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Finding your inner “camp”

Growing up in the UK, we didn’t have a summer camp tradition. The Soul Survivor movement was in full swing; which meant a week or two each summer travelling to a site with thousands of others for a week of camping, worship and music but Soul Survivor grew from the model of a British music festival, rather than the North American summer camp. There were too many people, and too much time spent in the company of the same group you arrived with, to really call it a new community. Which is maybe why the summer camp (which we got introduced to mostly through American TV and movies) seemed like such an intriguing idea; here were places were folks went, often individually, to connect with a group of strangers and to sometimes act very differently from how they were in the ‘real’ world. There was some allure to that for geeky British teenagers who wanted to go do something worthwhile for a summer, hence why thousands of us Brits spent our late adolescent years travelling to US summer camps as part of work and travel programs. During those seasons I spent working in a variety of camp roles, I realized how central this concept of a temporary community was to the attraction and longevity of summer camps. Those, as a youth, you kept going back year after year and slipping in to a second identity with a group of people you only saw in the summer; but have as intense a connection to them as those you spend the other fifty one weeks with.

A few years on and I’m still working summer camps; nowadays in a position of spiritual leadership at Camp Artaban on Gambier Island off the west coast of Vancouver. And as I program different themes and worships for camp weeks, I constantly find myself coming back to this idea that youth (and staff, for that matter) will come to camp to be slightly different people. I’ve heard fellow staff members talk about “camp Karl” or “camp Julie”; the alternative side of their personality, who’s a lot less highly strung, tends to relax and do goofy things more often and is a much nicer person to be around… Quite often I meet campers who prefer their “camp personality” to the person they are back in the outside world. Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve discovered, though, is that often “camp Karl” feels he has a much stronger relationship with God than “city Karl.”campartaban-chapel

It’s tempting to put this down to the fact that there are simply more opportunities for worship at the typical Anglican summer camp than there are back in town. Often there will be some sort of service, or at least devotions, every day. But as anyone who ever attended an act of worship in a school will tell you, simply having that opportunity doesn’t make it any more real or interesting. Often the opposite is true. I think it comes back to the idea of community and shifting identities. Camp (generally) is a place of acceptance where, whoever comes through the gates, is welcomed from the first moment. There are multiple levels of greeting and acceptance, from a counselor introduction, to ice breakers with a new cabin group, to creating banners / posters

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or other decorative art with that new group. Even the most cynical campers tend to respond positively in some way within a short space of time, since it’s often a rare experience for youth to feel fully accepted by both peers and by those in authoritarian positions around them. And it’s that willingness to respond which is key to worship.

When I’m putting together camp worship, I’m thinking about “camp Julie’s” experiences. If I were writing liturgy for “city Julie”, I’d be trying to work out how she can discover Jesus’ plan for her. I’d be trying to explain how He envisages the world in a different way to how we see it, and trying to bring her into that vision so that she might respond… But I don’t need to do that for “camp Julie.” She already understands that there’s different ways of living and that the camp community she’s experiencing this week looks and feels a lot different to wherever she is for the rest of the year. She understands that there are multiple ways to live – she’s actively exploring that possibility by being at camp. Now, she may not necessarily *prefer* “camp Julie” (not everyone does; why should they?) but she understands a fundamental faith mystery which youth leaders go to pains every week of the year to try and make more real. Whether you take it as a veil being lifted, or looking through the glass darkly, the importance of the camp ministry is that it enables youth to understand something by experience, not explanation.

From that standpoint, I’d argue that camp worship has the ability to go much further and much deeper in a shorter space of time than that which we do outside. Obviously, there’s all sorts of complications in that. Not least of which is; isn’t it tremendously damaging to minister to “camp Karl” and “camp Julie” and then, when camp is over, to wave goodbye to them and leave “city Karl” and “city Julie” to have an entirely different experience of faith for the rest of the year. I say “obviously” but perhaps it isn’t obvious as plenty of camps seem to regard their ministry as simply being about the summer, and regard the rest of the Church as being responsible for the rest of the year’s work.

A fellow Vancouver youth worker recently blogged on the summer camp experience as being a fundamentally flawed one for youth ministry: because camps create false, temporary communities filled with “camp personalities” for one week a year and that this couldn’t be called sustainable. He’s right; it isn’t. But I’m constantly discovering that the camp personalities aren’t being restricted to the summer camp setting anymore. Social networking and the ‘reply all’ button on e-mail programs mean that youth who meet in the summer are capable of being in contact with each other all the way through the year. The trick for those connected with camp ministry is to utilize these networks to create opportunities for genuine fellowship and worship outside of the camp setting which can minister to “camp Karl”, “city Julie” and the rest. And, for those in the Church, to understand what it is about worship in that camp setting which is connecting to our youth where many of our other efforts are failing.

Phil Colvin

Phil Colvin

Submitted by Phil Colvin, Youth Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of New Westminster and former Chaplain at Camp Artaban

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2 Responses to Finding your inner “camp”

  1. Judy Steers

    Phil – this is a great article! I really appreciate this ‘take’ on camp ministry. It provides some good food for thought about the significance of those experiences which step out for a time from the ‘real world’. Yes, camp is a ‘real world’ too, yet many of the lessons and experiences from any sort of walkabout (to borrow an Australian term) are transferable into the rest of life too. Maybe stepping out of day-to-day life provides a window into how to live a different way?

    Thanks also for the view from the outside looking in – we take camp for granted sometimes and your Brit-view from your adolescence is refreshing in reminding us how important the camp experience is. I hope directors (and those who control the money decisions) will know that they have something UNIQUE if they have any kind of camp experience in their diocese.

  2. I am in Burundi and i’m reading this, i like it and ask our God to bless you