their camping programs, which include locations overseas. FCA spokesman Patrick Benner said that 2017 was record-breaking, with more than 113,000 coaches and athletes attending 780 camps in 45 states and 41 countries. FCA expects overseas attendance numbers to increase this summer.

While programs at Christian camps are diversifying, the core attraction remains experiencing nature. As CCCA’s Hunter and other industry leaders said, camps remain the best antidote to the “nature deficit disorder” experienced by so many of today’s children.

Hunter said most CCCA camps require campers to drop off their smartphones at registration. “Counselors are equipped to deal with withdrawal symptoms. But after the first day or two or three, kids are actually looking at each other and talking to each other instead of texting.”

— by Steve Rabey
Rabey is a veteran Colorado-based religion author and journalist

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