by Doug Witherup/ March 17, 2022
On my son Cade’s 8th birthday, he had a sleepover with two of his cousins and one of his best friends. They were sitting at the kitchen table eating pizza, telling stories, and laughing. They were reminiscing and sharing memories like long-lost friends catching up on their childhood. So what was the subject of all of this excitement? Summer Camp.
I’ve been involved to one degree or another in summer camps for twenty years. I was a counselor during my college years, took kids to them (and retreats) for eleven years as a youth pastor, and have been involved in leading statewide camps for the past eight years. Now I am sending my own kids. And I can tell you from two decades of experience that there is a marked difference between kids who go to a Christian summer camp and kids who don’t.
But isn’t God the same everywhere? Can’t they just have that experience on Sundays at church?
No. Well, yes. And no. Yes, God is the same everywhere. But no, camp is different than church and there is no replacing a summer camp experience for the development of your child’s spiritual life. There is just something special about getting away. There is something about a change of place and a change of pace. There is something about days of summer, sunshine, and creating memories. There is something about putting down a tablet computer and picking up a canoe oar. There is something about games and teams and cheers. And there is definitely something about camp altars.
The reason behind all of this is what I call a “theology of Bethels.”
The story of Jacob at Bethel provides us with a great theology for summer camp—a theology of encounter. Jacob was traveling, and the sun had gone down. He decided to stop for the night to sleep. He lay down and grabbed a rock for a pillow. It is there he encountered Yahweh in a dream and discovered his destiny. Jacob responded by surrendering all that held him back, building an altar, and committing fully to the Lord. The Bible describes the event by saying, “He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us” (Hosea 12:4, ESV). Simply put, Bethels are places we go to meet God. Bethels don’t come to you. You go to Bethel.
As we read about what took place in Jacob's life, we discover that Bethels are:
1. a place of revelation (Gen. 28:13; 35:7b)
2. a place where you lay down all that holds you back (Gen. 35:2)
3. a place of promise, calling, and destiny (Gen. 28:13c-15; 35:11-12)
4. a place of name change and identity (Gen. 35:10)
5. a place where you build altars (Gen. 28:18; 35:14)
6. a place of giving (Gen. 28:22b; 35:14b)
7. a place of commitment (Gen. 28:20-21).
Read over that list again. Slowly. And this time I want you to picture your child experiencing all of them. I’m visualizing my kids experiencing these things as I write, and can I tell you that I’m wiping tears from my eyes in Starbucks as I do. More than anything, I want all of these for my kids.
• I want my kids to have a revelation of Almighty God.
• I want my kids to lay down all that might hold them back.
• I want my kids to know God’s promises, calling, and destiny for their lives at an early age.
• I want my kids to know their identity in Christ.
• I want my kids to build altars.
• I want my kids to learn to give.
• I want my kids to have a lifetime commitment to their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
But what about the price? Camp is expensive.
You know what’s expensive? Not providing Bethel moments for your children. As a parent, I don’t pay for camp. I invest in my kids. We pay for video games and Christmas presents. We pay for birthday parties and sneakers. We pay for dance lessons and Little League uniforms. But I invest in summer camp. And I’ll take the return on that investment any day.
Recently I was privileged to hear from the fifth ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressman James Lankford from Oklahoma. Part of Congressman Lankford’s fascinating story is that prior to serving in Washington, he ran a youth camp. With 5000 students attending per week, and with an estimated ten percent of the entire Oklahoma population having been to this camp, it was no ordinary youth camp. We met with the congressman in a small group setting, so after he shared his story we were able to ask questions. Because I help run youth camps, I asked him to speak of the importance of camp as it pertains to the spiritual development of the next generation. The Congressman smiled. He said, “You know, it has been my experience that kids come to camp for two reasons. First, they are going to be at a place for an entire week with a large number of people of the opposite sex. Second, they would get on the bus and say something to the effect of, ‘I hear people meet God there. I wonder if that’s true.’”