By Stephen Kuhrt
One of the concerns most often associated with parenthood is that of giving one’s children the opportunities you never had yourself. Just as often, however, parents can be equally motivated to provide their children with experiences similar to those that they consider themselves extremely fortunate to have possessed during their formative years.
In my case this very much included attendance on Christian summer camps. From the age of 11 and then throughout my teenage years, I was sent on a succession of Pathfinder and CYFA camps run by CPAS (The Church Pastoral Aid Society). Usually staying in vacant boarding schools for up to nine or 10 days, these camps combined accessible Christian talks (usually each morning and evening) and Bible Studies with an immense amount of fun through games, activities and simply the opportunity to be together with other young people.
Run for years by the famous Kenneth and Mary Habershon, the camp that I particularly attended was at Limpsfield and it was there in the hot summer of 1984, surrounded by teenagers wearing ‘Frankie says’ T-shirts and singing Black Lace’s ‘Agadoo’, that I made the decisive decision to own my Christian faith for myself.
Looking back now, the really formative influence here was the amazing atmosphere on these camps that, at an otherwise difficult time in my life, provided a warmth of inclusion and therefore hope that wasn’t present to the same degree anywhere else. The Christian teaching was good (and some of the talks still stick in my mind) but its impact was drawn from the modelling of new creation so strongly present on such camps.
This was evident firstly in the integration of this teaching with a fun and fellowship that demonstrated that Jesus came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’ and, to an even greater extent, within the specific kindness and Christian love that I experienced from both leaders and other members of the camp. In my case, it was the latter (represented in a dormitory leader called Brian Penfold and a member called David Peppiatt) that made me really convinced that Christianity was for me. Ups and downs inevitably followed in my Christian life but ‘Limpsfield ‘D’ 1984’ was crucial in the path that my life then followed.
Part of the legacy of this experience was in leading me to seek to create something similar during my time as a schoolteacher. Every term myself and a colleague would run a Christian weekend, taking around 200 pupils and students away each year to an adventure centre in Kent with the aim of presenting them with a similar package of integrated Christianity. Now as a clergyman, at a church with a strong tradition of sending young people on CPAS camps, I am keen to do everything I can to encourage this amongst the congregation, including my three children.
Such camps are not cheap (although, in the case of CPAS, generous bursaries are available for those struggling with the cost) but form the highest priority within what I want my children to receive.
Talking to my children on their return from camp this summer (two are 14-year-old twins and the other is nine) they are very conscious of their benefits. As well as commenting on how much they learnt, much of their feedback has centred on the integrated package they have experienced which, in their words, demonstrates that ‘God is not a boring person far away from our lives but can be involved in every part of them’.
Linked to this, was the opportunity they highlighted to really ‘be themselves’ and how much easier it was on these camps, not only ‘to be a Christian’ but have genuine fun and enjoyment, away from peer pressure and the normal fear of being mocked or judged. Finally they spoke of the value of one-to-one chats with leaders and being surrounded by new people who were passionate about their faith. Hearing this reaffirmed to me how important it is for children from Christian families (and perhaps especially those from clergy families) to have such experiences that are unmediated through their parents so they can be sure what they believe for themselves.
Christian Summer Camps obviously have potential pitfalls as well. Wise leaders will make sure that there is not undue pressure upon children, away from their home environment, to ‘make a commitment’ and the challenge will always be present to make sure that they are speaking into the realities of life to which the children will then return rather than simply representing a retreat from them. Such mistakes are sometimes made.
But at the heart of such camps is the transforming power carried by their modelling of so much of the new creation that Jesus came to bring. Generations of Christians have now been inspired by such camps and many believe that the ever-growing numbers of evangelical ordinands within the Church of England compared to the other traditions is a very direct result of this work.
CPAS are not the only providers of such camps with Scripture Union being another notable example. But my experience, both as a teenager and now as a parent, has led me to believe that sending children and young people on such Christian summer camps has such a transforming affect that they are truly worth every penny. Particularly after hearing my children’s comments this year, I couldn’t commend them more highly.
The Rev Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden and Chair of Fulcrum