Ten Ways To Supercharge Your Camping Program To Develop Christian Leaders
When camp is “Awesome” but two months later kid’s lives look just like they did the week before camp something is wrong – the Gospel is a transformative life change, not a temporary high.
Much post-camp “falling away” is alleviated by a great followup plan. But we have a higher bar than keeping kids from “bailing out” on the youth program and the church. We want kids to press on to become disciple-making disciples. A great camping program is a big part of that process. But great experiences without great followup, most literally, wastes the power of the experience. Here are a few thoughts on following-up on summer camps and mission trips…
1) All ministry starts with leaders. The first step in spiritual retention is to have spiritually solid, trained volunteers who are relationally engaged with students year ’round, not just at camp.
2) TAKE kids to camp. We want church leaders to BRING (rather than send) their students to camp. Why? Because to maximize the benefits of the camp experience we want the affiliation bond built at camp to be with a parish leader. You want the emotionally and spiritually intimate cabin group to also be the youth group. That way camp followup is in the local church, building on the good work that was begun at camp, rather than atomizing this powerful experience.
3) Send kids home with food. At our camp we work hard to “send kids home with food.” We have a “taking Jesus home” experience that helps students with how to press on in the Christian life. On the last morning, in front of parents, we have a “say-so,” as in “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” (Psalm 107:2) Students stand up, grab a microphone, and talk about the life-changing experience camp was for them. Then, when parents are in tears over their kid’s tears, youth pastors stand up and line up not-yet-churched students with the youth pastors and groups near them so that they go home ready to plug into a church community. They go home with fliers to help them apply the scriptural truths they have learned, find a church and know when the “reunion” events are during the year.
4) Stay Connected. Have periodic reunions and weekend camps IN PARISHES around your diocese.
5) Gear up (not down) in summer. Kids today tend to be really, really busy. Summer is often the exception. Students are usually either out of town or bored. This makes summer the time of the year in which it is often easiest to build momentum. “Gearing up” after camp has two benefits: First, you can build numerical momentum going into your fall ministry year as excited students invite their unchurched friends to come join the community. Second, you keep students from falling back into old habits and destructive patterns. The spiritual discouragement that accompanies “falling away” not only causes your students to struggle, but it poisons the well with those students’ friend group when they say, “I tried God. It just didn’t work for me.”
6) Equip your parents. Parents are also least busy in the summer. Equipping parents to be the primary source of spiritual formation is not only scriptural (Deut. 6 and Ps. 78), but it is how the faith was passed on for 19 centuries before “youth ministry.” Equipping parents is especially critical in elementary school and junior high. In high school, students are emotionally separating themselves from their parents. In late adolescence your equipping will be more along the lines of making sure parents know the what, when, and why of your ministry and knowing your leaders as safe, trusted Christian adults who are reinforcing the faith of the family. Leaders become parent’s allies, saying what mom and dad say at a time in life when students, for the healthy developmental reason of self-differentiation, tend to look for direction outside of the home.
Leaders become parent’s allies, saying what mom and dad say at a time in life when students, for the healthy developmental reason of self-differentiation, tend to look for direction outside of the home.
7) Fill the Pipeline. Think strategically about your students. What do you want for them in Christ? In our diocese youth camp programs are about evangelism and the beginning of the discipleship process. We program 7th-9th grade to be like a confirmation retreat – an adult experience of Christ…but one with the “talent” of 60 parishes on tap. We program high school to be a discipleship week. Following that experience we have a leadership development camp we call WILD (Wilderness Introduction to Leadership Development) available for high school juniors and seniors. WILD involves a variety of outdoor/wilderness experiences and group leadership skills development. Then we have a three week long experience called Leadership Encouragement and Development (LEAD) for graduating seniors and first year college students. In LEAD, students live in community, serve campers, and are given intensive discipleship and bible study by a team of handpicked youth ministers of spiritual depth with powerful ministries of their own. Needless to say, when our students graduate from high school, young adults growing in their faith from our parishes line up for the chance to be camp counselors (a minimum wage paid position). Also, as part of the development of our young people as Christian leaders, we have a week of discipleship and counselor training to prepare them as counselors. We have a clear, strategic pipeline to develop young people as Christ-centered leaders.
8) Camp Assignments. Our full-time youth ministers spend three weeks each summer at camp. These committed individuals fill senior staff roles: camp speakers, head counselors, and discipling the high school LEAD staff. This builds a shared vision, spiritual commitment, and increases the spiritual, emotional, and physical expectations of our camping ministry, and year-round ministry in the parish.
9) Train volunteers. Many churches do not train volunteers. That sends a message that being a youth worker isn’t very important and neither are our young people. Volunteers buy-in and stay bought-in when they know the goals, the methods to reach those goals, and are equipped to walk with students and share the Good News with them. In our context, we have a variety of training experiences for volunteer youth workers, camp counselors, and both a one-year part-time youth director and a two-year full-time youth minister training program. Your youth leaders are the relational bridge to Christ when students are developmentally separating from their parents. This makes them a critical gift to families. Treat them as such by equipping them well and thanking them often!
youth leaders are the relational bridge to Christ when students are developmentally separating from their parents. This makes them a critical gift to families. Treat them as such by equipping them well and thanking them often!
10) Recruit the called to seminary to be the next generation of Christ-centered, theologically grounded, missionally-minded clergy to lead our churches.
If this looks far larger than simply following up with your students from camp, it is. Your camping ministry is much more than keeping kids busy. It can be the strategic beginnings of a leadership development pipeline to replace yourself with the next generation of Christian leader.