Before the disk had time to settle into a prickly nest of tree branches, brush, and poison ivy, the disk thrower, a fourth grader at Twin Lakes Camp, had already plunged in after it (see photo). The next day, the fearless bushwhacker’s arms wore a red, blistered warning against future impulsiveness. Certainly summer camp had delivered a memorable outdoor survival experience, but taking cues from the camp’s God-centered climate, the camper learned a spiritual lesson as well. During a bonfire at week’s end, he reflected on the encounter and concluded that rubbing up against poison ivy is like dabbling in sin—the consequences stay with you long after first contact.
Over six million American children, youth, and adults participate in Christian camp programs each year, according to the Christian Camp and Conference Association’s Waypoint Research 2008. This generation’s youth are attending camp, and 30 Regular Baptist camps located in 22 states across the nation, including Alaska, are accepting the challenge to become touch points between these youth and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Camp directors are combining their unique passions and gifts with their camps’ geographic quirks to create outdoor experiences that draw kids into a lasting relationship with their Creator.
One special brand of church camping can be found at Twin Lakes Camp and Conference Center, Hillsboro, Ind. Through an educational philosophy Director Jon Beight calls “experiential learning,” Twin Lakes is helping kids apply God’s truths to their everyday lives. “We don’t focus on teachable moments at camp,” says Jon. “That’s too passive. We are going for an all-day spiritual learning experience that gives kids the tools to continue pursuing a relationship with God when they get back home.”
Whether stepping into thin air off the Leap of Faith Platform or pausing to contemplate the three-inch honey locust thorns at a Prayer Walk Station, Twin Lakes’ campers are challenged with discovering and applying God’s truths to every aspect of their camping experience. Facing 30 feet of open air between a tree-mounted platform and the pinecone-studded ground below provides an opportunity for campers to put faith into action—faith in the harness to safely break their free fall. Afterward, a counselor nurtures conversation, draws campers to question “safety harnesses” in their lives, and points them to God’s truths as the ideal safety gear for adventuring through life. Getting campers to take charge of their own spiritual walk and to maintain a close, daily relationship with their Creator after camp euphoria wears off doesn’t happen by accident.
Christian Camping 101
Christian camps aren’t just about providing challenging and fun things for kids to do with a sprinkling of devotions and chapel messages throughout. This generation of campers is looking for opportunities beyond kickball and outdoor chapel. “They want their lives to count for something,” says Ken Riley, director of Lake Ann Baptist Camp, Lake Ann, Mich., for 25 years. “This generation is confused and challenged.” Many camps have stepped up their activities by adding paintball and climbing walls, but according to Darrell Friar, camp director, Bass Lake Camp, Winnebago, Minn., “The uniqueness of Christian camping is not in the activities, the music, the games, the contests, or the friendships that develop. The primary impact of Christian camping is causing campers to see their need to either start or deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ. The activities provided are simply tools to teach spiritual truths.” These simple tools, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, deliver daring challenges to church-camp youth.
Christian camp directors run outdoor programs by as many different methods as there are parts to the Body of Christ. Each director’s program springs from his relationship with Christ, his past experiences, and his gifts and passions. Having grown up in an orphanage in Hershey, Pa., Dave Maitland, director of Slippery Rock Baptist Camp, Slippery Rock, Pa., has a tender heart for weary kids looking to discover meaning in their lives. Monday through Friday, many nights included, you will find Pastor Dave, “P.D.,” cruising the 60-year-old camp via his golf cart, counseling kids barbershop style: listening, encouraging, and admonishing. He is focused on taking kids beyond putting their stick in the fire, singing “Kumbaya,” and going home only to fall on their faces spiritually. When one camper requested the opportunity to work at camp, Dave recognized a hands-on avenue for teaching kids to serve each other and to develop spiritual disciplines they can use at home. Welcoming kids to come back as camp workers, Slippery Rock Baptist Camp now has a nearly 1:1 camper-staff ratio.
For Jon Beight, at Twin Lakes Camp, purposeful Christian camping means applying educational theories to outdoor experiences. Jon graduated in 1985 from Cedarville University with a degree in Christian Education (education in a church setting) and a minor in education (theories and methods). As a youth pastor in Michigan, he was introduced to wilderness camping through Awana’s Canadian Adventure Camp. Wilderness camping immerses participants in a learning environment and has been popularized by programs, such as Outward Bound, that teach coping skills and lessons from the natural environment. Jon recognized the application for Christian residential camps and began focusing on delivering a Christ-centered outdoor immersion experience to the campers at Twin Lakes. By combining teaching concepts, such as experiential learning, and challenge-course activities, such as climbing walls and ropes courses, he hopes to immerse kids in thought-provoking situations that stimulate lasting spiritual growth.
Jon and Dave see campers return to join the camp staff, take leadership in local churches, attend Bible colleges, and enter full-time ministry. For Jon, Dave, and every other camp director, these results answer the skeptics who accuse camp directors of manipulating campers for quick spiritual decisions.
Camp programs spring from one of three basic approaches. The first familiar camp program is the team-based approach, with campers earning points for memorizing Scripture, paying attention in chapel, and winning at friendly competitions. The camp helps kids ingrain the Word of God in their memories and develop Bible-reading habits designed to carry over into a year-round lifestyle. By the time the kids choose their team name (like “Greasy Green Gopher Guts”), compress all 66 books of the Bible into each other’s brain, take sermon notes without passing notes to each other, and survive water balloon dodgeball, they are bonded for life over the fellowship of God’s Word.
Other camps are skill set based, teaching techniques such as archery (see photo), horseback riding, and fire starting. At Camp BaYouCa in Marathon, N.Y., campers construct a boat out of branches and then attempt to paddle it across the lake. They build survival shelters, and cook Friday night’s hotdogs and s’mores over a campfire they started themselves. Horseback riding skills are taught at Skyview Ranch, Millersburg, Ohio, and kids get to try their hand at rafting on the Mohican River. These camps embrace the fun and adventure of interacting with God’s creation, setting the stage for staff and chapel speakers to deliver heart-to-heart messages.
The third church-camp style is counselor-based. Counselors are trained to combine hands-on activities with purposeful reflection to create an environment of self-evaluation against the backdrop of God’s truths. The goal is to get kids to look for spiritual lessons themselves. The counselor-based style seeks to maximize the cabin experience, with 80 percent of camper learning expected to come from counselor-camper interaction that builds intentionally on activities and chapel messages.
Camp Counselors: A Lead Role
Regardless of the camp style, counselors play a lead role in campers’ spiritual growth. Informal statistics indicate that while only 10 percent of adults will remember their childhood camp and chapel speakers’ names, 90 percent will remember their counselors and may still be in contact with them years later. Not only do counselors lead morning and evening devotions and monitor games and activities, but they give one-on-one time to campers. Regardless of the camp’s specific program style, the counselor-camper relationship will probably be the greatest influence on the camper, leaving lifelong impressions about God’s character and relationship with humans.
Twin Lakes is one camp that is very intentional about equipping their counselors to nurture spiritual conversations with their assigned group of campers. Before counseling for two summers at Twin Lakes in 2006 and 2007, Eddie Ferguson attended two weeks of intense training that equipped him to lead proper cabin discussions. “I learned to get campers to think about spiritual applications without putting the words in their mind. I learned to let them come to realizations, give them time to think.” Eddie says he felt a high sense of responsibility to follow up group activities with life applications.
Keeping Jon Beight’s directive to be a “guide by the side, not a sage on the stage” led to some memorable experiences for Eddie. One afternoon, he took the campers to the outdoor prayer activity, gave them each a prayer guide, and let them go spend time praying with God individually. He didn’t debrief them afterward. Instead, they ate dinner and attended chapel. Late that night, Eddie talked to each camper separately, asking if anything stuck out about the prayer experience. One high school guy started crying. He said, “I got saved.” He walked Eddie through his week of experiences, day by day—things Eddie had said, things Captain Fun (the activity director) had related, his personal experience in the prayer activity, and finally his decision to say yes to God. The Holy Spirit’s integration of speakers, activities, and his counselor’s caring one-on-one time, not coercion, had led him to a relationship with God.
Training Tomorrow’s Leaders
Camp counselors undergo their own immersion experience, receiving hands-on leadership training toward becoming the next generation of church leaders. At Twin Lakes, the first week of counselor training involves First Aid and “soft” leadership skills such as recognizing learning styles and lesson age-appropriateness. In the second week, counselors learn to apply Deuteronomy 6—teaching the commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and might while sitting together, walking together, lying down, and rising up together—all settings a counselor and his or her cabin of campers experience at camp. A key component of the discussions is getting the kids to ask their own questions, discovering truths for themselves.
Jesus was well acquainted with rabbinical teaching methods and seems to have purposefully put the disciples in situations where they would ask questions. For example, Jesus cursed a fig tree in the presence of His disciples. When they passed by the next day, he used the disciples’ questioning response to the withered tree as an opportunity to teach a lesson about faith (Mark 11:12–25). Effective counselors and leaders take campers from asking, What has God revealed through nature? to asking, What has God revealed through His Word? and What am I going to do about it? Counseling at its best is shepherding campers to reach their full potential as a child of God.
Life Applications from Baptist Camps
Jesus’ use of mental images in parables, allegories, and metaphors to convey deep, meaningful truths is recorded in the Gospels. Many church camps follow a similar model, tying meaningful life lessons to unforgettable activities, helping to create vivid mental images of otherwise abstract lessons.
“Extreme Makeover: Heart Edition” at Camp Fairwood, Westfield, Wis., delivered a practical mental picture of the value of using a blueprint by letting campers first struggle to build PVC pipe/cardboard houses without the benefit of a plan. Campers succeeded only after Program Director Bradley Fincham distributed blueprints and permitted access to experienced counselors. Campers comprehended the value of using their Creator’s Word as a blueprint for building their own lives and of accessing other believers as mentors and tutors.
Using a high ropes course called “The Helix” (see photo), Norman MacKenzie, director of New Life Island, Pa./N.J., causes campers to experience serving one another. Participants must hold the ropes steady so their teammates can cross to the other side. “Philippians 2:1–11 is a passage I go to for the Biblical lesson concerning teamwork,” says Norman. “These lessons [from the activities] have practical ramifications in everything from living together in a cabin to functioning together in a local church. And the idea of putting others before yourself is perfectly modeled by Jesus, Who died for us.” MacKenzie’s trained staff lead campers to discover these connections and catch the Biblical concepts.
Other Camp Venues
Most residential church camps expand their ministry to offer community services beyond summer camp, hosting quilting groups, Scout troops, family reunions, homeschool co-ops, corporate groups, and ministries for those with mental handicaps. “Even at secular camp programs, prayers are offered before meals,” says Dan Kohns, director of The Springs, Gladwin, Mich. “Our camp exists to develop relationships with Jesus, and we don’t shy away from sharing that focus.” Darrell Friar at Bass Lake offers secular groups the option of reviewing a spiritual application from the group’s activities. All of the family groups using the facilities have chosen to use this “spiritual debriefing” feature.
Even adult groups benefit from spiritual debriefing. In a Twin Lakes activity called the Spider Web (see photo), adult participants attempted to pass each other through a webbed obstacle without touching the strings. The group struggled for an hour to work together, eventually touching the strings but pretending it didn’t happen for the sake of finishing the activity. Upon completion, the group offered none of the usual congratulatory high fives to each other. When asked why what was normally a camaraderie-building activity wasn’t fun, a woman answered, “We cheated, and we know it, and it’s ruined the joy, because we thought we’d get by with it.” In the ensuing conversation, the participants realized that letting sin issues slide can ruin the joy of relationships and ministries.
When Jon Beight hears a camper’s mom say, “It’s December and my son is still reading his Bible,” he knows the hours of prayerful undertaking for Twin Lakes Camp are bearing fruit. I recognized the effectiveness of Twin Lake’s approach when, on the one-hour trip home, my own daughter talked nonstop about the truths her counselor had shared. I could see a new confidence as she applied them to her everyday life.
Today’s church camps and their counselors are more than childcare providers and activity directors. They are teaching youth to discover and apply Biblical truths for themselves, equipping them for a meaningful adulthood in relationship with their Creator and Redeemer.
Karen S. Kight lives in Brownsburg, Ind., where she and her family are members of Bethesda Baptist Church. She met her husband at a Christian camp in Idaho 20 years ago; today they serve as junior high youth leaders. Karen is a graduate of Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, Ariz.