Rob Haynes ~ When Summer Camp Becomes Pilgrimage

It is summer camp season. For thousands of children and youth that means night hikes and camp fires, arts and crafts and lake fronts.

It is commonplace for churches in the United States to offer a trip to summer camp for their children or youth. It is often a highlight of the year for these ministries. Years after their experiences, many former summer camp participants describe it as a particularly important time: when they accepted Jesus as Savior, made a deep commitment to Christian discipleship, or heard a call to ministry. What makes summer camp such a significant experience?

Perhaps it is because, in some ways, summer camp is a bit like a Christian pilgrimage. Historically, Christian pilgrims journeyed to a place where they understood God to have worked in the past, expected that he would work again, and expected that he could work in them while they were in that place. When setting out, the pilgrims do not expect to stay at the pilgrimage site, but to be there for a fixed period of time and to return to their homes different than when they left. So it is with many Christian summer camp experiences.

In a classical understanding of pilgrimage three things are necessary: 1) a strong sense of community among those on the pilgrimage, 2) an escape from the routines of home, and 3) a return to that home after witnessing God do something amazing, perhaps even miraculous. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Community. My teenage children talk throughout the year about the friends they made and the counselors they got to know at camp. Though they were only together for a few days, they speak of these friendships as though they have lasted for years. What makes this bond so strong? In part, the strength of this bond comes from the common experience they share. For example, while together, the kids in the cabin are much the same: in a room full of bunk beds and sleeping bags. No one has a “cooler” bedroom than another here. They are all the same at camp.

Escape. Many camps do not allow the students to have mobile phones or other devices. Even if they did, students are often so far out in the woods, no one would get phone service! Such devices may be a part of everyday life at home, but not at camp. Similarly, the pressures of school and home life are left behind at camp.

There are a few keys to make the community strong and the escape profound. The pilgrimage to camp must be voluntary, to a place considered extraordinary, where special goals are pursued. These goals can be physical, like passing the swim test or going on the zip line. Or they can be spiritual, like those pursued through Bible study and prayer that are integrated into daily Christian summer camp schedules. These first two, community and escape, create a space for the profound to happen. By leaving the mundane the pilgrim seeks the sacred. It is here that the pilgrim discovers what was otherwise hidden at home. 

Return. But the pilgrims do not remain away from home forever. After leaving to search for the holy, they will return to the place they call home—in an elliptical motion. Often when the camper (pilgrim) returns, she will be a bit different than when she left. She has been on a sacred quest and learned more about God and herself while she was away. Sometimes the lessons become obvious immediately upon return. Sometimes the lessons reveal themselves years later.

If your church is sending youth to summer camp this year, how can you continue foster the lessons of their pilgrimage? What can you do to help them process what they experienced in their sacred time away? When they get back to the routine, how can you rekindle that spark they felt while they were away at that extraordinary place?

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