The Lasting Impact of Summer Camp
The camp high. I hear about it all the time. Even the most ardent camp supporters grudgingly acknowledge its existence. But what is it, and how large are its effects?
We have all seen the smiling faces on the last day of summer camp. We have heard the stories of increased faith and mountaintop experiences.
Conventional wisdom says that any benefits of the camp experience fade quickly after the last goodbye, and those who claim they had life-changing experiences are simply exceptions to the rule. The smiles fade. The increased excitement about church is fleeting.
What, if anything, are the lasting impacts?
New research from the Effective Camp Research Project sheds light on the nature of the so-called camp high and demonstrates the lasting impacts of a one-week camp experience.
The data from over 1000 campers at 6 different camps indicate that campers showed significant growth in numerous measurements of faith formation and personal characteristics during the week of camp. Much of this growth persisted at least 2 or 3 months after camp, while some faded, giving evidence that the camp high is real.
The camp high includes:
- increased interest in worship services
- greater overall happiness
- greater assurance of cognitive faith elements.
These are all interesting and deserve greater attention, but the faith measurements are particularly illuminative. The camp high has to do with belief in specific doctrines like “God created the world.” There was a temporary increase in agreement with these doctrinal statements that regressed to pre-camp levels after a couple months.
But that is not the whole story! There were also lasting elements of the camp experience including, in particular, communal elements of faith.
Lasting impacts of camp include
- increased devotional practices
- greater engagement in church
- the horizontal elements of faith like connecting with and reaching out to others.
Doctrine and agreement with theological specifics may have faded after camp, but the lasting elements included an understanding that faith matters in daily life and that it is important to belong to a church. Not only that, but campers were also participating more deeply in devotional practices that sustain faith long-term. These included increased frequency of Bible study, prayer, church attendance, and conversations with their family about faith.
These findings are so compelling that they may reshape our understanding of the role of camp in faith formation. We now have more than anecdotes. We can confirm that there is, in fact, a camp high, but we can say with confidence that the camp experience has much stronger lasting impacts than temporary ones.
Young people are participating more deeply in their faith months after camp is over. They have not formed a new theology or worked out in their heads the specifics of their beliefs – these effects of camp are all temporary. They have gained something much more valuable: a desire to be in Christian community, a hunger to learn more, and the assurance that faith makes a difference in their lives.
Whether you are a pastor, youth worker, parent, or other caring adult, you can work with this. Connect with these young people. Find out about their camp experience. Walk alongside them and participate in the lasting impacts of camp. You can help these impacts continue to bear fruit long-term.