Campers participate in a variety of outdoor activities at Washington Family Ranch’s Canyon Camp, a Young Life camp, located in Oregon. Photo by Blaine Clyde/Young Life

Christian camps get creative to attract youth in a tech-distracted age

(RNS) — Nearly half of the estimated 14 million American youth going to camp this summer will be attending Christian camps to escape from home, play games with new friends, unplug from technology and seek God in nature.

Fun and faith formation remain the foundation of Christian camping. But kids now enjoy a greater range of activities, including motocross, robotics and theater. At least one camp hosts a weeklong session for kids undergoing gender transitions.

“Christian camping gives kids the opportunity to get away, clear their heads, unplug from tech and hear a message of God’s love for them,” said Gregg Hunter, president and CEO of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Hunter said that CCCA’s 860 member camps will host approximately 5.5 million kids this summer, a slight increase from 2017.

At camp, kids are part of a temporary community that can help them re-evaluate their choices back home and give them a chance to establish new patterns and ways of thinking about their future. Photo courtesy Word of Life Camps

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Creative programming, promotional efforts and an improving economy help attract campers to CCCA camps, which range “from camps run by one or two staff people for a few dozen campers, to camps with 100-plus staffers that serve more than a thousand guests at a time," said Hunter. Current camping options include:

  • Horsemanship camps at Miracle Ranch in Washington state
  • Redwood Canopy Tour in Mount Hermon, Calif., which transports campers on zip lines 150 feet above the forest floor
  • Character Camp, which offers robotics camps for mostly African-American campers in Texas
  • Deerfoot, an all-boys camp in the Adirondacks, which focuses on outdoor skills and canoe-building.

Churches and denominations operate hundreds of camps across the U.S., and attendance varies widely in various faith traditions.

The National Study of Youth and Religion’s 2004 research found that nearly 40 percent of U.S. teens have attended religious camp at least once, with Mormon teens most likely to attend (78 percent), followed by conservative Protestants (53), mainline Protestants (48) and Catholics (24).

Melinda Trotti. Photo courtesy Pilgrim Lodge

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Even as they try to adapt to changing times, some Christian camps are not thriving as they once did. Pilgrim Lodge, located on Cobbosseecontee Lake and operated by the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, was founded in 1956, but the camp has been struggling to fill its 120 beds for the past few years, said interim director Melinda Trotti, who previously worked at United Methodist camps.

“From the 1950s through the 1980s, our churches were filling our camps,” said Trotti. “It was assumed that children would be in Sunday school, be confirmed and attend camp. Spaghetti suppers and women’s guilds helped raise money so anybody from church who wanted to go to camp would go to camp."

But Trotti said many mainline denominations are witnessing a decline in the number of children in church. "Some churches don’t even have Sunday schools for children," she said. "Our churches are not filling our camps the way they once did.”

Working from a consultant’s sustainability plan, Pilgrim Lodge is continuing to reach out to new audiences. In addition to hosting camps for families, grandparents and their grandchildren, and a camp for those 55 and over called Vintage Ventures, they have also launched Camp Pride for high school students who are gay, lesbian, transgender or transitioning. “They come here and are not just welcomed and understood, but are affirmed," said Trotti.

Some United Methodist camps, Trotti said, partner with organizations to offer camps serving children of refugees and migrant farm workers, adults with HIV and groups leading anti-racism training and education.

“People need places where we sing together, eat together, serve food to each other and participate in worship together, especially at a time when we see increasing social media use and greater loneliness, anxiety and depression among young people,” said Trotti.

The grandeur of creation remains a big draw at the 37 camp programs operated by the evangelical youth ministry Young Life, which served more than 66,000 campers last year and expects a slight increase this year.

“Our goal is to create an environment where kids can experience Christ,” said spokesman Terry Swenson.

Most campers at Young Life’s camps are members of local Young Life groups. “Young Life camps are an extension of Young Life area ministries,” said Swenson. “Leaders take kids to camp, and they come home with their kids.”

Young Life operates outreach camps, discipleship camps, wilderness camps and sessions for children with disabilities. Swenson said LGBT youth are welcome at Young Life camps.

Gregg Hunter. Photo courtesy CCCA

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Both Young Life and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes report recent growth in their camping programs, which include locations overseas. FCA spokesman Patrick Benner said that 2017 was record-breaking, with more than 113,000 coaches and athletes attending 780 camps in 45 states and 41 countries. FCA expects overseas attendance numbers to increase this summer.

While programs at Christian camps are diversifying, the core attraction remains experiencing nature. As CCCA’s Hunter and other industry leaders said, camps remain the best antidote to the “nature deficit disorder” experienced by so many of today's children.

Hunter said most CCCA camps require campers to drop off their smartphones at registration. “Counselors are equipped to deal with withdrawal symptoms. But after the first day or two or three, kids are actually looking at each other and talking to each other instead of texting.”

(Steve Rabey is a veteran Colorado-based religion author and journalist.)

This story has been modified. An earlier version had incorrectly stated the range of programs offered by Pilgrim Lodge. 


  1. What I learned at church camp was that “Off” insect repellant in aerosol cans would (then) operate as a flamethrower if sprayed over a flame device. The owners and counselors of the camp did not teach that subject, of course. That bit of recollection aside, I would be reluctant to send a youngster to a Christian camp today. We need the kids in Ethics camps and (many or most) churches do not appear to be capable of that role modeling today.

  2. ” …I would be reluctant to send a youngster to a Christian camp today. ”

    Would you still be reluctant if you knew that the following attitudes, works and deeds were expressed or taught at the camp?

    1. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way…..Romans 14:13
    2. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God…..Romans 15:7
    3. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love….Ephesians 4:2
    4. …all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble….1 Peter 3:8
    5. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…..Philippians 2:3
    6. Be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone…..Titus 3:2
    7. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…..Luke 6:37
    8. ABOVE ALL, LOVE EACH OTHER DEEPLY, because love covers over a multitude of sins…….1 Peter 4:8
    9. Let your gentle spirit be known to all men…..Philippians 4:5
    10. Don’t seek your own good, but the good of others…….. 1 Corinthians 10:24
    11. Follow after the things that make for peace……Romans 14:19
    12. In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets………Matthew 7:12
    13. Do to others as you would have them do to you………Luke 6:31
    14. Honor everyone……….1 Peter 2:17
    15. Continue to love each other……….Hebrews 13:1
    16. Be devoted to each other with mutual affection. Excel at showing respect for each other……Romans 12:10
    17. …let us do good to all people…………Galatians 6:10
    18. …have the qualities of [good] salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other……Jesus……Mark 9:50 [brackets mine]
    19. Love your neighbor as yourself………Matthew 22:39…….Mark 12:31
    20. If you love only those who love you, why should you get any credit for that?…….Matthew 5:46……….Luke 6:32

  3. I should not knock church camps in general. Some of the people in them are wonderful folks knocking themselves out for the sake of both Jesus and kids. But Church Incorporated just elected Trumpism in America. So, I am wary of “church” today. I would not want to send a kid to a place where that is the over-riding issue in the minds of religious adults. As in, “Are you a Conservative? Here are a bunch of reasons why we think you should be.” Yikes.

  4. We used the generic Lysol placed in the bunk bathrooms for flame throwing.

  5. There doesn’t seem any place else to put it, but since we’re talking about Protestants and young people, this is as good a place as any.

    The Christian Post reports:

    A former New Jersey pastor who co-founded the Creation Festival, which bills itself as the country’s largest Christian music festival, has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for sexually assaulting multiple young children.

    Harry Thomas, 75, who formerly pastored Come Alive New Testament Church in Medford and went on to help create the popular music festival, failed in withdrawing his guilty plea on Friday. The ex-pastor wept in court and admitted that he deserves a heavy punishment for what he has done.

    “I’m very sorry for the pain I’ve caused,” he said. “I agree with the scriptures. It would be better for a millstone to be hung around my neck and be cast into the sea. That’s what I deserve,” he added, seemingly referring to Luke 17:2 in the Bible.

    Thomas’ victims were all PRETEEN GIRLS.





  6. I agree with your take on the possible things that church camps could present and to be honest, I too would wonder about what could be expected at such places.

    I also added necessary additions to my comment about Paul’s unworthy opinions.

  7. I wanted to add this to my comment. It helps explain why Paul’s writings should never be taken literally in every case.

    Paul, who authored most of the NT and most of the negativity about homosexuality, describes here the nature of his own knowledge and understanding —
    1. …our knowledge is partial and incomplete…
    2. …we see things imperfectly…
    3. All that I know now is partial and incomplete…
    (1 Corinthians 13:9,12)

    Those are excellent examples that ‘teach us’ that Paul’s writings, and perhaps other scripture as well, are too partial, too incomplete and too imperfect to be meaningful and useful for everybody in every situation.

    They also convince me, of what I sense when I read his writings, that there is a sincere attempt to express the ‘truth’, but that ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ has simply not been revealed so far. It’s like his attempt at perfection which he admits he hasn’t obtained, yet he still presses forward to that end.

    We must also press forward by ‘reasoning out’ anything and everything in scripture ‘as necessary’ and then apply our modern ‘common sense’ and ‘love sense’. That will be our sincere attempt to uncover ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

Leave a Comment