Here’s a question to ponder as summer approaches: when the United Church runs a camp, how much of it should be “church” and how much of it should be “camp”? We face a unique challenge when it comes to finding this balance.
I have worked at four camps across two Conferences and have friends at many others, so while what I say here might not apply to every United Church camp, I can say with confidence that it applies to most. The first thing you should know is that at the typical United Church camp, about half the campers, counsellors and even staff are there for the canoeing, archery, hiking and bonfires — and, in the case of many teenagers, to find a summer crush. They have no interest in anything to do with God, the Bible, Jesus, prayer, the United Church or any church.
There are many reasons why United Church camps attract those with little or no interest in faith. For one, our camps are among the few that are both affordable and won’t tell children that they’ll go to hell if they don’t accept Jesus as their saviour. As for staff and counsellors, well, it’s very hard to find competent teenagers and young adults who are both United Church members and willing to commit their summer to a low-paying job.
It isn’t necessarily bad that our camps attract so many non-churchgoing people. In fact, it’s a testament to the quality experience and safe environment that United Church camps provide. But it also means that you cannot rely on the staff to bring in faith programming, nor on many of the campers to expect it. If no effort were put in, our camps would likely be a completely secular experience. That effort comes from the person who is hired as the chaplain.
In many cases, camps hire amazing chaplains. But too often, camps get ministers who have no clue how to do youth ministry, or untrained lay people who have no clue how to do any sort of ministry. The person who is hired as chaplain makes a huge difference, and because of this, our camps vary greatly in how they express the faith.
In one camp, the chaplain told me I didn’t belong at a Christian camp because of my admiration for Charles Darwin. At that camp, we had two chapel services a day, every day, all summer. At another camp, the director told me that in his view, he was running a wilderness camp “funded in part” by the United Church. No, I responded. You are running a United Church that is set in the wilderness. I took on the job of running vespers that summer because if I hadn’t, nobody would have.
At a certain point, this is an inherent problem with everything the United Church does: when you accept that faith doesn’t come packaged in boxes, you accept a certain amount of diversity in programming standards. And really, this is a good thing. But I leave you with this request: if you are living near a United Church camp, get in touch with the board, ask them questions and volunteer some time. Find out how the camp reconciles religion and recreation. If you’re dropping your kids or grandkids off, try to meet the chaplain before saying goodbye.
The number of non-churchgoers who experience the United Church through our camps means our camping system is one of the largest outreach programs we have. The way the faith is expressed matters a lot.
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