Evangelical summer camps have been getting some unpleasant news coverage recently -and for all the wrong reasons. In case you are wondering, yes there are right reasons for getting unpleasant news coverage -clear, undiluted gospel preaching is unlikely to win secular plaudits, so whenever the media picks up on something Evangelicals are doing which involves preaching the Gospel, then we are likely to get a bad press.
Sadly, the reason that summer camps got into the news was to do with historic child safe guarding issues. Now a couple of side points on this (note that this isn’t the main point of the article but we can’t ignore it)
- I think that churches generally speaking have come a long way since the 1970s. as has the rest of society in terms of safeguarding. Furthermore, whilst at times the processes can be time consuming and bureaucratic and could be made more efficient and effective, incidents like this remind us of why they are sadly necessary.
- We need to be particularly alert in the church context because there are aspects of church life, as something that brings families, friends and volunteers together, that can make us vulnerable both to the deliberate predator and to the person who falls into temptation. Again, those are reasons for taking the safe guarding processes seriously.
- Points 1 and 2 are not excuses for what happened in this case and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Titus Trust are right to be explicit in apologising for a gross failure and for the real hurt and harm caused.
- Wrong behaviour by individuals and failings must be paid attention to but should not be used to discredited good work or good intentions.
However, the spotlight shone on the “Camps System” may also raise other questions about where they fit into our whole strategy for evangelism and discipleship. You see, sometimes there are things that are there, an assumed part of the strategy and we don’t really question them and many people aren’t even aware that they are part of the strategy.
So, I’m going to say something intentionally provocative here. In answer to the question, where do summer camps fit into a national evangelism strategy? I don’t think that they do! Now I know there are good people, friends of mine, members of our own church, youth and children’s leaders, elders etc. who would disagree with me on this. That’s okay. It’s not a primary issue. I’m not going to fall out with people, try to ban camps etc. I just happen on this point to disagree. And I would love this to encourage discussion, debate and further thinking.
Now before I go any further, and especially for my friends who are going to disagree with me, I probably should nuance my remarks. I think that there are some brilliant Christian leaders who put time and energy into running summer camps. They do this out of a great love for the Lord, His Word and the church. They have a great concern to see young people come to Christ. They put massive amounts of energy into this work. It’s sacrificial. They give up their own holiday time. Some of them participate in camps where the accommodation is nice, others really do rough it. I don’t want to take away from this.
Secondly, there is no doubt that God has used different camps to bring people to faith in Christ, move them forward in faith and help them to hear a particular calling. The Iwerne camps in particular played a significant role in the conversion, growth and calling to ministry of people like John Stott, Dick Lucas, David Watson and Nicky Gumbel among others. So I don’t want to lose sight of that.
However, I want to suggest three problems with the strategy.
- It takes young people out of their families, communities and local churches to an intensive week- long event. The risk is that this creates an artificial environment. The problem with this is first that the young people are in a context that is not sustainable when they return. The second risk is that it is difficult then to be sure whether a decision or commitment is real or whether it has been induced by the atmosphere.
- It creates cliques. In some Christian circles you are likely to get asked “Which camp did you go to?” If you went to the wrong camp or were completely outside of the camp system then it affected your standing. I think this links to my third point because the camp ethos grew out of the public-school system and so there’s something about the “old school tie” about it.
- The Iwerne strategy was to reach the top Public Schools. That way, you would influence the future leaders in politics, industry, education and the church. Now, you can completely understand why people from a Public School background would be coming to that strategic conclusion in the 1930s. However, anyone outside of the Public School system and with the benefit of hindsight can look back over the past 60-70 years and say “It was the wrong strategy for reaching a nation.”
What the Iwerne strategy was not ready for was
- The escalation of industrialisation and growth of our cities.
- The massive increase in immigration
- Increased democracy and the impact of the Labour Party’s success under Clemet Attlee and Harold Wilson on the other political parties so that the Conservatives went from having leaders like Harold Macmillan and Douglas home to Margaret Thatcher, John Major and William Hague
- The growth of new Universities so that more people go to University and a smaller proportion of Graduates are from Oxbridge
- Loss of confidence in traditional institutions.
I want to suggest that the “Camp” system relied on the Homogenous Unit Principle to target a particular sector of society in the hope that it would influence the rest of the country. The problem was that
- Like a command and control economy it tried to pick the winners but lacked the information to do this correctly.
- It provided something that was in effect replicating the prevailing Public School culture and so was over contextualised. This over contextualisation in affect accepted the presuppositions of the British class system.
Why does this matter? I think it matters vey simply because we can react to an over-emphasis on targeting one sector of society by similarly trying to focus in on another sector. If we decide that the Evangelistic strategy today is to focus on church planting in chosen influential cities or that we should target the unreached urban estates at the expense of attention to others, then we could simply be repeating past mistakes in different contexts.
To be sure, some people will have a specific calling and interest in one area but when it comes to the strategy of the whole church then our aim should be to reach all peoples.
— NB noting that this has been such a big part of the thinking of so many in the conservative evangelical Church, I would be very happy to offer a right of reply. If you wish to comment or to challenge this article, drop us a line via the contacts page. Also please note that this article represents DW’s personal opinion and should not be taken as representative of an official Bearwood Chapel position–
 See e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/06/c-of-e-bishop-guildford-andrew-watson-excruciating-beating-john-smyth. See also http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/03/anne-atkins-inside-thesexual-apartheid-john-smyths-summer-camps/.
 Nb for those outside of the UK, a “Public School” is actually a private school. These include famous institutions like Eton and Harrow. The allegations centre on the Iwerne Camps. You can find out more about these camps and their history at https://www.iwerne.org/ and at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._J._H._Nash