5 Potential Dangers of Youth Christian Camps

I wrote earlier this week on some of the benefits summer camps can offer your youth or children’s ministry. Often times they do provide great opportunities for discipleship. However, despite their benefits, summer camps have potential to be dangerous. Most of these dangers can be avoided by selecting a good camp and through some careful pastoral care along the way. Yet, these potential dangers must be spotted less they because to cause destruction in the spiritual lives of your students. So to help I’ve identified five potential dangers of youth summer camps.

1. The Christian Bubble

One of the dangers of Christian camps is that it is a week long Christian fantasy world. It is a bubble and while in that bubble it is easy to live for Jesus because everyone is living for Jesus. Many young people can become adapting to the Christian camp bubble and can often put on their Christian mask to fit in with the crowd. In addition to the temptation to hypocrisy many Christian young people have a hard time adjusting going home at the end of the week.

Many of these young people live in difficult situations such as unchristian homes and lost friends. Sometimes a Christian camp is like training a solider at a kids laser tag party. At the Christian camp it is easy to follow Jesus. Everyone is doing it, no one is trying to hurt you, and it is a lot of fun! However the real Christian life is a spiritual war zone with real danger and temptation lurking in every corner. Many students fail to make any real changes in their lives when they get home because living for Christ is much more difficult in the battlefield of life than the laser tag game of Camp.

2. Spiritual Manipulation

This one varies from camp to camp, but spiritual manipulation is common and a regular occurrence at many of them. Because the students are in the Christian bubble and emotions are running high, it is easy to twist some one’s arm into making a forced decision for Christ. With loud worship music and a dynamic speaker who cares more about notches in his evangelistic belt than your students, spiritual manipulation is common. Unfortunately in our pragmatic church culture we are so tempted to forcefully fabricate a work of God so we can feel better about ourselves. All the while we miss that conversion is a great work of God. It is the Spirit who saves, not us. As a result no amount of manipulation will ever bring someone to Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who converts as we faithfully proclaim the Gospel and call for a decision, which camps should do. Yet I want my students to respond to Jesus not to the camps “worship experience”.

Another danger of the heavy spiritual manipulation at camps is their tendency to cause the faithful Christians in your group to doubt their salvation. I can’t tell you the amount of counseling I’ve had to do with some students who evidently follow Jesus who begin to question their salvation. The perseverance of the saints is a wonderfully encouraging and comforting doctrine, yet the spiritual manipulation tends to just damage the faithful Christians and often fails to see genuine conversion in the lost.

3. Conviction is Confused by Emotionalism

I had one of my students tell me one time “Why does this girl get emotional and cry every year at camp only to go back living in sin as soon as she returns home?” Camps can be very emotional experiences. The last night at camps tend to be the most emotionally intense. It is so easy to confuse an intensity of emotion as a true spiritual experience. Yet an intensity of emotions is no sure sign of a work of God as Jonathan Edwards helpfully explains in his book Religious Affections. Similarly, Thomas à Kempis said:

“Don’t think highly of yourself, or consider yourself to be especially loved if you have strong feelings of devotion or sweetness, for it is not by these feelings that a true lover of virtue is known. Nor does the spiritual progress and perfection of a man consist in these things.”

Heavy emotions are an unreliable sign of true spirituality. As a result biblical, Holy Spirit wrought conviction is confused by emotionalism. Many students might be heavily grieved over their sin and weep, then they find themselves engaging in the same lifestyle as soon as they get off the church bus at home. Yet the Scripture is clear that “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:10) True biblical sorrow and mourning over sin leads to repentance. An emotional experience at camp that doesn’t lead to true repentance isn’t godly grief but a wordily grief that produces death.

4. A Perpetuation of a Roll Coaster Christian Life

Many Christian young people (and adults!) immature in their faith often find themselves living an a spiritual roll coaster. Their spiritual life tends to center around big Christian events that lift them up to the mountain of spiritual ecstasies then real life hits and they go into a spiritual valley of disobedience only to zealously look for the next event, camp, or program to take them to the spiritual mountain top again. This is spiritual immaturity. How do I know? Because I’ve been there.

I’ve heard many a student say to me, “I can’t wait to get to camp this summer so I can get right with God!” Wait, what? Do students really think they can only follow God or experience the joy of His presence at camp? Unfortunately many do. Camps can perpetuate a roller coaster Christian life in which young people look to the next camp, retreat, mission trip, revival, or ski-trip to pump them with enough Jesus to make it to the next event. They hope the momentum of the last big event carries them up the hill to the next one.

This sort of inconsistency long term can be very damaging to our spiritual lives. We must help our students learn how to follow Jesus every day and not depend on big events to get them through. We must teach them the discipline of studying the Scriptures, the habit of prayer, and the priority of regularly attending worship and participating in the life of the Church.

5. A Cynical Attitude Towards the Home Church

Camps are purposefully contextualized to the generation they are trying to reach. As a result the songs, style, and format is uniquely geared towards communicating spiritual truth to that age group. Many young people greatly connect with the modern style and then get frustrated at their home church. You may hear comments like, “I wish our worship band was like this” or “I wish our pastor told more funny stories like that speaker does” or “I wish we had cool LED lights in our sanctuary”.

Camps can create a cynical attitude about the home church. We must remind ourselves and our students that what unites a local church together is not worship style, preaching style, or worship technology but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We should teach the importance of local church who exists for their discipleship and to send them out on mission. Keep an ear out for any cynicism about your church and quickly squash it with the truth.

There are Benefits, but Be Cautious

Camps again can provide wonderful opportunities for discipleship, yet there are some potential dangers which leaders should be aware. Camps are often a mixed bag and it takes a youth leader with a pastors heart to help shepherd his or her group towards the Gospel while correcting any errors that come along the way. I pray that as many of you may be taking your students to camps this summer that the Lord moves powerfully. I pray that the Gospel is heard, believed, and treasured. I pray that your lost students would be saved. Summer camps are used best as a catalyst for long term discipleship and life long mission. Don’t squander the opportunity and carefully disciple your students not only at camp, but especially when you return home.

Are there any dangers I missed? How can we best minister to our students to avoid these errors? Love to hear you thoughts in the comments below.