Guest commentary by Shelly Wood
Last week, I picked my 13-year-old up from a week of church camp at Pyoca, our Presbyterian camp in southern Indiana. She had, in her words, “the best week of her life.” It was a week of crafts and high ropes and campfires and chapel. It was a week of energizers and talent shows and checking for tics. The week closed with parents and campers standing in a circle, holding hands and singing “Sanctuary.” Kids were crying, holding on to each other, so filled with the Holy Spirit, wanting to stay on the mountain for just one more minute before coming down into the world, back on the devices and returning to the daily routines. The first time I was aware of the presence of God was at Stronghold, a Presbyterian camp in Oregon, Illinois. I will never forget that moment I felt God’s presence. More than anything, I want my kids to know that Jesus knows them. I want them to have mountaintop experience, and be forever changed.
A week of church camp is a shedding of external influences and a time when one puts on the Body of Christ. It is a transformative and life-giving experience in which all are invited to be their best selves. This shedding and rebirthing is done in community. It’s done around tables where bread is passed and drinks are poured. It’s done in faith sharing and Bible study and conversations that are real and honest and accepting. Camp models what it means to live in community as the body of Christ.
I believe that the most important investment the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should be making right now is in our camps and conference programs. If you want to know what the future of our church looks like, look at the health and vitality of our camps. Look at the number of campers, the amount of money presbyteries allocate to camps and the overall health of the camps themselves. Reflect on how kids express their faith after attending a week of camp, and how invested they are in their youth groups and congregations. Consider how invested churches are in giving their youth an opportunity to experience a week of camp. We need to help kids have mountaintop experiences. We need to provide opportunities for kids to be away, to take Sabbath, to worship and to be in community.
Now, more than ever before, our tweens and teens need camp. They need seven days without cell phones and screens of any kind. They need to “rough it” by staying in hot cabins and taking cold showers. They need stories of critters in cabins and summer thunderstorms. They need campfires and energizers and Bible study. They need older mentors – who aren’t as old as their parents – to care about their lives and model compassion and conversations. They need to be affirmed and be encouraged to affirm others. If we give kids camp, we can cure the loneliness epidemic by assuring them that they are never alone.
Loneliness is becoming an increasing health crisis in our society right now. Loneliness leads to depression, obesity, heart disease and even suicide. Our kids are some of the loneliest people in our society. They need real community, not cyber ones. They are starving for connectivity. They need to let go of expectations, demands, pressure and the public persona and just be themselves – so that they can learn to be their best selves.
After three years of research funded by the MacArthur Foundation, digital ethnographer Danah Boyd and her fellow researchers concluded that teenagers use social media to establish “full-time intimate communities” that provide for always-on communication and relationships.
Digital ethnographers agree that the reason kids use technology is not because they are invested in gadgets, it’s because they are invested in friendships. Take away the connectivity of their devices, turn off text messaging and remove their contact list, and teenagers are far less interested in smartphones. Boyd says it this way: “Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.” Boyd and her fellow researchers concluded that teenagers use social media to establish “full-time intimate communities” that provide for always-on communication and relationships.
Imagine if the Presbyterian Church committed itself to curing loneliness in our society by investing in our camps. Imagine if the Presbyterian Church invested in the leadership development of young adults and youth and trained them on how to form communities where the gospel was both proclaimed and lived. Imagine if we made disciples of these young adults and gave them the vision to assure kids from all classes, races and backgrounds that they were welcomed at the Table. Imagine if we invested in our camp facilities and in the public relations of our camps and we conveyed to parents that before they invest in band camp, soccer camp or art camp they need to invest in one week of church camp because the mental, spiritual and physical health of their kid’s souls depended on it. Now imagine all of those kids are adults, and one day they look back on their childhood and ask themselves: When was the first time I was aware of the presence of God? I assure you, the testimony will be: “Of course, it was at camp.”
We need to invest our camps, like our future depended it on it – because it does. We need to invest in our camps, because our society, our kids need camp now more than ever.
The church can cure the loneliness epidemic in our society. The church can help kids who are so connected to their devices, yet so disconnected from human relationships. The church can offer a remedy for isolation and teach them that even in their loneliness they are never alone. The church can invest in young leaders – college students and high school students – and train them on how to mentor, how to listen and build teams and build character, and how to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Keeping up a camp facility is more daunting than keeping up a church facility. Convincing parents to invest in camp is even more challenging than convincing them to get their kids to Sunday school on Sunday morning. Therefore, we need leadership on the national level and presbytery level and we need church leaders to cast a vision for what Presbyterian camps will look like in the next 20 years and be committed to living that vision out.
If the Presbyterian Church is going to be alive and strong and vibrant 20, 50, even 100 years from now, it will be because we invested in our camps and saw that it was simply by living out what it means to be faithful community that we contributed to the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God.
SHELLY WOOD is pastor/head of staff at Orchard Park Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.