Summer camps are a rite of passage for many kids, but what happens when religion gets added to the mix? Bible camps — Christian sleepaway camps where kids live together in cabins, explore the outdoors and dine communally, all while learning about religion — exist throughout the country. Still, those who’ve never spent their childhood summers attending church services between dips in the pool may ask, what makes these summer experiences different than their secular counterparts?
Northern Plains Baptist Church, located in Aberdeen, S. Dak., describes their summer Bible camp as “a place where the world is shut out and the preaching of God’s word is given priority.” At their version of this summertime staple, which includes sports, airsoft gun activities and swimming, “campers will hear preaching from God’s word at least three times a day.”
But is such an intensive religious experience OK for kids? Should parents send their kids to Bible camps? And what exactly happens once they check in?
What is Bible camp?
Bible camps are commonly associated with being solely focused on religion. While that’s part of the Bible camp experience, Bible studies and late-night sermons are not all it entails.
For many who attended Bible camp as children, the experience felt similar to any other camp, with the addition of religious services thrown into the mix. “I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Bible camp is that you spend the entire week basically in a church service,” says Grace Maynard, 24-year old former Bible camp attendee from Kentucky. “Yes, religion is part of the experience, but it is still a camp with games, great food and overall fun.”
What do kids do at Bible camp?
Maynard attended Aldersgate Camp and Retreat Center in Ravenna, Ky. between the ages of 11 and 18. As someone who grew up attending church, she didn’t think twice about attending Bible camp. For herself and many of her peers, Maynard says Bible camp was seen as more of a social gathering and escape from the realities of everyday life than anything else.
Like secular camp programs, the activities schedule varies from Bible camp to Bible camp. At Aldersgate, Maynard recalls the program hosting themed sessions each week for different age brackets.
“The first two years I was there, I attended what was known as ‘Princess Camp’ where middle school-aged girls were taught they were God’s princesses,” Maynard says. “We compared traits of ‘godly women’ to those of Disney Princesses — which makes me wanna gag looking back on it.”
Other activities, Maynard recalls, included swimming, games, snack time, hikes and campfires. As she grew older, her camp sessions involved studying stories from the Bible and engaging in other religious and meditative practices.
“Overall, at all of these camps you had a Bible study in the mornings followed by a period of ‘quiet time’ where you were supposed to spread out, not speak to anyone and just have time to ‘listen to what God wanted to tell you,'” she says.
Sydney Holmes, a New York City-based comedian, says her experiences were similar. Holmes attended Bible camps in Texas and Colorado as a child, but says she has mixed feelings looking back on her experiences at these religion-centered programs.
As a musical theater fan, Holmes found the amount of singing at the camps she attended to be a fun part of the week. Other parts of the experience were exhausting. “You wake up at like 7 a.m. in a cabin of 10 or more girls,” she says. “You have breakfast, go to a morning worship service, go to some kind of activity or bible study, go do some kind of obstacle course or physical activity, have lunch and maybe some free time to go swimming or whatever, then dinner and another worship service at night.”
In addition to long structured days, there were aspects of Bible camp Holmes says she other more senior campers found “creepy and disturbing,” like “cry night.”
“It’s not called that by the people who go, but usually by people who have gone but are no longer active or don’t consider themselves Christians,” she explains. “It’s the night before the end of church camp and basically it’s a really long worship service and then they ask you to give your life to Christ if you haven’t already. Tons of people cry and have these very big emotional reactions, which I’ve later learned might not be ‘the holy spirit’ but instead the result of a week of no sleep and sun exhaustion.”
Yahoo Life contacted several Bible camps, including Far Above Rubies Bible Camp and Camp Pinnacle Bible Camp and Retreat Center, for information about what their camp programs entail but did not receive a response.
Are Bible camps safe for kids?
Crystal Britt is a therapist and social worker who works with people who have experienced religious trauma. Britt says while some kids can attend religious summer camps with no adverse effects, others can find Bible camp to be a struggle.
“From a therapist’s perspective, Bible camps can be problematic at best and traumatic at worst for kids who identify as a minority,” Britt tells Yahoo Life. “For example, I serve the LGBTQ community and its intersection with religious trauma: Bible camps are rife for this kind of negative impact.”
Britt says the age range during which children typically attend camps like Bible camp falls during the developmental period where identity starts to form, and can be affected by these religious influences.
“Bible camps — especially for the teenage age group — tend to focus very heavily on morality and sexuality, and the often damning consequences of making the wrong choice,” Britt says. “Emotional manipulation, fear and shame are frequently used in camp contexts through worship music and messages and these kiddos are left vulnerable without their parents there to provide nuance or answer questions.”
While Bible camps may have some perceived negatives, Britt says there are some positives like that of interacting with peers and forming a sense of community. “In general, the community and socialization that Bible camps can provide is important for kids and teens,” she adds. “It can also provide a safe context for exploration and asking big questions.”
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