Photo courtesy of Camp Mini-Yo-We

Camps seek church involvement for year-long discipleship

For many Christians, camp is where it all started.

Whether it was an emotional turning point during a chapel worship session, a poignant word or testimony from a speaker, or a deep friendship over several years, many adult Christians cite camp as the place where their faith became “real.”

And yet many camps struggle to retain more than 50 per cent of their campers from the previous summer. If camp is such an important place for so many people, why do so many seem to fall by the wayside?

Many camp directors stress the need for post-summer follow up.

One strategy for Camp Arnes, located about an hour’s drive north of Winnipeg, has been to hire staff and speakers who are actively involved in churches around the city, hoping that those connections will ease the introduction from a camp setting to the ongoing routine of what makes up life in the church.

“Often the connection where the youth pastor has spoken at the camp, kids are more likely to… go to their youth [group] and things like that,” says Will Wear, Arnes’ executive director. “That personal invitation and the getting to know them really makes a big difference.”

Arnes employs community relations personnel to connect local churches with campers who live in their areas of the city, but Wear says that doing so can be challenging.

“For a lot of the churches it works really well but it really depends on the manpower of the church and the ability for them to try and make contact with all those kids.”

Camps excel at introducing the gospel in a communal setting away from the pressures and distractions of everyday life. But camp can’t do everything. Support from the local church is needed to support campers after the camping season concludes.

Churches have been doing much better in recent years, says Mike Ankenmann of Camp Mini-yo-we.

Located in Muskoka, Ontario, Mini-yo-we previously offered after-school programs for children across Toronto. Since the 1980s, the camp has taken a different approach.

“We stopped doing those things, partly because philosophically we didn’t want to be competing with the local churches and partly because it wasn’t working anymore. Kids weren’t coming.

“Camp functions great as a temporary community that gets together and is really Christ-focused and child-centric,” he says. “The Lord uses that to do great things in transforming young people’s lives.”

Another thing that has made following up on summer ministry particularly difficult is recent privacy legislation. While new laws haven’t precluded camp staff from reaching out to campers after summer is over, the shift in culture has definitely made it trickier.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not practical for us to do really anything beyond encouraging our staff to be in touch in appropriate ways and strongly encouraging our campers to be connected with a local church and to actively try to give our campers tools to have a disciplined personal walk with God,” Ankenmann says.

He stresses that the church needs to be the primary cultivator of faith in the lives of youth.

“I think there’s value in us trying to be in touch with churches and there’s value in churches encouraging their young people to be involved in a Christian camping experience on a regular basis.

“That is the kind of relationship that bears the most fruit in my mind.”

Partnership with local churches is key, as ongoing discipleship happens at that level, says Sharon Fraese, Canadian national director for Christian Camping International (CCI).

“As leaders we need to say ‘how do we make this work?’” she says.

It’s not realistic to expect individual camp staff to take an overly active role in maintaining the camp’s summertime ministry, she adds, though it’s certainly appreciated when cabin leaders are willing to go the extra mile.

Sending postcards, birthday cards and holding community events throughout the year are some of the ways Luther Village in northwestern Ontario keeps connected with its campers, as well as encouraging ongoing discipleship.

“Sending the postcards out to our youth campers is huge,” say executive director Kim Scherger. “Parents will send me an e-mail or phone me and say, ‘little Johnny was super excited when he saw this postcard in the mail from your staff and that was really awesome.’”

Scherger says while Luther Village makes a strong effort to keep connected with youth campers after summer is over, the camp itself does not focus much on pointing children towards local churches.

“Because a lot of our kids who do come to camp are returning campers or campers who are churched, maybe that’s why we haven’t focused on that a lot.”

At the same time, she notes the opportunity for camps and churches to work together in discipleship is huge, and is routinely frustrated when churches fail to make their congregants aware of camp opportunities.

“If the individual congregations could get more behind camping ministry as a whole, I think it would do a world of difference in getting more campers out, for sure. And that would help in the follow up, in getting more kids to come to the churches, too.”

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.