2020 has been a year unlike any other for Christian summer camps. Here’s how CT captured the situation in a recent report:

Like most businesses and ministries across the country, Christian camps felt the economic halt right away. Church retreats and events were called off in March, April, and May due to bans on mass gatherings across the states. Before long, camps were forced to grapple with the unimaginable: no summer camp.

By May’s end, more than 100 Christian camps had announced cancellations. Most of the rest made dramatic changes to summer programming. Summer camp can represent half of a camp’s annual revenue or more, so skipping it for a year comes as a massive financial blow.

Many Christian camps did cancel their summers. Some canceled and then reversed course. Some held programming all summer.

This has been a very difficult summer. We've got camps that have been open continuously, even through WWI and WWII, closed down for the first time this summer,” said Jacob Sorenson, the director of Sacred Playgrounds, a ministry offering research and training to camps and congregations. “It's been a very difficult time for the industry as a whole, including secular camps.”

One added challenge for Christian summer camps has been politics.

“Christian camps are again caught in this political environment where the ones that have a constituency that tends to be conservative have been under a lot of pressure to open up,” said Sorenson, who researches camping ministry and who contributed to the previously mentioned CT article. “While the ones that have a constituency that tends to be more progressive or Democratic-leaning have been under pressure to close down. And it’s made it very difficult for camp directors to make a good decision for the health of their camp communities.”

Sorenson joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the financial footprint of summer camp, what to know about how long a “camp high” really lasts, how many camps are using technology in ways never seen before, and who summer camps serve well and who they leave out.

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Music by Sweeps

Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #224

Can you tell us a little bit about the American Christian summer camp industry? How many camps are there? How many jobs do they create every year? How many people go to camp each summer?

Jake Sorenson: It's a very, very big industry and an important industry. Religiously-affiliated camps account for about a quarter of camps in the country. And the American Camp Association says that camps are an $18 billion industry, and so if Christian summer camps have 20% to 25% of that market share, that’s a $3.5 billion industry.

We're talking about over 2000 Christian summer camps. And when we say Christian summer camps, it's a little bit squishy because some are overtly Christian, some are affiliated with specific denominations or churches, and some are privately-owned, but have Christian teachings alongside some other things. And some of them are historically Christian. So how many can be considered Christian camps? It's somewhere north of 2000, maybe around 2,500.

And when we're talking about summer campers, we're talking about somewhere around one and a half million summer campers every summer.

Is the industry growing?

Jake Sorenson: Well, it's a complicated story and it tends to go along with demographics. In the camping industry, when there's a recession, it generally dips. And when there's a larger generational cohort, it generally goes up.

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And so the 90s were great years for Christian camping. We had a large generational cohort. We had great economic success. And then following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, camps really took a hit. And it was across the industry, but Christian camps took a little bit more of a hit and they were slower to recover than the larger camping industry.

And there might be various reasons for this, but it's still the case that since 2009, Christian summer camps have progressively been increasing in summer camp attendance and retreat attendance. And so it's been very successful in the last few years.

And we've seen that all the way up until last summer, 2019. And of course this summer, it's a huge hit and a big question. But in recent years, for the last 10 years, there's been a wonderful growth in the summer camp industry and specifically the Christian summer camp industry.

Can you tell us about the history of summer camp and how long summer camp has really been a thing? And at what point do we start to see the emergence of Christian summer camps?

Jake Sorenson: It's fun because if you talk to camping professionals they'll say, well, that goes all the way back to biblical times. They'll talk about Elijah going out into the wilderness, Jesus with his small group of disciples as a kind of an outdoor ministry experience going from place to place.

But when we talk about the modern summer camp movement, we're talking about the late 19th century. Just as the Industrial Revolution was really taking hold in the United States and cities were becoming these places of squalor and kids were running around on the streets, there was a back-to-nature movement and there was a movement to get kids out of these inner-city environments.

And so a lot of the early camps were opportunities to get some of these young people—especially some of the poor young people—away to upstate New York or to New Hampshire or somewhere else in the wilderness to have this outdoor experience. And at the same time, some more wealthy individuals were starting camps and using them as this educational enterprise.

And so it was a very small movement in the 1880s and 90s. And then it really started to catch on at the turn of the 20th century. And all of these camps at the beginning were Christian camps. There were a few that were Jewish, there were a few that were Catholic, but mostly it was a Protestant endeavor to get these young people outside. And Christianity was just part of the experience.

In the inter-war years between WWI and WWII is also when the camping industry really exploded, and camps started popping up all over the country and grew and grew. And then post WWII, there was tremendous growth in both mainline camping and conservative Christian camping. And that's when the industry really took off.

So a lot of the camps that you know of were founded in the late 40s and 50s because that was such a great time for camping.

How has Christian youth camping changed over time? What is the current approach, mission, or focus for most of these camps these days?

Jake Sorenson: Christian camping is an educational ministry of the church. And it's a partnership ministry with the congregation and the home. Most camp directors would say that they are supplementing what's going on in the home, supplementing what's going on in the congregation.

In some cases, camps are more specifically evangelical in trying to bring in young people that may or may not be believers and try to have some sort of a conversion experience or an increase in faith that will then lead to more faith in the home and the congregation. But either way you look at it, it's a partnership ministry in that way. And there's a sense of increasing in the faith or making the faith more sure.

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And there's a lot of ways that camp does this. And one of the key ways is simply by getting young people away from what they're used to. It's unplugged from home, they're outside of things that are kind of normal to them, but they're also away from their parents. And that's what the traditional summer camp experience does is it gives them a measure of independence. And with a measure of independence, they can then determine and ask questions that they might not otherwise ask.

And so for me, summer camp, was the first place that I really asked the question, “Do I really believe in God?” and started articulating it in my own words. And it was that combination of being unplugged from home, being in this very faith-centered environment, in this very relational community where we were getting to know one another really well. It was very participatory in the activities that we did and in the interaction that we had. And it was also a safe space. So I was confident that I wasn't going to be judged or shunned for asking a question as audacious as, “Do I really believe in God?”

And so having these safe spaces for young people to ask those questions and explore their faith in new ways, that's what makes camp into what I like to call either a theological playground or a sacred playground. You get to play around with your ideas a little bit, try on new identities. Be someone a little different and see what that feels like. And it's a safe environment to do that.

How long has camp been seen as a place where people are going to have that “camp high,” the mountain top experience with regards to their spiritual life? And what type of research have you done on the sustainability of that?

Jake Sorenson: The idea of the “camp high” or the particular spiritual experience goes all the way back to those early YMCA camps. And a lot of those were single-week experiences. And so camps have different session lengths. Some camps you go to for the entire summer and you're there for eight weeks, or you're there for maybe half the summer, four weeks. But the majority of our Christian summer camps have a one-week session and that's kind of the typical summer camp experience for our Christian camps.

And there is still this idea—and I call it a little bit of a stereotype—that there's this “camp high.” Which does exist because kids come home excited and they're on fire for God, for life, and then that tends to fade over time as the high emotions of the camp experience come back into day-to-day life. It's not sustainable.

People tend to dismiss the camp experience in general because there is this sort of emotional high. And so they would then dismiss it as it's just this short mountain top experience. It's a brief high that quickly fades. And it's not that consequential long-term for people because we can identify this “camp high,” but that's really not the case.

The main part of my research has been looking into what are the lasting impacts of camp. Do any of these things last more than a few weeks or a few months after the campers return home? And the answer is an overwhelming yes. There are many things and many impacts that carry on well past the camp experience.

So tell us a little bit about that. What tends to pass and what tends to last? Are there some more short-term effects? And what's more in the long-term?

Jake Sorenson: So when you think of the short-term impacts of camp, you can think of things like increased happiness or increased positivity. Young people often come back from camp smiling ear to ear. They're excited and they're happy about things. They feel more confident in themselves. They tend to be more interactive and more interested in participatory learning.

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Oftentimes they're nicer to people in the days and weeks following camp and it's kind of that carry over from the camp environment where it's very relational, everybody's working together to accomplish tasks. And those things tend to fade over time.

The other thing that tends to fade—and this is an interesting one and it kind of goes along with our Christian faith—is belief statements.

Most of the young people that go to a Christian camp, they're not duped into going. They're already Christian in some way, shape, or form. Their sense of belief might be higher or lower, but in general, they have been exposed to Christian faith before and have some sort of a desire to go to a specifically Christian camp. But at the end of camp, they ended up being more excited and more sure about their beliefs.

So if I go into camp and I'm doubting a little bit, in the camp environment it is really easy to believe in God and Jesus because everybody around you does. So it's natural. It's in the air that you breathe at camp. When we get back to our home environments, those increased feelings of belief and surety of our belief tends to fade over time. What tends to last is the understanding that faith matters in my life. That faith is relevant. And when we think about it, these are the things that we want to last.

I oftentimes hear from some pastors or theologians and they cringe when they hear some of these young counselors trying to articulate the faith and it's like, “Oh my gosh, it's all heresy.” But those are not the things that last. The individual belief statements don’t last. Instead, it’s, “Wow, I can imagine myself being a college student or a young adult as a person of faith,” “I can imagine what it would look like to live my life as a disciple of Christ and that being okay, and even cool, even something desirable.”

And so what we see after the camp experience with a lasting impact is on these measurements that we have about horizontal faith— faith that matters in the world, faith reaching out to the world, and also seeing the importance of Christian community, including things like Christian small groups, church attendance, and the importance of having Christian friends.

And we see these impacts, not just three, four, five, six months after camp, but in one of the studies that we did up to five years after camp. We can see clear impacts on the increased attendance of religious small groups and church attendance in the young people that went to camp in comparison to those who did not go to camp.

In response to this research, what programmatical changes at camps have you seem in the last few years?

Jake Sorenson: One of the major differences between the evangelical community and the mainline community, is that the evangelical communities focus on the conversion moment compared to the mainline focus on Christian nurture over time.

There's not necessarily a moment where you go from being someone who wasn't saved to someone who was saved. And in the evangelical community, there is still is that emphasis on that moment or that decision, and making it public. And camp has traditionally been a place where that sort of commitment has been easy to nurture among the young people. Because it's such a powerfully evocative experience and it's so relational and so moving, you can get almost anybody to stand up and say, “Yes, I will commit my life to Jesus Christ.”

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But it’s hard to know if there is going to be the follow-up that we would expect in a congregational community that would be more typical of this evangelical moment. Where you have a pastor or other adult mentors to walk alongside these people long-term. And so some of the research that we have has shown that this moment, when it happens at the last campfire on the last night at camp, isn't necessarily what we were hoping for. And so adopting a more discipleship and nurturing approach, there's some indication that that might be more effective in long-term discipleship.

So, again, seeing ourselves as people who are walking alongside these young people at a specific time in their lives and we're partners with the home and with the congregation. Understanding those two places as the primary spaces of faith formation and how can we help in these young people's Christian formation?

According to your research, what have you learned about the people that end up getting left out by camp or who camp has not served very well? Or maybe have left with increased feelings of marginalization or frustration?

Jake Sorenson: That’s an important question and an important issue because one of the key characteristics of a successful, effective camp is that it's a safe space. It has to be a safe space for a person to be themselves, but also to explore who they are.

And when a camp adopts a certain ideology, or maybe some groups of people like the LGBTQ community being not right, then it becomes an unsafe place for people who are exploring their identity. And that can be a real turnoff to camps and to Christianity in general. You're not going to have a conversation with them and they're not going to be open about their faith. They're not going to have a positive experience.

And so some camps, particularly those in more conservative circles have been unwelcoming and overtly unwelcoming to people in the LGBTQ community. And that's been really hard for me to see. It seems clear that it's because of how politicized the issues of gay marriage and ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships have become in the national scene, and some camps have made this a dividing line.

And I've seen some people really, really hurt by some of these camps, and honestly leave Christianity, cause they see it as hateful. I’d like to think that's the opposite of what even these very conservative camps are trying to do, and they don't want to chase people away from Christianity.

Camps are such safe spaces for people. They're really seen as a place where I can be somebody new and I can talk about things and express opinions that I might not feel comfortable doing elsewhere, camp becomes a safe place where I can finally share that with people. And as a camp director, I had multiple experiences of sitting with young people who were telling, for the first time, their story.

And so when young people are exploring other things, camp needs to be a safe space. And being totally shut down, that can be a very dangerous thing emotionally for these young people, but also spiritually, because they can decide they're going to leave the faith behind.

You mentioned that some of the origins of camping were anxieties about urbanization and city air. Was it largely focused on white, urban kids? What were some of the racial dynamics and what are some of those racial dynamics now?

Jake Sorenson: That's such an important topic because camps have historically, and currently, by and large, the industry as a whole has been largely a white middle-class and upper-middle-class phenomenon. Those are the folks that have had the opportunity historically to attend camp and to have positive experiences at camp.

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Now it is very true that from the earliest days in the camping industry, that there were camping movements that were bringing in young immigrants and people of color into the camping experiences. And that continues to this day. There are some camps that intentionally reach out to minorities.

And it's also the case that throughout the camping industry—not just in Christian camping, but throughout the camping industry—there is under-representation of people of color in leadership, but also in campers.

You mentioned that the number of people participating in camp has been growing. Is that because the camps themselves are being really intentional and trying to reach different demographics? Or are they just trying to reach more people in the same historical demographics? What do you know about that?

Jake Sorenson: I think it's both. I think camps legitimately are trying to reach out to people of color. They don't always do it very well because in most cases our camp directors are overwhelmingly white. And our camp boards are overwhelmingly white. And it's really hard to start from a place of very little diversity and reach out to diverse communities.

There's also the problematic history of summer camp. And so if your parents didn't go to camp, you're less likely to go to camp. So, especially in the African American community, camp and even outdoor spaces have been seen as unsafe. And there's some really interesting research pieces and books about this and why that is the case in America, but you can also look at some of the histories. And it's really hard to see camps and in the 60s and even the early 70s where they were having blackface dramas weekly and that camps refused to integrate because there was such racial tension and civil rights was such a big divisive issue.

In light of COVID-19, we’ve seen camps make a lot of different choices around whether to open or remain shut down. What are you seeing happening with Christian camps? And what effect do you think COVID will have on Christian camping?

Jake Sorenson: This has been a very difficult summer. We've got camps that have been open continuously, even through WWI and WWII, closed down for the first time this summer. It's been a very difficult time for the industry as a whole, including secular camps.

And Christian camps are again caught in this political environment where the ones that have a constituency that tends to be conservative have been under a lot of pressure to open up. While the ones that have a constituency that tends to be more progressive or Democratic-leaning have been under pressure to close down. And it’s made it very difficult for camp directors to make a good decision for the health of their camp communities.

Well over half of the Christian camps have either shut down completely or decided to do limited programming. The ones that have been able to open or have chosen to open have usually been in either rural areas or places that do not have any sort of statewide restrictions.

I have heard of very few camps that have had as many as 600 campers on site at once. And among the camp directors, most would consider that not a very responsible approach to the current pandemic. The ones that are opening up are doing so at limited capacity. They're limiting the number of campers per cabin, requiring masks, there's a lot of responses that people are having. And a lot of them are very creative. So even the camps that are “closing down,” they're doing some incredible ministry and really looking to reach people in creative ways.

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So just as an example, I can think of a camp that I've worked with in the past that when everything was beginning to shut down in mid-March, they had already hired a significant portion of their summer staff and committed to hiring them. And instead of just shutting down, they said, “We're going to open and we're going to hire all the people that we said we were going to hire. And if we are not allowed by the state to have people on-site, then they'll work deployed.” People came out of the woodwork to donate and make sure that camp could happen in some way, shape, or form. And so the expenses for these staff members were covered and they were now able to offer virtual camp experiences free of charge for anyone who wants to participate in these virtual camp experiences.

And these camp directors, and of course, summer staff and program directors are incredibly creative at some of the things that they're doing. Some are trying to do some sort of a cabin group thing. But most camps trying this thing where they are giving activities for people to go outside and do a scavenger hunt in their area with their family. And they'll come back and they'll report, or they'll say I found this, or they'll show pictures, sometimes it's photo contest and sometimes there are actual rewards. And so they get camp swag in the mail.

Some of them are doing “camp in a box,” and so they're sending kids arts and crafts supplies and other things that they can do. Outdoor creation sort of experiments or interactions and different things like that. So they're being really creative and engaging their constituency in really interesting ways.

And so I continue to be impressed by our professionals in the camping ministry industry. And then some are just doing virtual campfires and things like that and they're doing the songs and via Facebook live or Zoom or whatever and you can participate that way.

And it's a way for people who have been there before to connect to that powerfully evocative experience and say, “When we're able to gather again, this is going to be a big celebration.”

Do you imagine this ultimately being something that people will see as an anomaly and part of this era that we're in? Or do you think that this will have long-term effects on what camp looks like?

Jake Sorenson: Wow, that's a tough one. I'm certain that the pandemic and this experience will have a long-term impact on the industry. Whether it will be everybody's going to be doing virtual camp alongside in-person camp, I'm not sure that that's going to happen. I hope that doesn't happen actually.

I think that some camps will want to continue some sort of virtual connection, but I'm really hopeful that the way that they'll do that is with ongoing communication. And so if you now have these platforms, these ways to keep in touch with people long-term, and to facilitate involvement and engagement long-term, what an incredible gift that you can give to the campers who come in person. To be able to interact, stay connected, and maybe do devotions and things like that together when they're away from camp—that can be a really powerful thing to keep the camp experience going, especially in the absence of regular church attendance and other things like that.

And so that's my hope. But I really think what this pandemic is teaching us is that we need camps more than ever. We've got young people who are now learning virtually, and it's just not as good. It's really hard for these young people to sit in front of a screen and try to stay engaged and try to learn in these ways. Some kids really thrive on that, but most need that in-person experience.

And so as things have already been going more and more online, and young people have been more on their phones, camp is one of the few places where they can get away from all that. I think we're learning that we're going to need camps more than ever.