Thoughts on Youth Camps

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.

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  1. Sterling Griggs   •  

    Incredibly well said, Dr. Reid. I’ve sent this link to some of my friends in student ministry. Thanks for you wisdom!

  2. Hans   •  

    Great word! And I totally agree that we expect too little from our students. If I may, I would like to add something from a different perspective. It is not uncommon for us to take students from bad situations (family life, peer groups, etc.) and we put them in a place where it is easy to be a Christian for 5 days. Then, when camp is over we put them right back into the same trash they were in before. And we wonder why Billy or Sussie rededicates their lives on an annual basis. Add to that camps frequently wait to have their “big night” on Thursday and so the new babes in Christ jump right back into the things they probably would like to escape, but have no idea how (lack of discipleship) So, I would say, that it would be great to help these students break free from the cycles that they are normally in. Train them, train their leaders, who hopefully will attempt to train parents. So that camp isn’t just a 5 day break from their “normal”
    Your fellow laborer,

  3. Jeff Stanford   •  

    Dr. Reid,
    You are spot on! Camp should be a time where students will grow closer to their God and being to establish the understanding of who He is in their lives. I really believe that training for adults is HUGE! You are so right, they give a week and what do they get out of it? Students and adults need to have week where they can grow, serve, and live out Christ; so that they can come home and begin, and in some cases, continue what the Lord did in and through them that week.

  4. Matt Bowman   •  

    Dr. Reid,

    I’m 32 years old, & I’ve been going to camp since I was about 13. I’ve seen about all there is to see when it comes to camp. The best camp experience I’ve ever been around is Global Youth Camp from Global Youth Ministry. Global is led by Roger Glidewell, & they don’t just do camp. They connect camp to the church’s & therefore our students’ global mission. Everything at camp has a point. Everything at camp is built around a central theme & book of the Bible. I’ve been taking students to camp since I was in college, & Global is always the one that never disappoints. On top of that, taking the core of what makes Global special is transferrable to our local context. If you haven’t, you should check them out.


  5. Denice Ellenberger   •  

    This is a much needed message for our culture and one that I am very passionate about as well. It is about time that we reclaim Christianity from those who portray it as a brainless, emotional, escape from reason, and we start equipping young people to respond intelligently to the critiques of scientific naturalism. Summer camp ought to be a place of building and equipping our youth to return to their secular campuses with a backpack full of tools to help them to effectively guard against, identify, and combat the prevailing secular worldviews today. The issue isn’t only that we are expecting too little from our youth, it is that we are not prepared ourselves (in most cases) to teach them to do that. One of the most effective Summer Camps that I have seen do this (and experienced as a teenager myself) is Summit Ministries in Manitou Springs, CO. In a fun yet intellectually rich environment they train and equip high school and college students for two weeks at a time all summer long and send them back to their respective States and campuses, not emotionally frou-frou and momentarily pietistic, but knowledgeable and ready to defend their faith. As you have said so well, summer camp should not be about evangelical superstars stirring up an emotional response, it should be real people addressing real questions.
    Thank you for taking time to discuss such an important issue.

  6. Ron Hale   •  

    Thanks Dr. Reid … enjoyed your article with wise guidelines and goals for camps. Thanks!

  7. Frank Ferrell   •  

    While your passion for legless, carnivorous reptiles may be slightly weird and nontransferable, your passion for the Gospel and for people is contagious! I’m speaking at a Deep Impact camp (next week) and spoke earlier this year at another camp. I especially appreciate your words on the “rock star” preachers and worship leaders, as this characterized my early days at youth camps. Speakers would win a fashion show but fail to win minds and hearts. They had the best hair cuts, but were anemic theologically. Furthermore, your word about pouring into adult leaders at camp is a great take-away from this. Thanks for taking the time to write this clearly and passionately.


  8. Alvin Reid   •  

    Thanks for all the comments friends. Please pray for us as we seek to raise up student pastors who teach the Bible well, model godly character, and partn with parents and the church to raise up a generation of radical missionaries!

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