Monday, January 11, 2016

Church Camp

Growing up my main social settings, other than home and school, were Boy Scouts and my church youth group. Every summer between 7th and 12th grade, I went to two summer camps. Our scout troop would do summer camps in different locations, but church camp was always at Falls Creek in the Arbuckle Mountains of south central Oklahoma. According to their web site Falls Creek is "the largest youth camp in the world each summer with over 50,000 annually attending the eight youth weeks." That's a lot of kids!

Back in my era between 1979 and 1985, I met kids from all over Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas at Falls Creek. The Falls Creek staff, church staffs, and many volunteer parent chaperones invested their time and energy helping us kids have a great summer camp experience. I appreciate them for contributing to the development of many kids like me who benefited from the good moral values they poured into us. For the most part, church camp was a ton of fun too. I have a lot of great memories, but I was fairly introverted back then so meeting new people was also intimidating. Church camp wasn't all fun and games, at least not for me.

Oklahoma, like my native state of Texas, gets extremely hot in the summer. The large group meeting pavilion at Falls Creek had no air conditioning. They had some fans, but the heat could be stifling. The camp dress code enforced modesty, but also contributed to our suffering: no shorts or tank tops for the boys, and very modest attire for the young ladies. And just to be sure our pubescent minds wouldn't lust at the swimming pool, the boys and girls had segregated swimming times. I remember sweating a lot at church camp. Maybe they wanted us to get a tiny taste of the suffering in hell fire if we didn't repent. 

Our youth pastor did a really good job of recruiting kids for church camp. We always had many campers who weren't regular church attenders. Our youth pastor was a former jock, so he worked at getting the athletes and cheerleader types to come to camp. I guess he related better to those kids. I didn't. I was a book worm and a bit of a nerd who hung out with the "brain" clique at school. I didn't fit in with the "popular kids" he recruited for church camp, and contributing to this awkwardness was my lack of school friends at church.

My social circles of school, church, and Boy Scouts didn't intersect, and I wasn't very social anyway. I didn't have any friends that were in all three groups. Most of the kids at my church went to a different school than I did because my church was located within a different school district. There were a handful of kids from my school at my church, but most of the youth group attended the rival schools across town. I was also somewhat of a loner, so I never felt like I fit in. I felt like an outside observer more than a participant a lot of the time.

One of the observations I made was the annual repentance parade at church camp. Many of the kids were not regulars at church, so they didn't get regular doses of altar calls like I did. A full week of emotional altar calls would convict many of these kids about their ungodly behavior, so they would repent at church camp and either "get saved" if they hadn't before or "rededicate" if getting Jesus in their heart hadn't previously worked. All manner of evil would be forsaken at church camp.

Those of us who didn't have as much to confess would forsake listening to our evil rock music or petty lusts, but the really brave kids would confess and forsake doing drugs or having sex with their boy or girl friend. The bigger the sins and more radical the confession, the more attention they received from the youth director and adult leaders. The last night at church camp was always a big kumbaya love fest filled with singing, crying, hugging, and all manner of teenage emotion about how we were all going to be great friends at school. We'd all promise to stop the social cliques and "set the school on fire for Jesus." There was usually some sort of pretense toward reconciliation among this newly formed community of faith, but the new social structure never emerged.

I have to confess I got caught up in this repentance parade myself. Southern Baptists are pretty good about working the guilt and shame angle, and one year we even promised we would burn all our evil rock music. Those were the days when backmasking was a big controversy, and we didn't want to give the devil a foothold in our tender youthful hearts. The thing that bothered me most about the repentance parade and anticipated "revival" in our school is it never seemed to stick, and the social cliques would revert back just as they had been before. The Breakfast Club effect is fiction. Jocks, brains, pretty people, and outcasts (we called them "freaks") just don't mix in American teenage life. I raised three boys who went through pretty much the same thing in their teenage years. In fact, it may be worse today with social media and the internet.

These youth group experiences were the beginning of the end for me and organized religion. The temporal results and emotional appeal altar calls based on subtle shame and guilt wreaked havoc in my young psyche, and when I went off to college in 1985, I walked away from church and God completely. As Paul Harvey would say: Here's the rest of the story.

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