At first, it felt a bit surreal. After two years of pandemic restrictions, Christian summer camping was finally returning to normal. One of the highlights of each summer for me is serving for a week as chaplain at Camp Douglas, the Presbyterian camp on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. After checking in at Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, with parents waving goodbye and campers looking both excited and a little homesick already, we sailed on B.C. Ferries’ Queen of Coquitlam and arrived at Langdale terminal 40 minutes later. As campers piled onto the waiting school bus, the old familiar camp songs came back in an instant, with lots of giggles and growing excitement as campers talked with each other and established new friendships. Twenty minutes later, the bus arrived at Camp Douglas, currently celebrating its 75th year of operation. The land was originally purchased by the Women’s Missionary Society in the 1940s and named after the Rev. R. J. Douglas. The camp buildings remain rustic, and the property includes stunning waterfront access on a rocky beach, as well as lots of space for field games and archery, and a significant parcel of old growth forest complete with a treehouse.
While additions are made each year (the most impressive this season being a human-sized foosball game), it is the enduring traditions of summer camp that draw people back year after year. Upon arrival, campers take part in orientation, followed by dinner, field games, and “mug up” (a cookie). Our first night ended with one of those great traditions: campfire. As chaplain, I’m privileged to be a part of many tasks at camp, including leading staff bible study, offering pastoral care and support to campers, and helping to clean dishes in the kitchen. But one of the best parts is speaking each night at campfire. Pre-covid, the last several seasons were dampened by a fire ban as global warming made it unsafe to have open flame when so much of the province was on fire. So it felt strange but delightful to be there at the campfire anticipating the crackling flames, thanks in part to “Junuary” where it rained every day on the West Coast this year and kept the fire risk low. As campers wiggled in anticipation on logs, camp staff set firewood in the pit and struck a match. Our worship leader picked up her guitar and we began to sing “This Little Light of Mine.” It felt surreal, and wonderful.
The growing body
As I stood to speak to the “Small Fry” campers, I looked with appreciation at the teenagers and young adults standing around the fire pit serving as camp staff for the summer. I smiled seeing the young, maturing Christian leaders while remembering when these staff members were the same age of the “Small Fry” campers only years ago. How had they changed so fast? How amazing to see God working in their lives, helping them take steps towards “the full measure of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). I recognized, not for the first time, how important camping ministries are in helping children grow into teenagers and young adults of vibrant Christian faith. Often camping ministries are labelled as “para-church ministries,” giving the impression there is church, and then there are a variety of extra or add-on ministries. But we also speak of the church as the body of Christ, and surely in a place like camp, where young bodies grow and mature in leadership and understanding of the gospel summer after summer, this is an important part of Christ’s family of faith.
The church is the body of Christ, and its worldwide body is beautiful and diverse, as well as fractured and flawed. In the New Testament, Ekklesia is mentioned 114 times and never once does it mean a building. Ekklesia means the called out people, those who are summoned, an invited concourse, an assembly. For the church to be the church, God gathers people who have responded to Jesus’ invitation to “follow me,” and that gathering takes place in diverse locations – from congregational buildings ranging from cathedrals to storefront ministries, hospital or prison chapels to house churches, outdoor camps to catacombs. Wherever God’s people gather, they are called together by Christ as his body, and knowing they are made in God’s image, they are called to grow in God’s likeness. The church has used various terms to describe this growing body over the years, from sanctification to holiness to Christian maturity.
Camp as incubator
As a congregational minister, and now the Dean of a Presbyterian theological college, I have often (with great delight) watched as God has clearly transformed people both by the renewing of their minds and the deepening of their hearts in acts of mercy and compassion. But often it is those who work in children and youth ministry that can see the most significant change in the shortest amount of time. Standing to speak at the first campfire of the season, I was aware of how important it is for the church to continue creating spaces for God to work this essential faith formation and discipleship transformation in those who are growing in both body and spirituality.
There are a variety of ways in which we as Christians grow and mature as the Body of Christ. The places where we grow can be as varied as congregations to camps, online virtual spaces to small groups and everywhere in between. In these places, the body of Christ grows and matures through a commitment to practices such as worship (liturgia), community (koinonia), service (diakonia), training (didache) and proclamation (kerygma). So, as I delighted being back again at a Christian summer camp, I also began to wonder what are the particular formation gifts that a camping ministry provides the wider Body of Christ we call the church?
At least three came to mind. First, at camp there is always a strong emphasis on place, and in particular the beauty of God’s creation. Christian camping ministries are known for their natural beauty and a way of helping everyone (especially those of us who live in urban areas) experience and appreciate God’s revelation in creation. Ask anyone about camp, and they will quickly tell you about the fresh air, ocean or lake views, time spent on the beach or in the woods. Worshipping outdoors in rustic chapels surrounded by old growth forest or majestic ocean views leaves its mark on people in a way that even the loveliest church architecture must work hard to match. In a time and place where environmental concerns are rightly growing, and Christians ask good questions about creation care as well as our responsibility (with others) for proper stewardship of this world, camps provide a place for new generations of believers to weave a love of God’s creation with the love of Christ’s gospel.
Second, for campers and young adult staff, the experience of sharing life 24/7 in a Christian community is a powerful (and challenging) revelation of the gospel. Often, in an urban congregational setting, Christians see their fellow church members once a week for a little over an hour in a worship setting. But at camp, Christians share all aspects of life together from the fun (field games, waterfront, arts and crafts, bible study) to the challenging (sharing chores together, dealing with others when they get on your nerves, or letting people see you when you are not at your best). All of this is set within a daily routine of prayer. As one camp staff member said to me, “At camp we get to know each other, warts and all. But we also do everything in prayer. We pray throughout the day – first thing in the morning as staff, at chapel, mealtime, bible study, campfire and devotionals in the cabin. I miss that community of prayer whenever I go home at the end of summer. My local church is great, but there is nothing quite like the deep sense of belonging to a community here.” The people and place of Christian camps are seasonal experiments in intentional Christian community that provide rich learning for how to share and show the gospel when we are scattered the rest of the year.
Third, camp life provides children, teenagers, and young adults specific and important leadership opportunities. In many congregational settings, the leadership roles are filled by older adults, and it is difficult to have that responsibility (and power) shared with newcomers, including younger people. At camp, it is simply not possible for the Christian community to run efficiently unless everyone works together, and leadership is shared with those still developing their gifts and skills. Camp staff take care of campers only a few years younger than themselves. The Leadership-in-Training program at each camp offers concrete skills for those who are hoping to serve on staff in the years ahead. Campers themselves find new gifts and skills within themselves while playing field games or going on kayaking trips. Camping ministries are Christian leadership incubators that help young disciples discover and implement their God-given skills. An important part of this leadership development includes the essential role of mentorship, whether it be from adult camp directors, chaplains or more experienced camp staff to those learning to lead in this outdoor Christian environment.
From camper to leader
This year at camp, as sparks danced above campfire logs, I looked closely at the young faces illuminated by the flickering flame and gave God thanks once more for the way in which the Body of Christ grows and matures through camping ministries. I saw my oldest child and my youngest around the campfire singing God’s praise together, one a camp staff member and the other a camper, and I realized that in just a handful of years at camp one moves from a young child to a responsible leader. This change is not simply in the natural maturing of a child to young adult over the years. As Christians, we recognize the remarkable and transformative role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, the sanctifying presence of God that helps us “walk worthily” and take steps towards the full measure of Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world. As the worship leader strummed her guitar, we were reminded again of God’s presence, power and purpose at work in each and every life in God’s good Creation as we continued singing,
This little light of mine
I’m going to let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine,
let it shine.