At ten years old, I was so excited to be heading 300 miles away from home all by myself. It was my first experience of Christian camping and I loved it. That week marked the first of many that I have enjoyed over the span of this life—special time away from the usual routine, time dedicated to more truly following after Jesus.
Almost every year from the age of ten to twenty, I went to summer camp and winter camp. Some of those experiences were enjoyed at inter- or non-denominational camps, some Presbyterian, Methodist, YMCA, Baptist, or InterVarsity. Each one holds a special place in my memory.
To be honest, however, my camping memories are a bit of a mixed bag. Many of my camp stories include joyful scenes of rich worship and learning. But some of them are layered with disappointment, discouragement, even fear.
That very first camping experience I mentioned? Most of that first week away from home was wonderful, but some moments were downright frightening. There was that day when we campers got to visit the nearby boardwalk. All week I had been encouraging my cabin mates to go with me on the roller coaster there by the sea; all week they had been cautious and fearful. Eventually four of us braved the beast. At the top of the first big drop-off, I completely lost it, and by the end of the ride, I could barely walk. I was genuinely terrified. My bunkmates? They were all eager to get back in line and do it again. And again.
But during our nightly fireside gatherings a different kind of fear emerged. The speaker spoke fiercely about the rapture and the end of days, insisting that we must come forward, throw a stick on the fire, and say yes to Jesus so that we wouldn’t be left behind. That kind of terror is not a healthy thing to pass along to ten-year-olds, friends! Yes, I went forward—I was too scared to do otherwise.
I remember promising never to drink alcohol or have sex outside of marriage. I have no memory of being asked to work for justice.
During other camp experiences, I remember signing cards that promised I would never drink alcohol, never have sex outside of marriage, and that I would commit to winning others to Christ. I have no memory of being asked to work for justice, to include others, to resist bullying, to look for folks on the edges, to share my worldly goods with those who were less fortunate. As I look back on those experiences, I sense a large hole in my own Christian education and a deep sadness at the golden opportunity missed by those in charge.
It is vitally important that we teach our children—and our adults!—the whole gospel when we invite them to come away on retreat for a while. Yes, we must continue to encourage campers to go deeper in their own walk with Jesus. But a big part of that deeper journey is made manifest by what we do once the retreat is over.
Are we encouraging inclusion, justice, mercy? Do we offer learning opportunities for action items when the mountaintop experience is over? I’m thinking of things like hands-on care for others, heightened awareness of the needs around us, or a call for thoughtful financial accountability.
Perhaps we need to ask this simple but important question on a regular basis: do our camping experiences help us to both step in and step out with the gospel of Jesus? Finding that healthy point of balance is critically important, isn’t it? One of the things I love about our original denominational label—Mission Friends—is the combination of mission with friendship, the outer connecting with the inner. Why? Because we always need to move in two directions at once on this journey with Jesus—we need to sink our roots and extend our arms. The ministry of camping can be—should be—essential for both.