Towards a Camp Theology

I head up to Cascades Camp and Conference Center today for my third summer on staff, working as a S.A.L.T. (Servant and Leadership Training) Counselor for high school seniors. In essence, I’m teaching these kids for three-and-a-half weeks “how to do camp.” While mentally preparing (i.e., not packing) for such a task, I have pondered what makes camp tick, particularly Christian camp. What follows is what I have come up with, and in a tongue-in-cheek way, it reflects the fact that I have spent the year taking classes in contextualized theologies.

“My goal is not to turn encountering God into a chocolate covered poop experience,” I told my first cabin before the first Bible study. It was far from a perfect metaphor, but it was the best I had at the time and it made the kids laugh. The point was, a lot of camps (and other youth ministries) have a model where God is assumed to be difficult and boring and they overcompensate by bringing in the biggest toys and building the best facilities. The strategy is to sneak God in-between gametime and lunchtime during a chapel or bible study.

For example, I had two friends in one cabin: one was an atheist who was invited by his friend to come to “sports camp.” (Surprise!) Somehow, this bait-and-switch model that lacked faith in the compelling nature of the gospel was something I was not interested in.

Although I had an image of what I did wanted camp to not be, I lacked an alternate, positive vision. Now that I have been working at one for a while, and I have seen what camp is and what camp does best, I want to point to that particular vision so it can be better cultivated. So here it goes:

Camp is a sacred space. I realize this sounds like a rather pretentious statement. But while camp and the shenanigans contained therein may not be the inner room of the temple, it is nevertheless a space “set apart” for the purpose of the worship and mission of God.

Seeing as Cascades Camp is found in the Pacific Northwest, where nature-worship is pretty much a civil religion, I have to be clear that the sacredness is not because of the beauty of our 1000-acre property. British theologian Philip Sheldrake says in his book Spaces for the Sacred, “God is not revealed to us in the immediacy of raw nature. The only spirituality that is accessible is incarnational – that is meditated through the cultural and contextual overlays we inevitably bring to nature and to our understandings of the sacred.”

The sacredness of camp, rather, has to do with the mini-culture we’ve created. One visit to Cascades and you’ll realize we have our own language and traditions that you have to learn: Bazerko, Deerman, Froville, Bonesaw, Purple, O Team, Big O, O.T.S., D.O.S., Nuke’em, and Hoist’em. Nevermind that the staff goes by “camp names”: mine is Southpaw, for example. Sure, these things may seem arbitrary, bizarre and unsacred to an outsider, but so does the book of Leviticus to a gentile.

There are major differences between being a conference center and being a nation, I realize, but I think camp ministry has a lot more to learn from the experience of Israel in the Old Testament than the experience of the church in the New Testament. To quote another smart British dude, Christopher Wright says in The Mission of God that “Israel definitely had a sense of mission, not in the sense of going somewhere but of being something.” Seeing as camp is unlikely to pick itself up off the ground and move to Nebraska in the near future, it is worth focusing on how we can be something where we are physically anchored.

Counselors are priests. This is even more pretentious sounding than the last part, so take it with a grain of salt. But if a priest is to be understood as a “bridge between” the presence of God and another human being, I think it makes sense in a camp context.

The ordination for a priest-counselor is the initiation into the camp community. As we go through training and fellowship and conflict together, the verse “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” rings true. As we learn who each other is, we also learn a common way of associating with each other. In this we develop a spirit characterized by God’s presence.

Obviously, anyone could park in our parking lot, walk to any location on camp property, and proceed to pray or read their Bible or otherwise have an experience with God, no priest-counselor required. But this individual experience would not be a participation in the particular form of God’s presence that we have uncovered and shared together here on camp property.

Though the mini-culture of camp, God’s presence can be experienced in a more tangible way. As priest-counselors, our job is to animate the rituals (in this case, the games and chapels and mealtimes and bible studies and so forth) and invite campers to participate within these rituals, therefore bringing them into the fold of the camp community that is drenched in God’s presence. (The week of rituals, it should be noted, culminates in the D.O.S., or “Discipline of Silence,” where the counselors send the kids off for a period of time to have that individual experience with God, realizing that ultimately, we do not stand between the kids and their God, but rather are located somewhere off to the side.)

Camp is not the end. To extend the ancient Israel metaphor further, the ultimate point of the Israel project was not God’s mission in Israel but rather God’s mission in the world, accomplished through Jesus Christ. Likewise, camp is not about camp but about what lies beyond, both in terms of physical boundaries and departure times.

To borrow language from yet another clever British dude, N.T. Wright talks about how the citizens of God’s kingdom “colonize” the earth. Camp, isolated from the influence of the outside world yet consecrated to the divine, is one of the strongest examples of a “kingdom colony” that I can imagine. But, at the end of the week, the campers leave; at the end of the summer, the counselors leave too. The hope is that they’ve left with a compelling experience that changes the way they view the world.

The spunky, rookie counselors (such as I was) sometimes suffer from a superman-tendency to want and see to it that their campers lives are transformed in the short week, usually marked by a new commitment to Christian living. While it is certainly a powerful week in these kids’ lives, it is only a week. Camp is only a sprint leg of the medley race: pastors, parents, friends, neighbors, and the such are the ones responsible in the long haul. These are the relationships where we ultimately want to see the campers work out the habits of faithfulness, these are the relationships we receive the baton from and pass the baton back to.

It should be emphasized that these are some preliminary thoughts, and whenever one talks about spirituality one is bound to sound rather goofy. (All this is, thankfully, in the category of easier done than said.) I invite input as I sharpen these ideas over the summer, as I teach high schoolers a particular way of sharing God that does not look like “chocolate covered poop.”

This post was featured on the Cascades Camp blog.

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Towards a Camp Theology

6 thoughts on “Towards a Camp Theology

  1. Rebekah says:

    What am I thinking? I’m thinking a summer talking with Kaleb Nyquist is a summer that I’m looking forward to. Thanks for your thoughts- they’ve definitely given me some inspiration for my serving this summer!

  2. Brilliant. Kaleb thank you for taking the time to write this-its given me much to think about and much I would love to discuss with you when we return in the fall. Hope you have an awesome next couple weeks!

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