If Mennonite camping were only about camping, Andrew Michaels would pack up and go home. But since it’s about connecting people to Christ, he remains all in.
Michaels directs Camp Luz in Orrville, Ohio, one of about 28 camps in the United States and 11 in Canada that belong to Mennonite Camping Association.
“Mennonite camping is not about camping, and if it ever becomes that, then we have lost the point,” said Michaels, who is MCA’s past president. “MCA encourages camps to share Christ in human ways with people in an inhuman world. Our camps exist as a ministry of the church for the sake of Christ.”
MCA camps are spread across diverse constituencies and settings, ranging from a sparsely populated rural area, like Swan Lake Christian Camp in Viborg, S.D., to not far from a major urban center, like Camp Deerpark, a 90-minute drive upstate from New York City.
Their services include summer camps for children, youth and families; retreat settings for all ages; rental spaces for the surrounding community and venues for groups such as musicians and artists.
Yet the mission of MCA camps — to help campers “seek God’s face in creation, receive God’s love in Christ and radiate God’s spirit in the world” — is a unifying element.
Mennonite camps have a special niche, Michaels said. They’re an Anabaptist ministry that connects with individuals and families seeking an experience focused on the week at hand rather than any denominational ties. As membership in some denominations is falling, the number of campers — by and large — is staying steady or rising, said several camp directors.
“People don’t walk around wearing T-shirts that announce what church they are from or what they believe,” Michaels said. “They simply see each other as fellow campers and make human connections. They all get bit by the same mosquitoes in the same woods. They are in it together.”
Safe places and spaces
Many Mennonite camp directors share Michaels’ passion for preserving Christ-centered camping that provides non-anxious presence. As theological issues divide churches, relationship ruptures split homes and technology distracts attention, Mennonite camps provide spaces where frazzled souls can settle into simply being themselves — and being with others and God in prayer, play and the peace of nature.
“Camp offers a safe place and space to learn about who we are as individuals, to grow more in our faith and to make connections with many people,” said Corbin Graber, executive director since 2001 of Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp in Divide, Colo. “Campers come from a variety of experiences back home, which makes safety crucial. Camp provides a foundation of rest, play and worship on which people can better arrange the building blocks of their lives.”
Olivia Bartel, in her 11th year as director of Camp Mennoscah in Murdock, Kan., believes providing safety in all possible ways is key. Because of changes in society and the family, more children and youth campers experience anxiety, depression, food allergies and medical needs that require specialized attention and care.
“Christian camping keeps evolving and changing, because we want to respond to our changing world,” said Bartel, who is MCA’s member relations coordinator. “We do all we can at Mennoscah to make camp a safe and sustainable week for all our campers. We strive to keep uppermost in our hearts and minds that one of our main tasks is to make camp welcoming to everyone.”
Some things don’t change
Despite the evolving nature of Christian camping, some things never change. MCA was organized in 1960, and the first Anabaptist-related camps date to the 1920s. What hasn’t changed is how constituents and their families seek a respite from the daily grind and a change of pace from Sunday formality.
That respite meshes with passing on the faith. This is especially true during camps for children and youth and retreats for adults that focus on discipleship building and leadership training.
“Camp can be an intense time of learning and faith formation,” said Judi Kroeker, who helps direct Swan Lake Christian Camp with her husband, Jerry. “The total amount of time that a child or youth camper spends here in one week is the amount of time that he or she spends in Sunday school for the entire year.
“And the fact that campers get tired and worn down means that their defenses are down, and they become more real with each other and with God. Because of that, a lot can get accomplished in a concentrated amount of time.”
The added benefit of faith formation at Swan Lake is that children and youth are exposed to a diversity of peers. During a summer camp for 70 kids, there can be 40 to 50 congregations represented from a dozen denominations, Kroeker said. (The camp is in greater demand by a variety of congregations than camps in areas with higher concentrations of Mennonites.)
A win for everyone
In contrast to Swan Lake’s rural context, Camp Deerpark outside of New York City serves an urban area with high diversity. Ken Bontrager, director of the camp since 1996, cites the faith formation opportunities that are part of Deerpark’s retreat ministry. He affirms that camping is a tool for building up the church, especially in his urban context, where Mennonites include a mix of Hispanic, African-American, Garifuna and Anglo congregations.
“Christian camping is on an upswing, and retreating business is definitely up,” Bontrager said. “I think that is because economies are a little better across the board, but also that churches — at least here in New York City — are grabbing the vision that church growth and ministry can happen best in retreat settings.
“Several congregations come for retreats five times a year — once for their congregation, once for men, once for the women and a couple of times for discipleship retreats. Some retreat groups consist of 10 seasoned believers and about 20 seekers. They have discovered a camp setting is great for discipleship.”
Bontrager said this uptick in camping is a win all the way around — good for ministry, good for business and, most of all, good for growing Christ’s church.
“Camp Deerpark is not successful when it has balanced books and its buildings are all newly painted,” he said. “Camp Deerpark is successful when it serves as a tool to help the church in the city to grow and to be alive.”