Setting Up Camp Afresh
Cell phone signals and wireless Internet connections don't exist in the California mountains where Forest Home is located. But this hasn't prevented the 72-year-old Christian camp from using Facebook and Twitter to attract campers.
Faith-oriented camps' embrace of technology is part of their proactive approach to stay open at a time when the economy has hastened the demise of already struggling camp ministries.
"Our industry can't escape what has happened to other industries," said Bob Kobielush, president of the Colorado-based Christian Camp and Conference Association (ccca), which has shrunk from 1,093 members to 929 over the past five years. "In camp- and conference-centered ministries, we are in a consolidation and readjustment phase."
Camp attendance has been declining since the 1990s, according to Kobielush, due to rising operational costs, government regulations, competition from sports and music camps, and the growing popularity of summer mission trips. He also noted that many churches no longer value the traditional camp experience, and that many megachurches now offer their own camps.
Kobielush likens this season of change to what many churches went through a decade ago when the number of megachurches burgeoned. He said Christian camps must reinvent themselves if they are to remain open. Many have responded by connecting with megachurches, developing programs that appeal to ethnic groups, or offering day camps at churches.
"They're reaching into the church and into the community," said Kobielush.
Forest Home's Web presence is one way to reach that community. Dave Grout, vice president of marketing and communications, said while Forest Home is not "out of the woods yet," the camp has fared well.
Decreases in individuals' and youth campers' attendance has been offset by increases in large groups' attendance. Forest Home had nearly 58,000 campers last year, and expects the same amount in 2009.
The popularity of camping programs for groups has balanced the declining attendance at several camps across the country. Kobielush said it could take three to five years before Christian camps see growth in attendance again, but he remains optimistic. "The whole movement is going to come out much stronger as a result of the challenges we are facing," he said.
Dwight Gibson, vice chairman of the board for Simpson Park Camp in Romeo, Michigan, the second-oldest ccca camp (established in 1865), is conducting research on Christian camping's impact on the spiritual growth and development of believers.
"Camping is not old-school," he said. "It is a significant strategy for ministry today because it reaffirms community and discipleship, it shows the fullness of God in creation, and it allows people to have a break from their normal routine to discover God afresh."
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Previous Christianity Today articles about camps or camping include:
Missions Boot Camp | As these teens prepare for short-term trips, they learn more about how to talk about Jesus. (February 15, 2008)
Jesus Camp Shuts Down, But Fischer Says Her 'Indoctrination' Will Continue | Other Christian camp leaders say her camp and documentary about it don't represent Mainstream Christian camping. (November 13, 2006)
Christian Camping: The Right to Rent | Can homosexuals and atheists be barred from church camps? (May 22, 2000)