The false, glittering promise of Christian conferences by Elizabeth Esther
I know exactly what she’s talking about, and I’ve never been to a Christian conference (unless a ladies’ retreat counts as a conference). The Christian camp I attended and worked at for several years created the same environment Elizabeth described. Everyone was on some kind of high by the end of a camp week, and as a worker you hit high after high throughout the summer, only to pack up and go back to reality in August. So many people I knew – both campers and staff – went home after their time at camp and crashed. They had made friends, made decisions, felt the rush of spiritual experience… and then when they went home it was gone. They eagerly came back the next year, hoping to regain the spiritual ground they had lost and yet again strengthen their resolve to do better. The term “camp decisions” exists for a reason….
Christian camps seem uniquely geared towards creating this phenomenon: campers/staff are completely bubbled in from the rest of the world, repeated doses of indoctrination through devotions and services, and everyone is tightly bound by strict rules and expectations that further the sense of being in a bubble (like the military, you always have someone to tell you what to do and where you can and can’t be, etc.).
Now that I think back, I know a lot of fun was had at camp, and it helped me grow as a person in many ways, but the world of fundie Christian camps is not a healthy one.
As far as fundie Christian camps go, the one I was involved in was pretty lax. The insidious ideology of fundamentalism still held sway, though. It was at camp that I first learned the Skittle analogy (don’t give out pieces of your heart because eventually you won’t have anything left to give to your spouse). It was at camp that I first witnessed how unhealthy and manipulative Christian romantic relationships could be – sadly what I witnessed turned out to be very normal amongst fundie Christians. Camp heavily reinforced the concept that men were lustful animals and couldn’t control themselves, so as a female I had a duty to watch out for them. Camp also instilled the burden of winning lost souls to Christ and a serious interest in missions work. At least once a week a salvation message was preached, sometimes complete with hell and brimstone imagery and fear. Staff was told to pray for the souls of the campers and we were often required to pray together out loud to that end. Praying aloud was not very comfortable for me, but I quickly learned that fundie Christian ministry didn’t care about what you were or weren’t comfortable with – you were supposed to want to do it all and if you didn’t, you probably weren’t right with God and were being selfish. Another thing that stands out to me was the spirit towards working hard. If we weren’t always ready to do more and more, whenever or whatever, we were treated poorly and shamed. I’ve always been a hard worker (all my former employers will attest to this), but sometimes things were asked of me that were inappropriate for my age, maturity, skill, or physical strength and if I questioned anything or brought up my concerns I was shut up. I saw it happen very frequently with other staff members too. The man who was most guilty of treating the staff (and even campers) this way turned out to be patriarchal, hierarchical, narcissistic, controlling, and had obvious anger issues. Now, none of that is necessarily unique to fundie Christianity, but I lay the blame there anyway because this man made things out to be spiritual matters, where he was right because of his position with God and others were wrong because they were in lesser positions or out of line with the Bible, etc. It’s very demoralizing when the staff all knows their boss sees them as inferior and will always treat them as such and even go so far as to belittle them.
Anyway. Fundamentalist Christian camps and Christian conferences… just don’t go. The high isn’t worth the crash that will ultimately come.