CHOICE. Here was a word that was used very often by my friend Phil as he spoke good piercing biblical truths to us at camp. He encouraged us to make good choices, big ones and little ones, one-off ones and daily ones. But here's the irony that strikes me as I reflect on our camp experience (English people insert "carry on" snigger). Summer camp the way we saw it involved almost no potential to make any choice at all for the campers. We didn't choose what we did, when we did it, who we did it with, or even whether we took part in it. We didn't choose our food or our meal times, or the people we hung out with. We didn't choose when to wake or sleep.
There were two consumerist selfish pseudo-choices I saw in camp. Before it starts you have the choice to choose who to be in a cabin with. (Inevitably this will lead to leadership dilemma when camper A chooses their friend and their "friend" clearly states "not camper A" on their form. Lovely). The second "choice" is which activities to do - since not everyone can do everything all the time. Unfortunately both these choices are entirely self-centred, and don't really help us to ground the teaching that Phil was driving at.
In essence our campers had one major choice to make: "get with the program" or not.
And that is where I really really struggle with the place that summer camp has in our spiritual walk. We're being told in our talks about real choices in a real world, but every element of the environment around us gives us no ability or expectation to make a choice, and so it feels so false. How can the words sink in? Real life is full of choices every second of every day, as a teenager and as an adult.
Does summer camp have a place in helping our Christian walk? Of course it does, and some aspects of it are amazing and wonderful. The shared experiences and conversations and explorations are often deep and rich. The opportunities it gives to some are invaluable - I have a fond memory of the delight on the face of a young person who comes from a 'challenging background'. He was being shown the details of a starfish up close by a leader, possibly for the first time, and he was enthralled. Liz and I watched covertly and smiled.
I believe we need to seriously consider how many camps we have, how much resource they tie up, and how we integrate them with the real reality outside planet camp. Most efforts made to integrate camp with reality and reality with camp are token gestures (in my direct experience of 4 camps so far). If camp can be a vehicle to serve existing youth groups and similar communities that are ALREADY formed, enabling some time to deepen friendships, explore serious aspects of life and faith together, and share fantastic experiences on waterskis, diving off cliffs, and climbing peaks, well, then GO CAMP! Let's go in together as a group, experience together and come out of the other side living reality together!
If we continue to form these intense, temporary, false communities for one week a year, and expect that to make a serious impact on a young life .. God help us.