I'm writing up my master's thesis right now and thought I would share a few of my findings. I'll try not to get into the details and really paint the broad picture of what I found. My thesis is on two main topics: understanding the changes that occur when youth attend Christian camps and understanding the mechanisms and interconnections of adolescent spirituality. I might decide to blog on the second topic but for now I will stick to what effect attendance at a Christian camp had on adolescent spirituality.
First off, I should note my methods. We gave questionnaires to campers at two Christian camps (confidentiality prevents me from saying which ones), half receiving the questionnaire at the beginning and half at the end. We looked at the differences in spirituality between these two groups, inferring that any significant differences were the effect of the camp. We looked at God concept, religious motivation, religious coping, and spiritual well-being.
What did we find? Well, first off, I should note that we found that the kids attending these camps were already very religious. They attended church about once a week, they rated their religion as being "Very important" and nearly all rated their belief that Jesus is the Son of God as a 5 on a 5 point scale (what researchers call a ceiling effect). This is important to note because camps often focus more on conversions than on spiritual growth. But with a very religious camp, this might not be appropriate. Of course, some camps might have a greater representation of the less religious than we found at these camps.
What changes did we find? Campers changed their God concept so that they believed more in a Christian God concept (God is loving, kind, and not distant). Although campers were religious at the onset, their God concepts moved towards being more Christian, and this change was statistically significant, despite the "ceiling effect." We also found that campers had higher religious and existential well-being at the end of the camp. We weren't too surprised by higher religious well-being, which has to do with a sense that God loves them, but an increase in existential well-being, which has to do with a positive orientation towards life in general, was a bit more surprising. This means that the mechanisms targeting spiritual development at camps, the speakers, small groups, games, and free time, lead to an improved outlook on life as a whole. Our conclusion: the camps are doing a good job.
What changes didn't we find? Well, we didn't find any significant changes in belief in Jesus Christ. The reason: they had such high belief at the onset. The fact that some people still did not have a 5 out of 5 rating reflects doubt rather than unbelief, and there have been some studies that suggest doubt and questioning can be a positive aspect of spiritual development. We also didn't find any change in 7 variables of religious coping, or how campers use religious resources, such as prayer, clergy support, and listening to religious music, for example, to deal with problems in their lives. This is the area where we see the most room for growth for camps. Instead of trying to persuade campers about the truthfulness of the gospel and their need for salvation, camps can address the practical aspects of religious life, as the problems in our lives really do define who we are.
We also found that campers were increasing in extrinsic personal reasons for pursuing religion, rather than intrinsic reasons. That means they were increasing their religiousness because of what they got out of it, rather than because they found more to enjoy within religion. This finding may seem to be negative, but we suggest that this may simply be a stage that must be entered in order to progress towards a more intrinsic faith. Adolescents who find a lot of external reasons for becoming religious may be more likely to stick around religion and have positive feelings about faith in general. However, there is always the alternative explanation that these Christian camps are so much about fun that they distract campers from intrinsic faith. But we do not think that this is the case (as the campers are clearly changing positively in God concept and spiritual well-being).
To sum up, Christian camps change beliefs and increase external reasons for being religiously involved. They also increase religious and existential well-being. They do not seem to increase intrinsic reasons for pursuing religion (enjoyment of being religious for its own sake) and don't seem to change how campers use their religion in everyday life (but maybe this occurs when they get home, it just takes time to implement these changes). Of course, campers may change on variables that we didn't study and it's important to remember that, as well. Hope this clarifies the positive role that Christian camps can have on the spiritual life of youth in the course of a week.