The Danger of IFB Summer Youth Camps

youth camp

Many former Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church members can remember attending summer youth camps during their teenage years. (Please see Camp Chautauqua, Miamisburg, Ohio.) I attended camp every summer between my seventh and tenth grade school years. The summer after seventh grade, I attended an Ohio-based Bible church youth camp. The next year, I attended Camp Patmos — a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) camp. The following two years, I attended Camp Chautauqua in Miamisburg, Ohio — a camp facility owned and operated by the Ohio Baptist Bible Fellowship.

I always looked forward to attending camp. It was one week out of the summer when I could get away from home and meet up with friends from other churches, meet new acquaintances and, most of all, fall in love. While there were plenty of girls to date at my home church, camp afforded me the opportunity to meet and pursue new loves. At the end of every camp, my new girlfriend and I traded addresses, promising to write one another. Surely, our “love” would survive until next year’s camp, right? Alas, such relationships died by the time the church bus turned out of the camp’s driveway headed for home. Forty-five years later, I am still waiting for that beautiful black-haired girl from Elyria to write me. Something tells me that she won’t be writing, and much like her redheaded flame, she found that absence does not make the heart grow fonder, and a nice-looking boy at church is a lot more appealing than the promise of letters to come.

In 2016, I wrote a post detailing my experiences at Camp Chautauqua:

I have many fond memories of the two summers I spent at Camp Chautauqua. The spiritual emphasis was intense and played an instrumental part in my call to the ministry. A number of the big-gun Baptist preachers preached at the evening chapel services. I can still remember Peter Ruckman’s sermons, complete with his famous chalk drawings. I also remember John Rawlings, then pastor of Landmark Baptist Temple (now Landmark Church) in Cincinnati, preaching one night, and during his sermon he told an illustration about cleaning shit out of the barn when he was young. He actually said the word SHIT!! Needless to say, I was stunned. Later in life, I learned that some Christians didn’t think shit was a curse word, especially when used to describe animal manure.

Camp brought upwards of a thousand youth together for one week. Camp Chautauqua had a lot of real estate for meandering teens to get lost in. Follow me for a moment…It’s the 70s. A thousand teenagers, ninth through twelfth grades. Lots of real estate in which hormone-raging teens could get lost. Well, use your imagination. The highlight of youth camp for me was the girls.

….

The first year I went to Camp Chautauqua, Gene Milioni, the pastor of Trinity Baptist, was our cabin counselor. He was pretty easy to outwit. The next year, the youth pastor, Bruce Turner, was the cabin counselor, (please see Dear Bruce Turner) and he proved to be every bit our match. He was not so far removed from his own youth that he had forgotten the dangers of putting a bunch of teenage boys and girls in proximity to one another.

Practical jokes were an everyday occurrence. The jokes were fun to pull on others, but payback could be brutal. From stolen bedding and purloined light bulbs to shaving cream in sleeping bags, practical jokes were a part of what made camp a great experience. And besides, I was a pretty good joke perpetrator.

The music was another highlight of camp. Most of the churches that brought their teens to camp were mid-size to large churches, so the music talent level was superb. Wonderful music. To this day, I think some of the best singing I have ever heard was at Camp Chautauqua.

If I had a negative experience at camp, I don’t remember it. Perhaps, this is the wistful remembering of an old man trying to recall what happened 45 years ago during the glory days of his youth. Perhaps my fond memories are a reflection of the fact that camp, for me and for many others, was a respite from our fundamentalist churches and family dysfunction. Camp was the one week out the year that I got to hang out with my friends and meet new people without having adults watching my every move.

This summer, thousands of IFB teenagers will go to camp. Some teens will attend camps at the facilities mentioned above. Others will attend camps such as the Bill Rice Ranch or The Wilds. My wife’s family is deeply ensconced in the IFB church movement. Many of her relatives send their teens to the Bill Rice Ranch — an uber-fundamentalist camping program. Some IFB churches, wanting to preserve their INDEPENDENT status, hold their own camps. I did this for several years in southeast Ohio. We would rent a camp for a week, and then invite like-minded churches to attend. The last camp I participated in featured a preacher from Fort Wayne who believed Christians could be demon-possessed. He spent the week excusing all sorts of bad behavior as demon possession. By the time the week was over, I wanted to strangle the man. Come the next Sunday, I made sure the teens and adults from my church who attended the camp knew that I totally disagreed with the notion of Christian demon possession.

Over the weekend, I pondered my experiences attending IFB youth camps, and whether my feel-good camp experiences covered up something insidious; that these camps, regardless of how much fun campers have, are tools used by IFB churches and pastors to indoctrinate children and teenagers. IFB church leaders know that they must draw in children and teens before they can be indoctrinated. Thus, camp advertising materials focus on all the fun campers will have, and not the fact that there will be hours-long Bible studies, devotionals, church services, and afterglows (highly emotional after-service campfires). High-powered IFB evangelists, youth pastors, and conference speakers are brought in to evangelize the lost and indoctrinate the saved. Most camp attendees will return to their home churches “on-fire” for God. Perhaps former IFB church members will remember the Sundays after camp when attendees were paraded in front of their churches and asked to give testimonies about what God had done for them over the past week. Passionate testimonies of conversion or getting right with God, complete with tears, are often heard. Adults shout “AMEN!”, praising God for the work he has done in the lives of church teenagers. Yet, in a matter of weeks or months, life for these “changed” teenagers returns to normal, just in time for the church’s annual youth revival or other event meant to stir religious passions.

Many IFB teenagers become immune to indoctrination, enjoying the fun and enduring the Jesus stuff. Others, such as myself, become caught up in a constant cycle of sinning and getting right with God; a continual striving for holiness and perfection. The ultimate goal of camps, youth revivals, youth rallies, and youth conferences is to thoroughly indoctrinate teenagers so they will actually “feel” God calling them to full-time service as pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and Christian school teachers. Those feeling “called” will be further indoctrinated, hopefully leading them to “feel” God calling them to attend an IFB college. (Many IFB preachers see teens called into the ministry as the highwater mark of their ministries, the passing on of the Fundamentalist Baptist torch.) Countless IFB preachers felt the “call” of God at youth camp. While I felt the “call” during a service preached by IFB evangelist Al Lacy, there’s no doubt summer youth camp played an instrumental part in my decisions to become a preacher, attend Midwestern Baptist College, and pastor Evangelical churches for twenty-five years.

How about you? Did you attend IFB summer youth camp? Please share your experiences in the comment section. Non-IFB church camp stories are welcome too!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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7 Comments

  1. Caroline

    I never attended any kind of camp, religious or otherwise. A close friend of mine attended a Salvation Army camp where she met her future husband (at the age of 14!) At the time I didn’t realize that she was being pulled into the world of evangelicalism, but the Salvation Army Church had a strong hold on her. She was a poor kid from an inattentive, dysfunctional family and probably a perfect candidate for that kind of attention. She never really escaped that mindset, although she did leave the Salvation Army Church after four or five years. She tried to save me once when we were both 18 – good times! Even though I had no experience with that kind of in-your-face religion I knew what was going on. We chose to remain friends despite all of that, and when we were well into adulthood she apologized for having tried to save me. She had one foot out the door of fundamentalism but never got all the way out before her untimely death eight years ago. I think of her often and wonder if she would have eventually left. I was trying to save her too! Not related: I did see the documentary “Jesus Camp”. Scary!

    Reply
  2. Van

    Not IFB, but Southern Baptist. Alto Frio Baptist Encampment in Leakey, Tx. It is still there today. I only went one time though. I don’t remember if it was the summer between 8th and 9th, or 9th and 10th grades. I was the youngest boy in the group, but all the older boys, including some college age, fully accepted me into their group. Our main rebellion was to sneak away to “Blue Hole,” a swimming hole in the river that was purported to be off the camp property. Whether it really was or not, I don’t know. We spent our free time in the afternoon playing full speed tackle football. There were girls there, but I wouldn’t have known what to do if one had ever looked my way. The evening services were as Bruce described, especially the last night’s campfire service. However, I don’t remember being particularly moved at that camp. Maybe I was one of the ones who tuned it out.

    As a footnote, this is also where we went for Royal Ambassador camp. Royal Ambassadors is the SBC equivalent of Boy Scouts, with an emphasis on missions. That’s where I was saved; at RA camp at Alto Frio when I was 9 years old.

    And for a final second footnote, some 35 years later I took my son to RA camp at Alto Frio along with some boys from our church. It was a few years later that I de-converted.

    Reply
  3. ObstacleChick

    Between church and school I went to a lot if camps, though for teens they were called retreats, not camps. Our Southern Baptist church would start with the camps in about 3rd or 4th grade, all the way through high school, with college kids, Sunday school teachers, and the youth pastor as counselors. When I was younger we went to a campground in TN or KY called Hillcrest which had bunkhouses, a mess hall, a swimming pool, and horses to ride. As I got older, the retreats were more elaborate, like Fall Creek Falls state park or even Panama City, FL. I went through a phase in middle school where I didn’t want to go because I wasn’t one of the popular kids ( we didn’t go with other churches like Bruce’s group, it was just the same old kids from church unless we went to FL where other kids wanted to go. Those kids would get saved on the trip, go to church once or twice after the retreat, then you’d never see them again. There was so much crying and repenting and rededication of lives to Christ on those trips that it was tiresome. The retreats through Christian school were the same as the church ones, but it was mandatory to attend the retreat or report to school for busywork which was useless.

    These retreats are just highly emotionally charged indoctrination trips to keep kids in the fold. Yuck.

    Reply
  4. Troy

    What you and I call a bug the IFB camp counselors no doubt call a feature.

    Interesting when I went to Christian camp, it was more about reading selections from the Bible, there was a discussion but little indoctrination. Morality plays and trust exercises, but didn’t have the insane Baptist testimonial and peer pressure. That said it was probably the loneliest I’ve ever been. I didn’t go to the town where we went to church and 7th grade with all its awkwardness didn’t lend me to making friends. Camp was always the same time as the town festival (something I did look forward to) so I missed that as well. Just as an illustration of my maladjustment, I went for a solitary walk one day. I suspect that my absence made other campers and my counselor a bit nervous (I could sense their guilt upon return) that I was running away or something worse, because of how poorly I was treated. It was nothing like that, I think I just wanted to do some thinking.

    I’m glad Bruce was able to get a perennial girlfriend out of the whole Christian camp experience. Salvation with some choncha on the side. Like camper love affairs, I (pretty much) managed to put the unpleasant camp experience behind me as we pulled out of the place. I told my parents I had a good time…well it wasn’t that bad I suppose, and if I told them anything else I’d just have to give an explanation, and it wasn’t worthy of any more thought.

    Reply
  5. Dave

    The weeks I spent as a teenager at a non IFB summer bible camp were probably the happiest days of my youth. To be free of a stressful family environment was enough but I also met other kids, camped out, met girls and had my first kiss. Oh sure we had to have daily meetings and devotions but I was already indoctrinated so no big deal. I do remember that some of the guest speakers were really off the wall but this was just a matter of degree considering the churches we attended. The counselors were pretty cool and a lot of them were rebellious and unlike the Christian kids I knew. Great times.

    Reply
  6. Dr. R

    I didn’t attend an IFB summer camp, but I did attend two Christian camps. The worst experience by far was at Camp AWANA near Dahlonega, GA. (I don’t think it’s affiliated with AWANA anymore.)

    Attending this abomination was pitched as a reward, or incentive. They called it “Scholarship Camp”: you had to complete an AWANA book (I did two that year) to be eligible, but you still had to pay.

    At the age of 11, I was molested in the shower by a teenage boy, one of the so-called “leaders in training.” I did not WANT to be raped, but in some strange way it actually felt good. At age 11, I had only a vague notion of the prostate gland and knew nothing of how it can respond to stimulation.

    Boy, did that mess me up. It had me questioning my sexuality for many, many years. I never told anyone in my family, though my mother suspected something was wrong. The first person I ever told was my wife, after I got married. She has urged me to talk about it more. Keep in mind that I was steeped in an anti-gay culture (my mother always said the Sodomites should all be stoned to death).

    But there was one good thing about Camp AWANA: one of the preachers harped on the “Fact-Faith-Feeling” train, which made a lot of sense to me. It led to me completely rejecting the emotional aspects of religion, and focusing on the facts. The pursuit of truth led me out of Christianity in short order (though I had to play a farce until I was 18 but didn’t really fool anybody), and eventually out of religion altogether.

    Reply
    1. Brian Vanderlip

      Dr. R., I can easily see how messed up you might become with the abuse of the shower experience. And it reminds me that we are sentient, sensual beings who respond to life of all sorts. There is no hetero/homo reality except to try to make sense of feelings. Rape adds a whole other element of mind-fuck to the expereince.
      The truth might be more that we are alive and feel. But to be forced is a bomb in feelings, an explosion, assault…
      All the rest is labels. Best wishes, and I rejoice with you that you escaped Christianity.

      Reply

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