"What is it about this time and space that offers such fertile ground for young people to draw closer to God, and learn so much about the Christian faith?"
Summer Camp Formation
I write this post having just completed another inspiring, exciting, boisterous, reverent, and one-of-a-kind day at Christian summer camp. Here I am serving as a chaplain for a session of 89 middle-schoolers at Shrine Mont Camps, in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. We just came from an evening Communion service in the outdoor chapel, surrounded by candlelight, with guitars and voices rising to the darkened sky.
The kids are LEARNING. The messages are sticking. The group is coming together. The answers (and questions) are getting more deep and honest. When I recently asked, "What did we talk about on the second day?" a dozen hands went up, and the response "Jesus is reliable," came without delay.
Why does formation work so well at summer camp? What is it about this time and space that offers such fertile ground for young people to draw closer to God, and learn so much about the Christian faith? Some thoughts:
At camp we have time – loads of it. As a chaplain I enjoy the absolute privilege of a having a solid 45 minute block of "chaplain's time" every afternoon. This time is built into the schedule; it is consistent; and it is respected by campers and counselors. On top of this, we have worship time every evening. Furthermore, a group of campers is responsible for helping plan and lead that worship, and I meet with those campers for 45 minutes in the morning.
This is the kind of time that, as a Sunday school teacher, I always dreamed of. It is well chronicled among those of us in the Sunday school world that we are often fortunate to have our students for 2-3 hours per month. Here at camp, we have about 2 hours of formation time every day.
This one is more about what the campers don't have. They don't have homework. They don't have classes. They don't have sports practice or games. They don't have lessons. They don't have cell phones! They don't have parents! I have found the attention spans of these 12 and 13 years olds to be quite strong. Their energy is high – although they do get tired by the second week. And their stress is low – although they do find things to be anxious about, mostly social dynamics.
With this fertile ground and consistent schedule, I have been able to offer structured and sequential formation. It flows; and it works.
Summer camp continues to be an absolutely phenomenal context for Christian formation. Time and attention - these two structural features - are major reasons why.
And... so... but... where does that leave us for the rest of the year? We still have tremendous formation opportunities within Sunday school and youth group programs, in churches, schools, and at home. Obviously we can't create the same levels of concentrated time as we have at camp. And of course, removing all those distractions is next to impossible.
However, it can be extremely helpful to keep the camp vision in mind, remembering why this context works so well. For example, the value of lock-ins, retreats, and other extended time sessions becomes all the more apparent. Also, within our standard shorter formation sessions (like Sunday school), we may remind ourselves that minimizing distractions, thereby allowing students be present in the moment, pays big dividends.
Summer camp formation works. We can't do it all year long, but we are wise to take its lessons and carry them forward.
Matthew Kozlowski manages, edits, and writes for Building Faith. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife Danielle and two young daughters. Throughout his career he has been a teacher, camp counselor, school chaplain, camp chaplain, Sunday school teacher, parish priest, and Alpha coordinator.