Some 2,300 churches in 5 countries are affecting their communities through children’s camps and follow-up programs. The ministry seems to be “God-ordained,” says Children’s Camps International (CCI) president Ray Wieler of Winkler, Man.
It started with a young man from India whose church sent him to North America to get some ministry experience. Winkler Bible Camp accepted him to work as a counsellor. There, he caught the vision of camping ministry.
Wieler, director of Winkler Bible Camp for 10 years, and a member of Winkler MB Church, now directs the small Canadian arm of a burgeoning international camping ministry, operating in India, Cambodia, Kenya, Belize, and Nepal. CCI has also received invitations to train leaders in Fiji, Cuba, and China.
“We’ve crossed paths in the most bizarre ways,” with people who have invited CCI to other countries, he says. “God always brought a contact.”
The camping model is deliberately simple and CCI’s goal is to help indigenous staff be as independent as possible. At the invitation of a local church or churches, CCI equips pastors and volunteers to run a one-week day camp to build relationships with children, feed and entertain them, and introduce them to Jesus.
For the following year, the 16- to 25-year-old counsellors hold weekly follow-up sessions – often attended by more children than at camp. They also work with the children to put on a Christmas and Easter production in the village.
The local church’s witness by caring for the community’s children, and the faith and behaviour of the children is bringing the message of Jesus to parents as well. “When someone loves your children, you appreciate that,” says Shirley Banman, CCI staff and member of Winkler MB Church.
Costs are kept low by using local volunteers and facilities. North American sponsor dollars ($5 to send one child to camp, or $35 per month to “adopt a village”), help pay for food, materials, and training, but local congregations provide up to 50 percent of the cost.
“We’ve discovered a gold mine in the church” in the youth, one pastor told Wieler. Young people who used to be spectators have become contributing members of the church body. In India, where the ministry began, “most of the kids that started in 2003 are now counsellors,” says Wieler. Trained by CCI, these young adults lead in their churches, often through music and drama; and evangelize at the universities they attend.
Operating in countries where tribal group or caste differences have caused conflict and violence, the camps don’t dwell on those differences, but on unity in Christ. In Kenya, 9 camps began this spring from the collaborative efforts of 24 pastors from different denominations.
One of the challenges of setting up the camps, says Wieler, is cultural sensitivity. “We try not to impose our North American methods.”
In India, where 14 full-time staff equip 2,200 churches to run camps, another 4,400 churches are waiting to be trained. CCI uses various methods of fundraising, from sponsorship programs, to a baseball tournament where home runs send kids to camp. Wieler and Banman are missionaries of Winkler MB Church. Wieler visits India once a year, but spends most of his time advocating in North America for those on the front lines.