Camps and Retreat Centers
The first references to camping and retreats among Mennonites were in connection with the General Conference Mennonite mission to the Hopi People as early as 1903. Mennonites and Brethren in Christ recognized the impact that retreats and camps were making on youth and children. The early programs emphasized evangelism and spiritual growth in the Christian faith. The first Mennonite camps and retreats in North America were closely related to and influenced by the events and movements both within the church and in society at large.
During the period prior to World War I, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ were still a basically rural people. As such their needs were not the same as those of their urban neighbors. An outdoor ministry such as Christian camping was not part of their thinking because it did not seem needed.
The movement did not start at one place or with one group of persons. Each beginning had its own reasons and objectives. These facilities and programs were equally distributed across the map where there were Mennonite fellowships. By 1960 there was no area with a concentration of Mennonites that did not have access to a camping or retreat program and the development of permanent sites was on the increase.
If a specific decade were to be chosen as the beginning of the outdoor ministry of Christian camping and retreats in the Mennonite conferences, it would be the 1920s. An important phase of the youth movement during this period was the introduction of retreats for youth of high school and college age. The need for something to challenge this age group was felt throughout the churches.
The beginning of the retreat movement in the Mennonite Church came through the Young People's Problems Committee (1921ff.). Intended as a study committee to determine what activities there were in the church for youth, and to isolate problems that might be resulting from them, it acquired the status of a standing committee in 1927.
In 1928 a churchman wrote to Orie Miller and O. N. Johns, members of the Problems Committee, as follows: "I have also noted a strong emphasis given by the brethren on nature studies. I cannot see how such a program will fit into our rural congregations. This sectional conference idea may appeal to some of our young people, and it may be possible to conduct such conferences on a religious basis.... By the time this is done there will be other influences at work that must be counteracted. . . . There is danger in having something separate for a small group of believers within the church. This is a departure from the common practice in all our church activities." He remarked that the Sunday school and the Young People's Bible meetings had always been shared by the entire church and all ages.
The youth movement among the Mennonite Brethren during this time was also undergoing the changes characteristic of the time. J. A. Toews, noted, "In the first two decades of the 20th century, youth fellowship groups became generally accepted in the Mennonite Brethren churches of Russia. It should be noted, however, that there was a separate organization for the young men and the young women. These fellowship meetings were not only attended by members of the church, but also by the unsaved relatives, friends, and members. The purpose of these meetings was to promote spiritual growth of believers and to influence the unsaved to made a personal commitment to Christ."
The retreats of the General Conference Mennonites; the Young People's Institutes of the Mennonite Church (MC); and the Jugendvereine (youth fellowships) for the Mennonite Brethren had much in common, and all were in the interests of the youth. They provided an opportunity for young people to become a part of the church and to interact \kith church leaders.
A letter from one of the youth leaders, Orie Miller, to Paul Mininger in 1934 states his concern, "Our young people are in need of help; and in most communities are not getting it. They need help in meeting perplexing problems and temptations of the modern world."
Coming to the 1930s, it is easy to detect a growing interest and participation on the part of the young people in church activities. As the curtain dropped on the 1930s, camping for boys and girls and retreats and institutions for young people had found their way into eight states in the United States and three provinces of Canada.
The expansion of this outdoor ministry in the 1940s was phenomenal as compared to previous decades. Nineteen additional camps and retreat centers had been established by the end of the decade. There was little or no sharing between the leaders of these scattered programs. Each group was left to its own ingenuity and resourcefulness. Those whose background was retreats and institutes were programming primarily for the youth within the churches, and with few exceptions were not thinking in terms of outreach. There were others who were concerned with the plight of inner-city children, or children with physical and emotional handicaps. Vacationing and recreational trends in a changing society were the concern of another group, which saw the development of campsites as a solution for Christians' vacations. In spite of this wide scope of rationale behind the movement, there were many common features. It was also a new era for youth within the Mennonite conferences. Positive trends were established that have continued. Youth were included in the mainstream of the church. Organized youth teams traveled from community to community to organize and encourage local youth groups. Christian camping was experiencing rapid growth, and was becoming a significant part of the total camping movement in America.
The earliest Mennonite camp owned and operated by an area conference was Camp Men-O-Lan developed by the Eastern District of the General Conference Mennonite Church near Quakertown, Pennsylvania. The second General Conference camp was Elim Gospel Beach near Swift Current, Saskatchewan. It was owned and operated by the Mennonite Youth Organization beginning in 1946. The first Mennonite Church (MC) camp in Canada was Chesley Lake, near Allenford, Ontario in 1947. This camp, however, was not formally owned by a conference. The West Bank Bible Camp was founded by the Mennonite Brethren in Saskatchewan in 1944. Two early camps in Manitoba were Camp Arnes (Mennonite Brethren) and Camp Assiniboia (Conference of Mennonites in Manitoba), both founded in 1948.
During the 1950s Mennonite camps and retreats experienced a record growth as widespread interest was developing in welfare camping and specialized programming for underprivileged children or those with emotional or physical handicaps. Other groups were involved in missions and church planting and saw camping as a tool for outreach and evangelism. Minority and ethnic groups were included.
Building facilities, developing programs, and philosophy were producing some unforeseen blessings. It was now possible to include groups and interests that were not included in the original plans, e.g., family camps and camps for other special interest groups. Conferences, local congregations, and other organizations began to use the facilities to augment their programs of nurture and evangelism. Camps and retreats were an established tradition in all of the Mennonite conferences.
Camping in the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ conferences experienced a steady growth of new facilities and programs. In the camping community much of the emphasis in the 1960s was on mission outreach, both to children of the community and to children from local congregations and missions. During the decade two programs were established on a year-round basis for the rehabilitation of delinquent youth: Frontier Forest Camp in Ontario and Frontier Boys Camp in Colorado. Both programs were successful. The Mennonite Board of Missions sponsored the cycling program known as OutSpokin', founded by Terry Burkhalter, which sponsored and organized bicycle trips throughout the United States, Canada, and overseas.
The outdoor ministry of the church was especially valuable in these times. Many camps that had been developed previously were expanding. In the earlier development it was usually anticipated that the camps would be used only during the summer months. As winter programming became popular, especially where snowfall permitted winter sports, camp facilities were modified to permit year-round occupancy.
The 1970s saw the camps enlarging, winterizing, and expanding programs to include more groups, programs for the handicapped, ethnic and minority groups. Camping had found its way into the mainstream of church life and Christian education.
In the 1940s and 1950s the camping movement was compared to a grain of mustard seed. The beginnings were small, but over the years the camping movement in the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ community of camps and retreats has grown steadily. The program had proven its worth and was making its contribution in Christian education and evangelism.
Camping programs that included both girls and boys, men and women, had become the accepted practice. Programs that were originally tailored for the children and youth of the church were finding themselves including many children from the general communities in which they were located. Many camps were reporting a ratio of Mennonite to non-Mennonite or unchurched campers as much as fifty-fifty. Friendship evangelism was apparent as campers brought friends with them, often these who would later attend the functions of the traditional church.
The visionary founders of the camping movement in the Mennonite conferences were not aware of the impact the program would have, or of the unexpected happenings that would result from the simple beginnings. They did not dream of establishing a chain of camps across the churches.
It soon became apparent that the facilities developed for camping were a gift to the church for the purpose of retreats. Congregations and conferences became aware of the advantages of sponsoring activities in the atmosphere of the outdoors and natural surroundings, away from the everyday world. Retreating had become a necessary function in the lives of many individuals and of the church. Thus many camps developed a two-pronged ministry. They provided facilities and program both for youth camps and for retreats where youth and adults with specialized interests could come for study and fellowship.
The movement's contribution to evangelism and outreach far exceeded the expectations of its founders. Some camps were founded with this as an objective, but for the most part they were denominationally oriented, and programs were tailored for the youth already within the church. Evangelism was natural in the outdoor setting where living was relaxed and where one was removed from the everyday schedule. Through the years literally thousands of youth have experienced their first opportunities at Christian service at the church camp.
Interracial and intercultural camps became common early in the program. Persons with physical and emotional handicaps were included. This provided the church an opportunity to extend its witness beyond what was possible prior to the outdoor ministry of Christian camping. The genius of camping was that its informal setting away from the camper's live-a-day-world contributed to understanding and acceptance of people who were different.
In 1977 Virgil Brenneman, then executive secretary for the Mennonite Camping Association, noted that the camping ministries represent a sizable investment of the funds and personnel resources of the church. He summarized their value as follows: (1) Church camping is education. It is a setting for Christian nurture and evangelism in providing living situations. (2) The church camp is an extraordinary leadership training resource for the church. Youth receive training and experience in counseling, teaching, experiential education, as well as other skills which can be used in other nurture and evangelism settings. (3) The Christian camp is a resource to help the church to meet the opportunities and challenges of the "new leisure." (4) The camping program is uniquely suited to model the church's goals with regard to the simple life-style, conflict resolution, the building of the community, the teaching of the stewardship of creation, and an awareness of a responsibility regarding natural resources.
The pioneers of Mennonite camping were men and women of quality and perseverance. They had a sense of direction and a call from God.
The freedom of the camping movement to experiment with new ideas in program has been one of the factors in its success and growth. It has used this freedom in a responsible way. It has had the opportunity to reach out and test methods of Christian service and witness.
The Mennonite Camping Association was born out of a need that was felt among camping people early in the movement. As each group of Mennonites wrestled with the problem of leadership training and the sharing of techniques, a beautiful thing was happening that was not visible at the time. There were a few who had the vision of an inter-Mennonite fellowship of camps and camping people. They had so much in common. Why not get together to share and affirm each other? The inter-Mennonite fellowship known as the Mennonite Camping Association took shape over a period of several years. It is primarily supported by the Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church, and the General Conference Mennonite Church. It is dependent entirely on contributions of volunteer staff and officers.
In 2007 Mennonite Church USA Directory and the 2008/09 Mennonite Church Canada Directory listed the following conference-related camps:
The best collection of documents and information about the history of the Mennonite camping movement and about individual camps is found at the MC Archives (Goshen).
See also Jess Kauffman, A Vision and a Legacy. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1984.
Current listings for North America are found in the Mennonite Church Yearbook, published through 1997, and in Mennonite Directory, published 1999-2001..
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 118-121. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Kauffman, Jess and Terry Burkhalter. "Camps and Retreat Centers." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C32ME.html.
APA style: Kauffman, Jess and Terry Burkhalter. (1989). Camps and Retreat Centers. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C32ME.html.