Writings by Cole Huffman

A Few Kind Words for Camp

Three of our children are at two different Christian camps this week.  Of those three, our youngest camper recently asked me how it was I knew I would be a pastor someday.  My memory instantly transported me back to a balcony seat in the Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center on a humid North Carolina night in the summer of 1983.  The speaker was from Oklahoma, I recall, and one night during my youth group's week at Ridgecrest I left that seat—at the speaker’s invitation—to walk the aisle with a few hundred other kids who were "doing business with God" in the parlance of Baptist youth evangelists.  I was 14.  And while not exactly Samuel with a linen ephod (see 1 Sam. 2:18), I knew God had tapped me to be in vocational ministry of some kind.  I never looked back.

I was received below the platform by one of the many youth ministers there who handed me off to a camp counselor, an older lady.  She called me honey and patted my knee when we sat down in a room to discuss my decision.  "I'm surrendering to the ministry," I said, although there was no real "surrender" to it.  But that's what Baptists called it.  It was non-emotional for me as I recall, but still significant.  Other kids around us were crying or trying to explain to their counselors what they thought they were doing: getting saved, rededicating their lives, seeking baptism.  But I knew why I walked the aisle that night.  I was making it official: I will work for God.  The grandmotherly lady took down my information and told me to discuss my decision with my pastor when I got back to Alabama.  I did and found my pastor delighted and affirming.

Randall Balmer remembers his Christian camp experiences, too.  Balmer is the son of an evangelical minister; I remember viewing some years ago his PBS documentary Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.  I believe he concluded that documentary on evangelical life in America at a Christian camp in the Adirondacks.  (I searched the Internet in vain for a clip from that series, so what follows is from memory.)  He sits at the camp bonfire site, alone, where the climactic worship service of the week always happens, and reflects on the psychology of camp conversion experiences.  Balmer implies that much of what happens with kids in those moments is sincerely meant but nevertheless emotionally manipulated.  It's not difficult to get religiously oriented adolescents quivering with guilt over their inherent offensiveness to God.  The bonfire provides just the right ambiance for an interlude with contrition that Balmer considers a fundamentalist rite of passage.  But if the kids grow up to be postmodernly intelligent like him, this too will pass. 

I suppose it does for many.  After all, tens of thousands of kids go to hundreds (if not thousands) of Christian camps every summer.  So of course there are those who conflate a temporal desire for godliness with true resolve for it.  I remember picking up our son Caleb after his first year at one of the Kanakuk Kamps (yes, with a K) outside Branson, Missouri.  We decided to vacation there that year, along with my parents and my sister’s family.  When we retrieved Caleb, who was almost 10 at the time, he got in the car and announced, “I’m a changed person!”  My sister immediately looked me and declared, “I’m sending Mackenzie here next year!”  Caleb’s “changedness” lasted for about a week.

I don’t pooh that, however.  Spiritual growth and change doesn’t happen all at once.  We eventually learn this walking with the Lord, that spiritual growth and change require incremental steps, what Eugene Peterson calls "a long obedience in the same direction."  What our camp experiences did for many of us, including me, was provide a kind of memorable sacred ground on which to take those steps in larger strides.  I intend no romanticism in the point, for Christian camps are not Christian utopias.  Some kids regrettably get introduced to human wretchedness in their camp experiences.  While there are sacred grounds of a kind, there is no truly safe ground in a fallen world.  But for many of us who grew up going to Christian camps, sitting lakeside in a cathedral of trees, reading our Bibles and praying for a solid week or two—a taste for God was developing in our young selves.  We usually can’t replicate those moments nor should we try.  Camp experiences are not norms to achieve but memories to appreciate.

So this Friday and Saturday, when our campers return home, we’ll enjoy hearing about their experiences.  They’ll tell of the fun, quiet, and even the emotions of camp.  And we’ll trust that God Himself was there using all of that to draw them nearer—for life.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:00 PM
Share |