Bringing the Camp Spirit Back Home

By Steve Holt 7-11-2011

I was not one of the 1,500 who attended the inaugural Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, North Carolina last month, but I did grow up going to Christian summer camp. What's the connection, you ask, between a festival and summer camp? Summer camp -- like festivals and extended retreats -- is often deeply formative because it gives kids (and adult counselors, for that matter) a glimpse at a kingdom lifestyle.

I loved camp growing up. My dad was my camp's director for many years, so my summers in the woods along the Connecticut River began pretty much at birth. When I was old enough to be a camper, I distinctly remember a feeling sweeping over me on the ride home from a week at camp -- a feeling that I was leaving something truly special. The funny thing is, I rarely connected this feeling to any of the content I'd received the prior week, such as sermons, Bible classes, and devotionals. Most of the time, when my parents asked me, I couldn't remember but one or two messages from the week. I now believe the magic I sensed was connected to the simplicity of living in close quarters, forging new relationships and tending to old ones, eliminating distractions like TV and video games, creating something beautiful from scratch every day, playing hard, resting deeply, eating warm foods around a joyful table, bursting into spontaneous song/prayer/laughter/theater/games, carrying each other's burdens, and generally carrying an unceasing posture of worship from the morning bell to lights out.

We just don't live that way out here in the "real world." Most of us choose to chase that which is fleeting rather than settle into that which is eternal. And we're passing this along to the kids. Case in point: Every summer a slew of articles are written about how difficult it is to separate campers from their smart phones and video games when they arrive at camp. Even at a young age, though, I viewed camp as such a welcome departure from the rat race, which made going home so difficult year after year. There was always a disconnect, I felt, between what went on at camp and the lives we were leading at home. I often heard leaders warn us of the temptations we'd face upon re-entry, and that to persevere we ought to re-dedicate our lives to Christ, or trash our secular CDs, or get more involved in our youth group back home. What I never heard from camp leaders was: "Go home, find a cluster of friends, and make your lives a little more like camp." We were always led to believe that the feelings associated with camp were only attainable at a specific location a couple weeks a year.

If we are open, though, summer camps, festivals, and retreats (at their best) can be experiences in which we catch a vision for the countercultural, communal, simple lifestyle Christ offers us -- a lifestyle that is both offensive and attractive to our off-kilter world. Those of you who were at Wild Goose or Cornerstone know what I'm talking about. Thinking about it more, I'm convinced we've had our definition of "the real world" wrong the whole time.

Steve Holt seeks joy and justice in East Boston, Massachusetts. Steve enjoys gardening, being a husband, community life, and writing. He blogs about spirituality and his garden at Learn more about "Hold on to Love."

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