Today we start getting ready for summer with the month’s questions being focused around camp. Camp is usually a huge part of youth ministries. For some of our youth its the only time we see them all year, for others it is the end of their very active youth ministry time as they prepare to leave for college. We need to make sure that we take the camp experience seriously, and prepare for it accordingly. To start us off this month, our question is……..
“What do you look for in a camp experience?”
Josh Plant is the youth pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor for undergrad and then got his M. Div. at Truett Seminary. He is married to Camille and enjoys the Texas Longhorns, Netflix, and Chick-fil-a. He isn’t cool enough to have any pets…yet.
Loud guitars, a kick drum that pounds your chest for you, lasers, fog, blacklights, emotional preaching, the latest and greatest Christian indie music, some team building exercises, chaperone-less bible studies, and one heck of a t-shirt.
In general, this used to be the list by which I gauged all camp experiences. Then I got a little older and grew concerned with trivial things like theology. Blasted seminary. Seminary made these things a little more difficult for me and I have not quite gotten over it. In order to wade through these competing ideals, I now use a new list that I hope is helpful to you too. Here are some things I look for in a camp experience:
1. A camp that my kids are excited to be at.
Some may balk at this, but I think this is a pretty important place to start. In the teenage world, excitement means a heck of a lot. We sophisticated types with our Lectio Divina and written out prayers have decided excitement is too cheap a substitute for what we call substance. I would argue, though, that there was a time when a little emotionality was the only way we really felt like we were enjoying the moment. I’m certainly not advocating praying on the emotions of impressionable students, but I do think we need to meet them where they are at.
So, I try to feel the pulse of what my students are looking for and plan ahead of time. When I am at camp, I want my students to be excited about being there so they can soak up whatever it is they need to soak up, because I know the second we get back home the distractions will come.
2. Good theology, not perfect theology.
I may be in the minority here, so if you completely disagree with this premise, at least hear me out for a second. Hear me when I say this: there is no camp with perfect theology. Why? You know why. It’s because we did not get to personally oversee every little aspect of camp and will undoubtedly disagree with something said there at some point.
Obviously, this does not mean we should send our kids to a camp full of fundamentalists who look for secret bible codes and only sing songs written before 1908. But I think it is helpful to allow for a little gray area here. Keep this in mind, too: the majority of your students don’t see things that are indicators of what you deem bad theology as blaringly obvious as you do. If a (heaven forbid) Reformed speaker got up in the pulpit at a camp one night and told her listeners that God had chosen Christians before the dawn of time to be God’s instrument of change in the world, you might immediately think Wow, this girl is a supralapsarian! Your students, on the other hand, would probably be thinking, Wow, God wants to change the world through us?!? (I use this example because it has happened to me!)
Again, you have to decide how big that gray area should be, but I would encourage each of us to think about the non-negotiables in the theology we are trying to pass on to our students. If something crazy happens at a camp as a result, you can correct it there in your group time. I just want to be able to see that my students are getting something out of what the supralapsarian lady is saying.
3. A camp that is excellently planned and executed.
There may be nothing worse that a badly run camp. I mean, it’s just terrible for everyone. People who cannot play instruments well, mission sites with nothing to do, and different things like that will kill the camp experience quicker than just about anything. On top of that, it is a waste of money. Why would you use part of your budget to take students to a camp when a better one is just down the road? A better question may be, why would you allow their family to give you $300 for a subpar experience? In this economy, that’s almost shameful.
A lot of people I respect snub their nose at camps that have really talented bands and speakers. That’s fine, but I think their students get the raw end of the deal. If you were sixteen, why would you want to listen to a first time worship leader on an acoustic guitar and their friend on a djembe stumbling through How Great Is Our God when you can go somewhere else and hear real bands play? Why would you want to go to a mission site and sit around when you could be making a real difference somewhere else?
So, do I like the big bands and lights, awesome PowerPoints and all that jazz? You betcha, but mostly because it gets my students to buy into the moment instead of being too cool for it.
4. No personal electronics.
This is where my old man tendencies come out. It is so frustrating to see a fourteen year old running a breakup text by his friends while waiting in line at rec station because he has found his new love in only three hours at camp. It’s sad to watch teens walk around with their headphones on instead and playing games on their phone instead of enjoying the moment for what it is. The camp experience is dead before it can even start!
Camp is supposed to be a “mountain-top” experience; a moment when things are so different that it facilitates change. These should be great times of renewal with your group. Camp experiences are supposed to be times when people get away from everything and everyone back home for a week and are thusly able to see things differently, like a person who stands on top of a desk to see the world from that perspective because they never have. (Great scene from Dead Poet Society, right?) They cannot do that when they are still connected to everything and everyone and allowed to isolate themselves in a cocoon of familiarity via cell phones and electronics. As a result, I never allow electronics at camp, even if the camp I’m attending decides to allow them.
Jen Van Camp became the youth pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco in 2006 and is still loving it! She grew up in Lexington, KY and went to McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. She loves pop culture, her Kentucky Wildcats, and being the best aunt in the world to her niece and two nephews.
Looking back on my time growing up in a church youth group, some of the best and most formative times I can remember happened at youth camp. I grew up in my faith personally and our group grew closer together as a community of faith because of all the shared experiences. Now as a youth minister, I know how important and transformative these experiences can be and I seek them out for the young adults under my care.
There are a lot of camps out there, but for me it’s important to know that I can trust the leadership of the camp, as well as the theology of what and how they’re teaching “my youth.” Living and ministering out here on the west coast, one of my favorite camps has rarely been available to us, but I still wanted to provide the camp experience for the youth. So a couple of years ago, we decided to take a leap of faith and do our own camp. My goals were for this experience to be fairly close in proximity (drive-able), affordable, and meaningful, complete with a wonderful speaker and a balanced schedule that would allow for times of shared worship and small groups, as well as plenty of time for fun and hanging out. I talked to some fellow youth ministers who had done this before, to my pastor, who had planned many youth camps, and thankfully found a good friend who agreed to come out to teach and minister with the youth. I formed a planning committee with several of the older youth and a couple of college students because I wanted their input and creativity in shaping the week. We found a great location and after much planning, crafting of a schedule, and inviting (persuading) the youth to come, our inaugural youth camp finally happened! We shared meals together, worshipped, prayed, played together, laughed together, and shared our lives for a few days. I feel like the week was a success because we allowed God the time and space to work in the lives of the youth (and leaders) as they were able to step away from the busyness of their lives for just a few days and soak up the time. It went so well that we’ve decided to continue doing our own camp every summer and it’s something that not only I, but the teenagers and young adults look forward to as well. Looking forward to another great summer camp experience this year!