As the sun went down over a free rock concert on Range Line Street, the crowd jumped up and down to an enthusiastic song dotted with cries of “Amen!”
While the music roused the crowd, the focus was not on the singer’s smile, the free pizza or the iPod raffle. Instead, Heritage Baptist Church’s second annual Youth Jam focused on reaching out to young teens by presenting religious ideas with pop culture terms youth can relate to.
Enrollment in religiously affiliated camps has declined nationally, according to a study of 2006 enrollment trends by the American Camp Association. Facing competition from a wide variety of summer offerings, religious summer programming is trying to be culturally relevant while retaining a spiritual emphasis. In mid-Missouri, religiously affiliated camps have seen slight increases in the last few years.
The three-night Youth Jam, which ended June 15, is part of a ministry that provides summer activities for teens. Heritage Baptist Church pastor John Martin said the week’s theme, “Deal or No Deal,” refers both to the popular television game show and to choices teens make when deciding whether to follow God.
Speaker John Carruthers related his talk to the week’s theme, high school basketball, video games and the trendy social networking Web site myspace.com.
Some organizers are finding that establishing a niche within the field of religious camps allows them to compete with other more specialized ones. Missouri United Methodist Camping and Retreat Ministries runs four residential campsites that include traditional activities such as swimming, canoeing and campfires.
Director Lee Wallz said the decline in enrollment may be because video games, computers and air conditioning often have a more prominent role in children’s lives than spending time outdoors.
In addition to promoting a traditional camp experience, he said the religious component also needs to be emphasized.
“We have to really identify our camps as being Christ-centered,” he said. “Our programs and activities have to relate to their life experiences and what it means to be a Christian.”
Nancy Ferguson, the American Camp Association’s consultant for religiously affiliated camps, said camps struggle to maintain a religious atmosphere that stresses community relations while competing with the appeal of high-adventure camps. Families are choosing programs characterized by immediate excitement over programs that favor relationship development, she said.
American Camp Association research shows that interest in specialized programming among those who attend religiously affiliated camps is comparable to that of their secular peers. LifeWay Christian Resources is a corporation that runs a system of summer camps. It offers specialized programs that try to meet the needs of specific church groups and helps them focus on what they’ve been working on all year long, said LifeWay project coordinator Alicia Claxton.
Though Centrifuge, LifeWay’s first and most traditional camp, still has the highest enrollment, newer camps are climbing in popularity.
M-Fuge has a missionary emphasis, Crosspoint focuses on sports and CentriKid addresses the needs of the youngest campers.
In 2005, LifeWay added X-Fuge, an “extreme” camp that puts resources into motivational speakers and stage technology such as video production and top quality sound equipment.
“Kids today see everything that’s shiny, flashy and well done,” Claxton said. “You don’t want to lose the very generation you’re trying to minister to. You have to speak to their lives.”
LifeWay also provides prepackaged vacation Bible school curricula for churches that may not have the resources to develop their own. This year’s theme, “Game Day Central,” is being implemented by Calvary Baptist Church and Heritage Baptist Church.
Andy Rhea, the singer and guitarist who performed at Youth Jam, said he has witnessed a shift in the nature of youth programming. The son of a Baptist pastor, he’s been involved in youth programming most of his life and is wowed by some of the changes.
“Now they’ve got all these songs about sports and Christ, a really cool giant inflatable football as big as me, a field goal behind the pulpit,” he said of the Game Day Central theme supplies. “It makes me wish I were a kid now.”
But while the changes make church life more interesting and accessible to kids, it’s important to ensure that contemporary appeal is backed up with good content that honors traditional values, he said.