Christian camps are creatively engaging young people in a tech-distracted age

(RNS) – Nearly half of the estimated 14 million young Americans who will be camping this summer will attend Christian camps to get away 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 wider range of activities, including motocross, robotics and drama. At least one camp organizes a week-long session for children in gender transition.

“Christian camping gives kids the opportunity to get away from it all, clear their heads, disconnect from technology, and hear a message of God’s love for them,” said Gregg Hunter, President and Chief. of the leadership of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. .

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

At camp, children become part of a temporary community that can help them reassess their choices at home and give them the chance to establish new patterns and ways of thinking about their future. Photo courtesy Word of Life Camps

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

  • Horseback Riding Camps at Miracle Ranch in Washington State
  • Redwood Canopy Tour in Mount Hermon, California, which transports campers on ziplines 150 feet above the forest floor
  • Character Camp, which offers robotics camps for mostly African American campers in Texas
  • Deerfoot, a boys-only camp in the Adirondacks that focuses on outdoor activities and canoe building.

Churches and denominations operate hundreds of camps across the United States, and attendance varies widely among different faith traditions.

Research from the 2004 National Youth and Religion Study found that nearly 40% of American teens have attended a religious camp at least once, with Mormon teens the most likely to attend (78% ), followed by conservative Protestants (53%), traditional Protestants (48%) and Catholics (24).

Melinda Trotti. Photo courtesy of Pilgrim Lodge

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

“From the 1950s to the 1980s, our churches filled our camps,” Trotti said. “It was assumed that the children would be in Sunday school, confirmed and attending camp. Spaghetti suppers and women’s guilds helped raise funds for anyone from the church who wanted to go to camp to go to camp.

But Trotti said many major denominations are seeing a drop in the number of children at church. “Some churches don’t even have Sunday schools for children,” she says. “Our churches no longer fill our camps as they once did.”

Working from a consultant’s sustainability plan, Pilgrim Lodge continues to reach new audiences. In addition to running camps for families, grandparents and grandkids, and a camp for the 55+ called Vintage Ventures, they’ve also launched Camp Pride for gay, lesbian, transgender or transgender high school students. transition. “They come here and are not only welcomed and understood, but affirmed,” Trotti said.

Some United Methodist camps, Trotti said, partner with organizations to offer camps for refugee children and migrant farm workers, HIV-positive adults and groups conducting anti-racism training and education.

“People need places where we sing together, eat together, serve food and worship together, especially at a time when we are seeing increased use of social media and greater loneliness, anxiety and depression. among young people,” Trotti said.

The greatness of creation remains a big draw for the 37 camp programs run by evangelical youth ministry Young Life, which served more than 66,000 campers last year and expects an uptick this year.

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

Most campers at Young Life camps are members of local Young Life groups. “Young Life camps are an extension of the Young Life area ministries,” Swenson said. “The leaders take the kids to camp and they go home with their kids.”

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

Gregg Hunter. Photo courtesy CCCA

Young Life and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes report recent growth in their camping programs, which include overseas sites. FCA spokesman Patrick Benner said 2017 broke records, with more than 113,000 coaches and athletes attending 780 camps in 45 states and 41 countries. The FCA expects the number of overseas spectators to increase this summer.

As Christian camp programs diversify, the main attraction remains the nature experience. As CCCA’s Hunter and other industry leaders have said, camps remain the best antidote to the “nature deficit disorder” that so many children suffer from today.

Hunter said most CCCA camps require campers to drop off their smartphone upon registration. “Counsellors are equipped to deal with withdrawal symptoms. But after the first day or two or three, the kids look at each other and talk to each other instead of texting each other.

(Steve Rabey is a Colorado-based veteran religious author and journalist.)

This story has been edited. An earlier version had incorrectly stated the range of programs offered by Pilgrim Lodge.

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