In the last 2 weeks I have been struck by the incredibly positive reactions of young people coming back from Christian summer camps. Even from those normally more reticent with their enthusiasm, I have seen faces light up and heard the superlatives flow: ‘Amazing’, ‘brilliant’, ‘so good’, ‘incredible’, ‘definitely going back next year’.
These camps have been very significant in my life. As an initially reluctant 16 year old (my Mum made me go) I loved the CYFA Camp in Barnstaple, Devon. I continued to go every summer for the next 12 years, becoming a leader, and making life-long friends who have been hugely significant in my life.
Depth of enjoyment
When our children were little, my wife and I were invited to be part of the Lee Abbey Youth Camp (also in Devon). We have been involved for the last 13 years.
Without any doubt, getting involved in the camp was the best family decision we ever took. Whatever other holidays we have, the camp is always the best week of the year.
This depth of enjoyment is worth reflecting on. Why do Christian camps generate these responses? Why are they so significant for so many?
Some of what makes Camps so positive are obvious: the fun (if you have never played ‘The Blob’ with 50 others then you need to), the new friendships (and relationships) and the collective energy, enthusiasm and excitement generated by 150 people on holiday together.
But these elements cannot be separated from the fact that Christian faith brings a defining message and depth to the whole enterprise. Worship and prayer are integral, as well as conviction that young people can find their identity, meaning and purpose in following Jesus.
These implicit and explicit expressions of faith create an essence which is nourishing at the deepest level. I think this essence is best described as joy.
Joy and happiness
In an article for Psychologies magazine, ‘lifestyle mentor’ Rachel Fearnley defined the difference between happiness and joy:
‘Joy and happiness are wonderful feelings to experience, but are very different. Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts and events.’
Joy is deeper than happiness. And I agree that joy is connected to making ‘peace with who you are, why you are and how you are’. These existential questions are difficult to answer without reference to spirituality and faith.
At their best, Christian youth camps help young people find answers to these questions.
Camps often create a ‘thin place’ where God seems more accessible, more real, more immediate. The grace and truth of Jesus is affirming and accepting and but also inspiring and challenging.
This message is deeper and more radical than the messages which so often surround young people: of achievement, attraction, self-esteem and inclusion. It has power to bring joy.
Divine breaking through
C.S. Lewis believed that human experiences of joy are whispers and rumours of another world:
‘It is the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not yet visited…I doubt that anyone who has ever tasted joy would exchange it for all the pleasures in the world…but joy is never in our power, and pleasure is.’
We need environments where this scent can be smelt, this tune can be heard and this news can be grasped:
“If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.”
Youth camps have to be careful not to hype up young people and avoid generating just a ‘summer-high’ of faith.
I think they are best seen like pilgrimages: a journey away from home for spiritual input and sustenance.
A place to experience a deeper reality and the joy that God ‘s grace and truth brings. Something better than happiness.
Find out more about Lee Abbey Youth Camp
11 thoughts on “Something better than happiness”
Thanks for this post Jon. A wonderful reminder of how fun Christian youth camps can be in God’s presence, along with meeting new people and friends, partaking in worship, great activities and being transformed.
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Great post, Jon! I often wish we had kept up our commitment to CYFA camps after ordination. They are easily the most powerful thing a church can support to help young people in their growing faith… And what a pleasure it was being your leader, once upon a time! 😁😁😁
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Thanks John. Yes, going to Barnstaple all those years ago was the gift that keeps giving – so many great friendships forged there which have enriched my life. Great days.
The gift that keeps on giving….Absolutely. Just some of of the most formative faith anchoring times at Barnstaple. And still enjoying the fruits of those friendships this summer housesitting for Rob Bav. Jon Bav, we must do that curry next time we are up!
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Jon, thanks for these helpful thoughts. Is the CS Lewis quote from ‘ Surprised by Joy’? And is this the same source as the “if you want to get warm” quote?
Hi Kevin, yes the first one is from ‘Surprised by Joy’ but the second one is from ‘Mere Christianity’. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Thank you, Jon, that is very helpful…and certainly prompt.
I’m preparing to lead a church weekend soon on the subject of ‘Joy’ and the quotes could come in handy!
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Lee Abbey camps were deeply formative for my Christian faith 50 years ago. I am so grateful for what I learned and experienced in that place, and hope their powerful work continues serving young people into the future. It modelled a positive counterculture to this teenager coming from a non-Christian background, clear Bible teaching, vibrant worship, and nost importantly (as mentioned before)… Joy.
Thanks Chris – wonderful to hear testimonies like yours – makes you realise that you are part of something which has been a blessing for so long, for so many. Thanks for reading and commenting!