Many years ago I began speaking at youth camps. I enjoyed the challenge, the zeal of youth, and the potential of so many students gathered for a week to learn and to be pushed toward Christ.
A combination of breaking my hip (the biggest factor), a “worship guy” leading a song about maggots, and a sense that what really mattered at many camps was numbers (and would allow just about anything from “preachers” to get the desired numbers), and I had to take a break.
If parents expect children who attend a football camp or basketball camp to come back with demonstrably greater knowledge of and capability in their given sport, students returning from a church/ministry camp should return with a demonstrably greater knowledge of and capability in living for Jesus.
Too often in the church youth are treated like they are ten instead of teens. So, there is a shift, at least among many, from silliness to seriousness in student ministry, and that includes camps. Don’t get me wrong, I see nothing wrong with having in a five day camp times to relax, to play, and to build teams. But youth camps should not be obsessed with rec time or the annual talent show; they should be possessed with a passion for Jesus.
I just finished my only two weeks of camp this summer. I am a professor after all, and hardly the stereotypical camp speaker. I am not as clever or as gifted a communicator as many. But I do believe in this younger generation and I believe we have expected far too little from them. I believe the reason we lose many of our students after high school comes from how little we expect from them up until that point.
So, not at all being an expect on youth camps (I hope to visit several next year to learn from them), here are some thoughts of mines on what makes for an effective camp, at least on the level of a good sports camp.
1. Know Your Purpose
Many churches see camp as essentially a mass evangelism event at a different location, a place where many unsaved teens can go to hear the gospel. Camp is in fact a great way to get students who do not know Christ to be immersed in a gospel culture, to be around a lot of people who love Jesus, and to hear the gospel preached night after night. These are not the camps I do as I am a teacher and relish both proclaiming the gospel and using a week of camp to give Christian students a major push in their discipleship (see sports camp analogy above).
If your camp seeks to help your students who know Jesus grow theologically, in their character, and in their witness, you can certainly still see lost students come and hear and respond to the gospel. This is the type camp I love as it fits me best. earlier this summer I spoke at the Missouri Baptist Convention’s two Super Summer camps, designed to do just that-help them grow, learn, while also offering the gospel to unbelievers.
2. Go Deep
Students learn trigonometry in high school, so they can learn theology in camps. No, do not set up a boring teacher with a 2-hour lecture daily. You need people who can communicate! But I preached 2 messages the last two weeks I also preached in chapel at Southeastern. The theme was Imago Dei, and I had the chance to unpack the wonder of our being image bearers, which can be quite encouraging to a generation of youth who come from much brokenness in their own families. Unpacking the great narrative of the gospel, the relationship between the imago dei and the missio dei, and helping them to see God’s great love for them, well, it just doesn’t get much better than that.
During the day these students went through intensive Bible studies (they went through all of Colossians) in teams based on age, so middle schoolers learned together, while high school seniors did as well. So at the least these students learned an entire epistle of Paul and a significant doctrine.
3. Play with a Purpose
Play time, especially if you give a lot of truth to students (many of whom quite honestly are accustomed to baby food at church), does matter. But I love camps that have a purpose to that as well. Camps like Super Summer do teams to build camaraderie, but do not obsess with rec time. They have competition, but the biggest thing on the last session on Friday is not who won the team competition (please do not do that).
Oh, and at night during the worship services, we did nothing silly. No stupid games, no imbecilic eating contests. We came together and we worshiped. For 2 hours or more a night. The morning sessions had some time of play, but when I do camps, at night we come together to meet with the Most High God. And guess what? Students love it. If you have a great worship service, that is.
4. Have a Great Team to Lead
I love being at camps where I have a great chemistry with the leaders. Again, using the last two weeks as an example, Matt Kearns and his team (Matt leads college/student work for the MBC) have a very great rapport with one another and with me. Matt is earning his DMin with me studying next generation mentoring so of course we fit!
I also brought with me three years ago (the first year I did MBC Super Summer camps) the band that travels with me for such events, the Chad Lister band, composed of Chad (duh), my son Josh who drums, Greg and Josh Harrison (two brothers), and for super summer the Big Wes Hill. These men, except for Wes, lead worship at our home church on Sundays. They know not only how to lead worship well (this is their third straight year to do super summer, and the students LOVE them), but they also seek to live out what they sing.
5. Live at Camp What You Say on the Stage
This leads me to the next thing I think matters at camps. The people on the platform should be living out what they say and sing. This is why I much prefer doing camps of 100-500 students. I know there is value in the megacamps and I am not being critical of them. My friend and new colleague Tony Merida speaks at Student Life Camps, and they do a phenomenal job. But for me, the time I spend eating meals with the students, seeing them around campus, and interacting with their leaders matters as much as my time preaching. Same for the band. Our son Josh spends so much time at meals that he learns more names each week than I do, which is frustrating for the old man .
Seriously, in a culture marked by celebrity and hype, the last thing students need at camp is one more celebrity. Now, I have a job outside of camp and I bring work with me, so I do not spend 24/7 with the students at all. But a couple of mealtimes a day walking slowly through the cafeteria at the minimum says to students we are not rock stars, we are simply Christ followers with a leadership role at camp.
6. Teach Adults
Most camps do this, but there are some that do not. I find this to be remarkable. Camp should be one of the best times in a year to give outstanding training to your adults. I spoke the last two weeks for about 6 plus hours each week to the adult leaders, youth pastors, etc.
Your adults who sacrifice their time should also have a growing experience in Christ at camp. Super summer arranged it to have college students lead the small groups so that the church leaders could all come aside and learn. If you have to utilize your leaders, maybe have enough so that you can divide them and offer the same training twice so all can benefit. Because I am a teacher, I value this as much as speaking to students. In fact, I plan God willing next summer to go to several camps just to spend a couple of days pouring into the adult leaders and into the students who are either called to ministry or who are the cream of the ministry.
7. Help Those Called to These Students
I believe those of us who come to lead at camps musically and through teaching the Word must have as our priority to help those called to minister to these students every day. Above all else, I sought to help Matt Kearns and his team and the many student pastors/adult leaders from the various churches. They are with these students fulltime, and so my first call at camp is to help them fulfill those ministries, not to do my own little evangelical dog and pony show.
Finally, expect God to move, to do lasting change in the trajectory of students. We had many surrender to missions or vocational ministry the past two weeks. We challenged the students to have a plan to go back home and make a gospel impact.
After reading this you may conclude that I do not have a clue about youth camps. So, I would love your thoughts. I am learning, but I believe we have a remarkable generation dying to be challenged, and camp can play a vital role in that.