Church Camp Helps Kids Learn How to Choose

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.

My wife and I just returned from helping to chaperone 20 middle and high-school students at a church camp populated by a total of 600 youth. We were at SummerSalt, the flagship camp of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, located near Winnsboro, SC at White Oak Conference Center. (Actually, I’ve always referred to it as ‘Hotternhades, South Carolina,’ but that’s just me.)

Since it is a Southern Baptist Camp, let me immediately set fire to the standard ‘straw-man’ stereotypes leveled at our denomination; and indeed, at evangelicals in general. We did not spend our time making lists of all the people we believed were going to hell. We did not meet secretly to discuss implementing a theocracy in America. (We have enough committees already.)

We did not froth at the mouth over the horrors of modern music or entertainment. In fact, the college-student led band could have outperformed many secular club bands. We didn’t discuss our hatred for homosexuals (or anyone else) nor did we teach the kiddies how to erect scaffolds on which to hang heretics or atheists. We didn’t scream about abstinence, even though we believe in it. (And married counselors, in separate dorms, modeled it.)

What we did was work with the camp staff, clergy and college-aged counselors to provide an engaging, entertaining, crazy-fun place for young people to learn about Jesus, set their lives on track and encourage (and be encouraged by) their peers.

You see, it’s hard world for the kids. I know, because I see them as patients when I’m not busy raising them. I see their bruises, physical and emotional. I see their overdoses and loneliness, their drunkenness and pregnancy, their STD’s and rebellion, their insecurity and their sorrow at parents who abandon and ignore them.

Popular wisdom seems to suggest that adolscence is a time of misery we should just embrace. That teen dysfunction is normative and inevitable. Young people will drink and use drugs. Young people will experiment with sexuality, and as long as there’s a condom and mutual agreement, it’s no different from playing volleyball or taking a walk. Young people will rebel and scream, run out and run away, fight and bully. Young people will hurt. “It’s just how they are!”

There is a dark truth to the fact that these things are common. But then, so are heart attacks, car-crashes and cancer. We still try to find ways to heal the pain and save the life. Likewise, young people need treatment for their hearts and souls, as surely as their bodies. And the goal of SummerSalt, the goal of Christian youth programs in general, is to show them that they have eternal worth and purpose, and that there is a cure for their pain and the vague sense of guilt and inadequacy that lives inside them just as it lives in every human.

At camp, we try to teach the kids about choices; in behavior, relationships, dress, careers, entertainment and every aspect of life.. About the fact that their decisions have consequences, sometimes small, sometimes large, often eternal.

Our goal wasn’t to make teens into stereotypes of Christians in general or Baptists in particular. (An admittedly terrifying prospect.) Our goal was, and is, is teach them about Jesus, and make them like Him, for He is vastly better than the best Christian..

What we do at church camp (and hopefully in Christianity in general) is this: we identify the root problem of humanity, which is our very epidemic, inherent, congenital broken human nature. We call that brokenness sin, though it hurts people’s feelings and makes them indignant. However, it wasn’t my idea. Jesus, whose teaching is twisted by every cultural, political and religious group when it’s convenient, was very fond of talking about sin. In fact, his main mission, his reason for coming to earth, was to conquer sin. (Don’t take my word for it. Read the Gospels.) In response to the very real problem of sin, we offer the cure, which is not a set of our own rules, but the person and work of (yep, you guessed it) Jesus.

What we do at camp, between water games and worship, music and laughter, is offer Him and His teaching to kids of every stripe, color, family, wound, crime, drug and economic status. Miraculous things happen, broken young people are made whole, families given hope. The treatment of deep, aching wounds begins.

And in a hard, sad world, those things are worth every second in Hotternhades, South Carolina.

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