eventh-day Adventist summer camps in America are no longer the spooky, uncertain affair they were at their beginning in 1926. Their beginning that year was God’s answer to the dreams and hard work of Grover Fattic, East Michigan Conference youth director, through the support of a helpful Detroit Scoutmaster, and the backing of Lake Union youth director Gordon Smith. The rustic setting of Townline Lake, in Montcalm County, Michigan, was hardly the most auspicious of beginnings. Indeed, and to Fattic’s dismay, some parents who drove their sons out to the site decided, once they got there, that they were too scared about what they saw to leave their sons at the campsite. They couldn’t be sure it was safe enough. Yet those 18 boys who did stay to swim, camp, and fellowship together were the history makers who helped to birth a program that was quickly followed in Wisconsin, California, New England, and, eventually, all over the world.
Today’s descendants of Grover Fattic’s less-than-inspiring pioneering beginnings operate with the confidence of a clear mission statement, articulated by their umbrella organization, Adventist Camp Ministries (ACM). According to that statement, “ACM provides an intentional Christian environment committed to strengthening each camper’s relationship with God and all His creation through Scripture, nature, and recreation.”1
Beyond the Numbers
What Fattic began with singular faith and courage, and not a penny of support from his conference,2
today includes, in North America, 67 church-owned camps and conference centers in all states, with an estimated value of $1 billion, that trained and entertained 35,000 campers during the summer of 2011. These numbers give some idea about how much fun there is to be had and how many youth are enjoying it from year to year. Survey research tells a lot more about the highly positive impact of these camps on membership growth, long-term commitment, and leadership development within Adventism.
During the summer of 2008, researchers surveyed 22 camps, representing a balance of geographical, union, and ethnic diversity, to gather information as a baseline for beginning to understand ACM’s impact on campers and staff. A total of 4,613 surveys were returned from camp staff, camp alumni, family campers, and individual campers. Counselors surveyed their campers at the end of each week of camp, canvassing their opinions on 13 categories of concern, including the importance of being an Adventist, how camp impacted a sense of independence, attitudes toward each other in respect and fairness, religious identity, and environmental awareness.
Findings appear to strongly affirm Fattic’s dream and the church’s continuing investment in summer camping. One third of campers reported increase in their identity as a Seventh-day Adventist. They credited this to the range of spiritual activities, including worships, religious plays and sermons, and the meaningful cabin devotions their counselors direct. Further, significant numbers of campers said that religion was more important to them because of their camp experience, with 49 percent of campers feeling that their understanding of the importance of Adventism was higher since coming to camp.
A very instructive datum is the value of nature study to campers’ religiosity. Nature study is, of course, a key ingredient of summer camp experience. But one of the surprises of the 2008 study was its revelation of the high correlation between learning about nature and such categories as devotion to Adventism and personal religiousness. And with one summer camp reporting 70 baptisms through a recent summer, it is apparent that summer camp ministries, with their engaging introduction to God’s Word and world, their integration of sound moral tone, fun and games, and spiritual and doctrinal instruction, are among the largest evangelistic events that some conferences conduct from summer to summer.
Getting as They Give
Not only is summer camp a valuable experience for kids, teenagers, and families, but camp staff have been finding that they themselves get just as much as they give to those they serve during their weeks, or years, as summer camp counselors. For the hundreds of Adventism’s finest youth who annually dedicate their lives to summer camp ministry, summer camp employment serves as excellent training for future denominational service. The research showed that, in principle, summer camp may be considered a valid training ground for future pastors, teachers, administrators, youth pastors, and other church workers, with 45 percent of staff seeing themselves working for the church in some capacity. A little more than one fifth of those plan to enter the ministry either as pastor or youth pastor. And the local church also seems to be a direct beneficiary of our youth’s involvement in summer camp work. Thirty-six percent expected to be more involved in their local church, and 60 percent stated that they would continue to be involved.
From personal experience, Gary Thurber, president of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a former camp director, has come to identify six significant elements present in Adventist Christian summer camping:
1. Campers have the opportunity to stay in a Christian community environment.
2. Campers experience the privilege of ministry to the mental, physical, and spiritual components of their lives.
3. The camp is a venue for nurturing relationships, whether with fellow campers, or with staff, or with God.
4. Summer camps create memories and commitments that last a lifetime.
5. Summer camps give some a chance to teach leadership skills, while others get the chance to learn those skills.
6. Summer camps show our young people that their church is reaching out to them and making a significant commitment to them personally.3
Seventh-day Adventist camping has changed scores of lives through its 85 years of history. The very first Adventist summer camp lasted for 10 days and cost only $10 per camper. Today’s camps range in price from $150 to $400. And many still consider these rates a bargain in comparison to what is paid at other Christian or secular camps. To be a part of the year-round management team or a summer camp staff member, a camper, or a participant in a function held at the camp, is to come face to face with our Creator in this unique and beautiful setting. Roll all that up into a spiritual and possibly life-changing experience, and the total cost can only be counted as priceless.
1 Gary Thurber, “Nature and Camping Programs for Seventh-day Adventist Youth,” in General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Youth Department, Getting It Right: a Power-packed Resource for Adventist Youth Leaders (Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2005), pp. 332, 333.
2 Ibid., p. 332.
3 Ibid., pp. 333-336.
William Wood is a youth, Pathfinder, and camping specialist, and volunteer coordinator for the North American Division’s Camp Ministries. This article was published May 24, 2012.