The Job of the Christian Camp

by Dean Ohlman

One early sign of spring for many of us parents and grandparents is the arrival of Christian camp applications for the coming summer months. I’m a camp lover. After my godly father, church, and Sunday school, the most significant influence on my spiritual formation as a youth was Christian camps. From age nine to sixteen, I was involved with camps, first as a camper and then as a counselor. My dad was on the founding board of a Christian camp that utilized a Civilian Conservation Corps facility in Western Michigan -the first camp started by Lance Latham – founder of the Awana Ministries. Dad was on the board from 1945 until his death in 1975. I was blessed to serve with him the last few years.

The camp motto is still the same: “Where Christ is First.” Being led by godly directors and board members who had a heart for Christ, for evangelism, and the spiritual nurture of children, the camp has probably led thousands of kids to Christ and helped motivate many into ministry, missions, and lay occupations where they have continued to spread and live out the Gospel. I could go on and list many more positives about that camp and about Christian camps in general.

Yet while I don’t fault the leadership of camps then, or camps today, I have come to realize that there has been a glaring failure in Christian camping that has created attitudes and misunderstandings among adult followers of Christ that have had some significant negative consequences: the failure to use their ideal setting to teach from God’s other “book” the book of God’s works. The natural world (especially the beautiful natural settings of most camps) is a revelation of God: what theologians call the “general revelation.” The camp I attended, “where Christ is first,” almost totally ignored the link between Christ and the creation: making us aware of what some have called the “cosmic Christ” that He is both the creator and sustainer of our glorious natural world. No doubt this was the consequence of a big hole that still exists in the spiritual formation of most evangelicals and fundamentalists”the lack of a well-articulated and well-taught theology of nature and the absence of what I call the “lost fundamental”: that we are creation’s caretakers.

Since these elements are mostly missing in Christian homes, churches, and Sunday schools as well, one can’t entirely fault camps for the failure to recognize their opportunity to make up for it while they have a virtually captive audience situated in God’s great outdoors. The camp at the top of Lake Superior in Canada where I served as a counselor did offer a nature walk. Dear and patient Mrs. Plunkett came once a week to offer about an hour-long trek in the bush to whoever wanted to go, but that was it. Only a few kids ever gave up their free-play time for a walk in the woods.

With all the resources now available to camps for teaching the theology of nature, for offering intensive outdoor education, and for providing instruction in biblically-based environmental ethics to children and teens, there really is little reason that such cannot be a part of the curriculum of every Christian camp ministry. Sadly, some of the largest camps that have thousands of campers over the course of the summer have mostly become “resorts” and places for the entertainment of kids. Instead of having kids learning about Christ the Creator through the creation, they have the kids mountain-biking in it, playing in it (or in huge chlorinated pools), shooting targets in it, or sitting indoors listening to highly amped bands and dynamic motivational speakers.

That a kid should leave a camp in the Sierra without knowing the difference between a Douglas fir and a Ponderosa pine or leave a camp in the Midwest without knowing the difference between a white pine and a red pine is to me a shame. That they should be able to sing “all the trees of the forest shall clap their hands,” and not have a clue that the forests around them are being threatened by invasive species, over-development, and destructive harvesting is to me sad. That kids should go away from camp spiritually (emotionally?) hyped and well instructed about the Jesus who lived two millennia ago, yet not understand the facts about the living Jesus who redeemed the creation, who sustains the creation, and who will come again to restore it as an even more awesomely beautiful place to which our souls will return and reoccupy physical bodies to enjoy the Creator forever [consider today’s Scripture] is to me the greatest oversight of all.

If you’re involved in Christian camping or send kids to camp, I encourage you to see what you can do to motivate that camp to address these vital and commonly missing elements. Every kid should leave camp every summer awed by the wonder of creation”and motivated to live a “creation careful” life the rest of the year. If the camp you are involved with does that, appreciate the blessing and thank the camp leadership. The following passage from Isaiah provides a taste of the spirit and understanding each child should take away from summer camp and carry in heart and mind all year long.

How I would love to see Christian camps become the grassroots core of a new generation of “good earthkeepers.”


“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the LORD’s renown, for an everlasting sign that will endure forever.” (Isaiah 55:10-13)

You can find more of Dean Ohlman’s writing’s at Wonder of Creation.

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