Camp Roundtable Pt 2
by Rob Brower • Editor, interlinc • Franklin, Tennessee
Camp is when we experience the results and rewards of months of daily ministry to teenagers. We work hard going into camp and expect that God will let us see the fruit of our labor: changed lives. interlinc editor, Rob Brower (RB), sits down with a panel of seasoned experts to discuss the importance of camp in today’s world and share some practical tips. Through their collective insights and experience, you’ll gain valuable knowledge on how to create a positive and impactful camp experience that will shape young hearts and minds for years to come.
TM: TobyMac – Christian Artist
DB: Dan Britton – Chief Field Officer, Fellowship of Christian Athletes
NF: Norman Flowers – Executive Director, Highland Lakes Camp
G&A: Geoff & Arianna Eckart – Never The Same
RD: Rick Dubose – Assistant General Superintendent, Assemblies of God
JH: Joe Hicks – FUGE Camps Manager, Lifeway Christian Resources
BW: Ben Warrell – Director, Gaspar River Catholic Youth Camp
A&B: Art & Beckie Melli – Pastoral Care – Europe, Youth for Christ Internatonal
JC: Jaroy Carpenter – Camp Director, Lakeview Camp
BJ: Bob Johns – Retired Youth Pastor (40+ years), Woodway First Baptist Church
RB: How has camp changed over the years in your ministry?
A&B: In Youth For Christ, we have a saying about our ministry “Anchored to the rock, geared to the times”. So camp is updated and relevant for today’s students. Honestly, camp hasn’t changed in the important ways. The gospel is still preached, and teenagers still respond to Jesus’ invitation to repent and believe and follow Him! We wish the challenge would be stronger (students do rise to a challenge), and there would be much better follow-up by the youth pastors.
JC: The message of camp is the same but the methods have changed. Groups and guests expectations of food, facilities and fun have evolved through the years. You just can’t run kids up and down a hill and throw them a ball and bat and tell them they’re having fun.
Camp games and activities need to be creative and appeal to their culture. A few of the old throwback games can be nostalgic but there needs to be games and activities that they look forward to coming back to do and new things they can experience year after year.
Also, food has become a determining factor in where they will attend camp. People are looking for well-balanced nutritional meals and special meals available for those with food allergies, etc, and different food preferences. It’s been said that they may forgive us for bad speakers but they won’t forgive us for bad food. The focus on facilities is a big factor, also. Facilities need to be clean and everything in good working condition. Unkept facilities screams a camp in distress. I always try to upgrade in all areas of our facilities to modern day expectations in AVL, media, lodging and recreational facilities. This keeps distractions to a minimum and ultimately helps people focus on what they camp to camp for; a changed life.
NF: Today’s camps are more intentional about preparing students to discover who God is and how Christ can make a difference in their lives. Today, camps also provide youth groups a lot of time to play, make new friends, and grow closer together.
DB: We have expanded the types of camps we do to meet the needs of the changing sports culture. We now do camps for younger ages, because we realize by the time youth reach high school, it is too late to have an impact. So we have developed Power Camps (8-12 year olds) so we can reach youth sooner.
G&A: I have seen modern technology and production becoming a bigger part of camp over the years. There is an art to staying in the world of a student to see what captures and keeps their attention. Though they don’t necessarily want to be impressed, they want to be engaged on their level. They need the message to make sense. They need to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their language so that they can understand the Good News of Jesus.
BJ: The more things change the more they remain the same. Great worship and effective communicators are still the main course. Obviously, I love technology and the contributions it brings. No more overhead transparencies for worship—that’s been a huge improvement. But watching 1200 students collectively becoming true worshipers is one of the most beautiful things one could see. That has been a huge constant in our camp—going all the way back to Al Denson days and even a few years with a guy named Chris Tomlin. Now new young worship leaders pick up the mantle of leadership and help our students put away their phones and passionately worship the Father. Our camp started in 1985, and our first speaker was Dawson McAllister. Most of you young guns probably have never heard of him, but he was a big deal back then—and an incredibly effective youth communicator. We continued to do our best to bring people in who could connect with kids and make the Bible come alive: Louie Giglio, Dave Busby, Voddie Baucham, Matt Chandler, Ben Stuart, Jonathan Pokluda, Timothy Ateek are some of the guys we’ve had in the past. We have never been afraid to go after people who we think can impact our kids. So a lot has changed but not the things that really matter.
JH: In some ways things are always changing and in other ways things have not changed. We have always had Bible study, recreation, worship, and fun nighttime activities for each day. However, what has changed is the approach to each of those activities. We are constantly trying to do new things to reach the current generation. With that in mind, the production side of camp has definitely changed the most.
BW: The use of technology of course has changed and the quality and variety of ropes course activities has vastly improved. We also work more hand in hand with counselors and therapists to help our staff deal with fear and anxiety that so many young people are experiencing. We do that inside of and beyond camp as well. But at its core, camp is still a community that is formed around Jesus Christ and that hasn’t changed. There is something very positive and reassuring to be said about having a familiar, traditional camp that kids need. God is unchanging and at the base root of camp, it is about bringing young people to know the love of Jesus.
RB: How can you tell if a camp has been successful or not?
G&A: Obedience is success. Doing what God calls you to do and how He calls you to do it is the most important part of it all. But, we know we are called to present the Gospel and give students a chance to respond. We also feel we are called to present an opportunity for students to accept a call to full time vocational ministry, so we have a clear way of collecting those decisions from students each week. If we feel those invitations were clear, it was a success. If we see students laughing, making friends, and bonding with their youth group, it was a success. We know those students will go back home to a healthy youth ministry and grow the rest of the year. If we see a youth pastor leaving camp inspired and confirmed in their call to youth ministry, it was a success. If there was not space given for significant spiritual decisions to be made, it was not successful.
A&B: If there is lasting fruit (changed lives, new converts, and encouraged Christians)! I have also seen youth pastors and workers reenergized and encouraged by their time at camp. We believe camps should be “planting” camps in the US and overseas, as we have seen them effective in reaching students all over the world.
BJ: To tell you the truth, the only thing that comes to mind is when a speaker loses credibility with the students. It happened to us only one time. His stories were so outrageous and dramatic, his humor was more like a comedy routine, and the kids stopped believing him. Camp was still good that year—but not like it could have been.
NF: When you see that students’ lives are changed and it impacts their families, churches, and communities when they return home. Additionally, that students want to return to camp.
JH: Lives changed! Camp can be fun and you can meet new friends, but if you do not get closer to Christ, camp is not successful.
DB: “Each camper will have the opportunity to:
- Train and develop more in their sport
- Build relationships with other coaches and athletes
- Learn about Jesus and what it means to follow Him
- Grow in their faith and in discipleship
- Experience life change”
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RB: How do you maximize the power of music at camp?
JC: Nothing like music moves the heart, mind and soul of a student. We use music all over the camp. When they first arrive to camp they hear music playing. In the dining hall they hear music. At the play times they hear music and especially at night, the worship music moves their hearts to be open to what the Holy Spirit is speaking to them.
BW: Music is so powerful and is an integral part of young people’s lives. We use music at camp in several ways. The first, we only listen to Christian music at our canteen time/free time. There is so much amazing, positive and uplifting Christian music out there and a great deal of the secular music they listen to is not that way. It opens the campers up to something new. We also use music at mass and adoration as another way to connect young people with Christ. Our summer staff will also have times where they share the power of music in their lives and what a song has meant to them and how the Lord has spoken to them through music. Music makes camp better!
BJ: The only concerts we do now are with hip hop artists. Kids need to be involved and these guys hit the stage with one thing in mind: Get the crowd involved with the music.
TM: I’m not a speaker, so I speak between songs. I share the things I’ve learned on my journey, between songs and relate them to the songs I’m singing. It’s very laid back and conversational. I share stories behind the songs in a much more intimate way than I get to in an arena. Also, I teach a little from the things I’ve learned walking with God. Music is powerful because it invites people in. It’s a universal language. At camp, often times it becomes a sing along, not a performance, like we’re all using our voice together. Which opens people’s hearts. I play music every night at golf camp, in an intimate small acoustic setting right before a speaker shares, so hopefully the music is opening up their hearts and preparing for the teaching that’s about to come forward. I love the way camp sort of lets the mystery of the stage fall by the wayside and I’m just a regular guy, just like I know I am. But sometimes when I’m sitting with them and talking, it’s satisfying to not only them but me. I think we build the stage up too much and this sort of lets it dissipate. It’s just two people talking together about a God that is good.
NF: We use it throughout the camp from the dining hall, rec fields, group meeting areas and before worship. It is important to be intentional about what you play.
A&B: If you bring in authentic and growing disciples for worship (it’s not a show), who are humble and ready to serve (and decent musicians), they will have impact for the Kingdom. Have them sing songs that kids KNOW (with a few new ones). We have also done huge worship festival camps overseas (10,000 participants in Slovakia, Holland, Belarus). Along with the nightly worship, we brought in popular Christian artists. Most importantly, during the day we had all of those participants in Bible studies and discipleship groups.
JH: At each week of camp we have musicians and bands that will lead students in worship. Overall our desire is to share the gospel through music and prepare hearts for the Holy Spirit to move in worship.
G&A: Music is in the background whenever students gather all together at camp, whether it’s in the chapel or outside on the group game field. It sets the tone of what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish.
Worship is an important element to our sessions. Allowing opportunities for students to feel the Holy Spirit through music is key to their worship experience and hopefully gives them a desire to seek more of His presence after camp. Hearing a song back home that was sung at camp can instantly take them back to that moment like nothing else can.
DB: Worship is mission critical. We ensure that each camp has a worship band to help prepare students’ hearts for transformation.
RB: What do you hope that youth leaders will do in the weeks before and after camp?
G&A: We have created a system that we send to all of our youth pastors of what we hope happens before, during, and after camp. We emphasize the importance of prayer before camp. Nothing will make camp better for them than praying for camp beforehand. We also emphasize the power of the personal ask. Students want to be invited. We ask the adult leaders to make sure they are where they need to be with the Lord so that they can minister effectively at camp. After camp, we ask them to have events and gatherings to keep students connected and to reminisce about camp. It’s hard to explain what God does at camp to people who weren’t there, so there is something special about sharing stories and memories with those who weren’t present. We want our leaders to understand camp is one week out of the year; they are the heroes back home helping these students grow in their faith.
JC: Nothing like prayer prepares the heart to receive all God has to offer in a week of camp. My hope is that there is lots of prayer from the church family going before a student arrives at camp. There should be lots of intercessory prayer happening while students are at camp and lots of prayer after camp has ended, that what students have received at camp will grow their faith in Christ for the rest of their life.
There should also be special camp emphasis nights in their youth ministries in the months and weeks leading up to camp. Camp-themed youth services build anticipation and excitement that prepares students holistically for what they are about to receive at camp. Also, every youth pastor should immediately have a discipleship program established after camp has ended to keep the flame of the results of camp alive in students’ hearts and to take that fire to their homes, schools, and communities. I often say camp shouldn’t be a one-week wonder but what happens at camp should leave camp and impact the world for Christ.
JH: We hope that youth leaders will share our overall theme for the week and the daily themes. We hope leaders will pray for students’ hearts to be changed by the Holy Spirit. We hope they will utilize our Group Leader Information and monthly update emails to facilitate their planning and preparation before camp. After camp, we hope they will follow up with students who made decisions at camp and work to keep the camp momentum going strong.
BW: Before camp, we hope that they will pray with and for their young people who will be coming to camp and get others to lift them in prayer as well. We also want them to talk with their youth, especially if it’s their first time at camp and help prepare them for their week. All youth leaders are invited to be a part of their youth’s experience at camp whether that is for a full week or just coming in to visit for a day. After camp, we hope that they will continue to walk beside their youth as they grow in faith away from camp. We work hand in hand with youth ministers to help young people sift through the craziness of life and focus on the truth of the Gospel.
BJ: Prayer in the weeks before and afterward put the momentum you get from camp to work in your ministry. Their excitement about Christ and the building of His Kingdom should serve you well as you do the important work week in, and week out of local ministry. We always come back and have a camp service where we baptize the new believers and hear testimonies from the week. It’s always a great night of celebration that gives parents and others a glimpse of what just happened.
A&B: Challenge your believing students to bring a non-Christian friend to camp! Immediately take those new Christian students through a “new Christian growth” Bible study, with faithful disciple-makers who will love and shepherd them in their newfound faith. Give them opportunities to give testimonies in your youth group. Prepare your believing kids to enfold the new Christians, and create an atmosphere (group) where all your students can worship and grow in the Lord.
- Give ownership of planning to students
- Have students pray for and invite their “One” to camp
- Give the church opportunity to scholarship students that are lost
- Involve the church in praying for students and families while at camp (Have prayer cards with students’ names on them)
Hold a Celebration Service:
- Students bring their parents to the service
- Video of the week is shown
- A few student testimonies
- Baptism for the students who accepted Christ
- Short message on Salvation and what to do now
- Promotion of what is taking place in the next few months for students and parents.
- Prepare discipleship for new believers (Mentorship with older students)
- 30-Day Challenge to read your Bible each day or prepare a devotional
- Help them get ready to start a Christian club at school like First Priority
RB: How would you respond to a youth leader who says, “We used to do camp, but now we do mission trips”?
G&A: It’s okay to do both. It’s important for Christians to serve and it’s important for Christians to walk into spaces where they have incredible moments with God outside of the normal routines of the church. But, mission trips are not for everyone. Not every student is ready to serve on a mission trip or will want to go on a mission trip. But every student can be at camp.
Camp widens the range of students who can participate in something special with your youth group. Allowing students to be filled up at camp can only enhance a mission trip when they are ready to serve with a new passion and fire for God.
A&B: Both are important. Camp should take priority, in our opinion, but should be varied in who their focus group is, and what their purpose is. Missions trips should be selected very carefully for maximum impact (not every year), local for freshmen and sophomores, more challenging, and farther out for juniors and seniors. Honestly, most short-term missions trips eat up the church’s missions budget and aren’t effective.
Be careful that you partner with effective missions on the field, and that your short-term team will enhance what they are already doing! It’s more important to help students see their campus (their peers) as their mission field as most people on the planet make a decision for Christ before the age of 25 and are reached by others no more than 3 years older than themselves. Help them to see their potential as missionaries locally, and the ones that are proven disciple-makers – send them on missions trips to see if God might not want to use them overseas.
JC: To me, that is the same as saying, “I ate yesterday so I’m not going to eat today.” The spiritual nutrition a student receives from camp cannot be duplicated in another event or a mission trip. Camp serves a unique purpose just as a mission trip serves a unique purpose. They are both needed experiences in the spiritual balance of every young person. Camp is to fuel the soul to have a heart for reaching a lost world. A mission trip is an opportunity to use that fuel and passion to win a lost world that a mission trip provides.
NF: For student ministry, I know that mission trips serve a very valuable purpose: they help students grow in their relationship with Christ, serve those in need, and teach them how to share the Gospel in a different culture while bringing the spirit back with them. I also believe that your student ministry should include a camp for its students in order to grow. Camp provides them with a chance to share the presence of God with their lost friends. A place where you can escape some of the world’s pressures. It is also a place where a Student Minister and adult sponsors can build deeper relationships. As a result, the students can develop a deeper relationship with one another and, with God’s help, impact their family, student ministry, and their school.
BW: That’s wonderful! There are so many ways for us to encounter Jesus. Camp may not be for everyone so having mission trips is another way for young people to become the hands and feet of Jesus. All that we want is for young people to have the opportunity to encounter Jesus! It doesn’t matter if that is at camp, on a retreat, or on a mission trip.
JH: I think there is a place for both. For us, at FUGE Camps, we share biblical truths, who Christ is, and His desire to be Lord in the lives of students. At MFuge, our mission-based camp, we go out into the community and share the love of Christ by doing community service projects. If students don’t already know Christ personally, they just do the work but never share Christ with others. It can be an empty effort. We equip them to go home and do mission work in their own communities.
BJ: That’s easy—do both! If you don’t do camp, you’re missing that first part of Christ’s commission, the part about being witnesses in Jerusalem…and then the uttermost part of the earth. We took a lot of kids on mission trips in the summer, but it was a fourth of the number of kids who went to camp. Hard to argue with those numbers.
DB: You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars and take kids out of the country to experience transformation. Camp provides a safe place and takes kids out of their comfort zone which allows God to work in a powerful way.
RB: What have you tried at camp that made you decide, “Oh wow, we should NEVER do that again!”?
A&B: Honestly, we did some very crazy things back in the 90s to establish camps and youth ministry in the former Eastern bloc countries, but those risky decisions we made – huge steps of faith in a big God, are what brought the most fruit. Trust God for big visions!
JC: I wish I could say everything I’ve done at camp was the best idea I’ve ever had but I would be lying. There have been lots of crazy games and activities I’ve done in the past and I thank God there weren’t cell phone cameras back in those days. I think some of things I did back then would be on the evening news now. But I know God’s love covers a multitude of ignorance.
I won’t go into detail, but things like the electric chair, fence of fear, bucket of thrills, kamikaze curtain, the wack-o-matic, etc, might leave room for your imagination to say, “Yep, that was a stupid idea. Here’s your sign.”
BW: For years, we had a small, mini break in the middle of summer to give our summer staff a break. We did away with that and just pushed through for a couple of summers. We decided to never do that again and built the mini break back into our schedule. These young adults give so much of themselves to the campers and having an extra day or two of rest in the middle of ten week marathon is so much better for our staff.
BJ: Never, ever bring in a mime!
NF: Setting up a portable Zipline from the second floor of a building the first day of camp and having a sponsor fall and break their leg. Playing “Find Your Shoe” with 500 students.
G&A: We took the whole camp to a nearby amusement park for a whole day of camp. We thought it would be fun but it was stressful and costly. Haha… It was fun for the students but it used up a day of camp and left us feeling like it was a wasted day.