How to run a great church camp
This is the time of year children’s ministries are busy planning their summer adventures as a way to share the life-transforming gospel with children from all walks of life. Looking for inspiration or motivation? Here’s how three MB churches used barbarians, Death Stars and science experiments to draw children into membership in a new Kingdom.
Away from distractions
“We take kids away from distractions of iPods and cellphones for a week face-to-face to build relationships,” says King Road MB Church, Abbotsford, B.C., youth pastor Edgar Wiens, “to give city kids a wilderness experience and tell them about the love of God and the gospel of Jesus.”
Each summer, King Road runs three sessions of TREK (To Reach Every Kid): week-long overnight camps for 80 children/week (Grades 3–5, 6–7, 8–9). TREK’s 20-year history began with 43rd Avenue Church, Vancouver, and continued as a partnership between King Road and South Hill until the latter closed in 2013.
The weekend before the first camp, 40–50 volunteers haul ten 10×20-foot sleeping tents, a dining shelter, a kitchen tent, a lake water filtering system and porta-potties to a provincial park or crown land.
TREK transmits the gospel through stories – specially written by a volunteer. Last year’s theme was “Knights and Barbarians.” “The campers were knights-in-training,” says Wiens, “because as Christians, we need to be soldiers of Jesus.” Many volunteers return year after year because they love the idea of 150 people living out a story together.
High-school-age leaders-in-training (many of whom were once campers) acted the part of the barbarians, humorously trying to disrupt the camp. In reality, these young servants are key to running it: serving the food, washing the dishes, cleaning the outhouses.
Seniors volunteers as well. “Some of our older handymen wouldn’t miss set-up for anything,” says Wiens, who has been praying for a retired couple to serve as camp parents.
TREK’s staff training focuses on preparing them to be spiritually aware. “We are stepping into a battlefield when we teach kids about love of Christ,” says Wiens. “We need to model Christ.”
TREK is an outreach: the goal is at least 40 percent non-churched kids. Wiens gives camp information to local food banks and shelters to pass on to families. Through the public school counsellor on TREK’ s planning team, other guidance counsellors have learned about TREK and recommend students who may not be able to afford to attend another camp. The cost is $200 per camper, significantly less than many area camps ($300–400), and King Road sponsors children for whom the cost would be a barrier.
“Parents come up to me and say, ‘Whatever you’re doing there is great because our kids want to come back next year!’” says Wiens, “but I also get to hear the sad parts,” when a camper has had a negative experience or misunderstanding. “These become opportunities to work with parents. My approach is to humble myself and ask forgiveness and open the door for continued dialogue to see how we can improve.”
A big part of follow-up is encouraging counsellors to stay in touch; for example, by inviting campers who live near them to their church. Through emails, King Road invites campers to a TREK reunion, VBS and Athletes in Action soccer camp later in the summer, and midweek programs in the fall.
Wiens recalls how, last summer, after the speaker explained that God welcomes us all into his Kingdom, 10 or 15 teens lifted their hand to say they wanted Jesus in their lives. “That brought tears to my eyes, and I said, ‘Okay God, let’s keep going. You’re at work.’”
Wiens’ advice for other churches is “Whatever you’re dreaming of doing, do it!” Whether it’s a campout or VBS or soccer camp, “it’s a unique opportunity to take kids out of their shells and pour the love of God on them, to make them feel accepted, to show them Jesus.”
“I’m a city slicker who likes his comfy bed and shower,” admits Wiens, “but it’s worth it because we are building God’s Kingdom.”
A mission trip without the flight
“For a lot of kids, this is the first or only time they’ll have the opportunity to be prayed for,” says Sarah Braun, day camp and junior youth leader of New Hope Niagara Church, St. Catharines, Ont.
“We’re not doing day camp so a bunch of kids can have fun and learn Bible stories,” says Braun. “We are reaching kids who have never heard the gospel.”
New Hope’s day camp for senior Kindergarteners (age 5) to eighth graders runs five full weekdays followed by a Sunday family carnival (10:00–2:00). Last summer, 100 campers (out of 200) did not name a church home on their application.
Braun’ s first vision pitch to the church is to get the church’s children to sign up and invite their “Fav5”– New Hope’ s term for non-Christian friends (inspired by a cellphone ad).
“Every night as a family, we’re praying by name for our non-Christians friends so their hearts will be open,” and she encourages the rest of the church to do the same.
Volunteers make sacrifices: giving up days of paid work or vacation time. Some serve all day at camp and then do a shift at work until 2:00 a.m. “People are giving up a lot to be there because they believe in the vision of what we’re doing.”
To put together a team of 100 volunteers, Braun casts “the vision of a mission trip where you don’t have to pay for flights.” The Sunday after the first vision pitch, she passes a signup sheet through the congregation. Many in the youth group invite their friends from other churches to serve with them. Braun calls, emails or texts each of the previous year’s volunteers personally, encouraging them to return.
Ontario’s 40-hour community service requirement for high school graduation draws some volunteers. Some aren’t Christians, but are competent to lead a group of children; they work alongside a leader with a strong faith.
“I made it clear in staff meetings: the gospel message is not just for the kids; it’s for you,” says Braun. “Three adults accepted Jesus.”
Braun and session leaders write their own curriculum, centred on five gospel messages each year:
Monday: God loves you.
Tuesday: we all sin.
Wednesday: Jesus died for us.
Thursday: we need to accept him.
Friday: we can tell others about Jesus.
“What makes or breaks it is we latch onto a theme a 12-year-old boy will like: Super Mario, Narnia, Transformers; if you do that, everyone will like it,” says Braun.
Last year’s theme was Star Wars. On Tuesday (“sin” lesson), the campers wrote down selfish things they’d done and put them in a Death Star. On Wednesday (“atonement and resurrection”) and again at the Sunday carnival, they put fireworks inside the Death Star and exploded it.
The message at the end of the week is about discipleship: “Think of the kids you were going to pick on, how are you now going to ‘pick on’ them with love?” Braun emails all parents an invitation to junior youth, a place teens can find support in living the values they learned at camp.
On the final day, leaders pull campers aside to pray with them one-on-one. In one such prayer time, “one kid talked about contemplating suicide that summer, and nobody knew about it,” says Braun. “We were able to follow-up with the parents and in junior youth.”
Her advice to churches is “Don’t be afraid to go full-day.” The easiest way to fill the afternoon is to bus to a local pool. It’s 30–40 percent more work for volunteers than a half-day VBS, but in New Hope’s experience, the greater convenience for parents draws more children from the community.
“And don’t be afraid to charge for it. Look at what local Y camps cost, charge a little less, and day camp will go from costing you money to being cost neutral.”
A stepping stone into church life
Forest Grove Community Church, Saskatoon, introduces families to church by “giving campers the best experience with Jesus the week they’re here,” says children’s ministries pastor Maureen Brown.
Forest Grove runs two half-day camps: one in June for 40 preschoolers, one in July for up to 100 children entering Grades 1–6.
With Forest Grove’ s emphasis on intergenerational discipleship, Brown looks for curriculum that that encompasses ages. Their 2015 science-themed camp was from Gospel Light, which met their need for both preschool and elementary components. “We don’t want to bore kids, so we look for high energy activities that take us to a place that’s holy.”
The material must have a gospel message: “We provide an opportunity each time we do day camp for children to respond to what Jesus did,” says Brown. Last year, she asked children if they’d like to accept Jesus, to write their name on a paper chain. “I know those are young decisions,” says Brown, but “children are sensing that they want to follow God. Sometimes following precedes fully understanding.”
“We start with how much God loves them, the way he created them and has a plan for their lives,” says Brown. “That plan is Jesus: to come to know him, to grow in him and to show him to others.”
Forest Grove’s Wednesday-night children’s program during the year uses similar activities to day camp and provides a stepping stone into church life. “It’s hard for families who aren’t regular church attenders to get into the Sunday routine,” says Brown.
Day camps are staffed by many of the same volunteers who run the children’ s programs through the winter, providing relational continuity. Some are seniors, who “bring a comforting, nurturing presence,” says Brown. Others are young moms pushing strollers from station to station.
A big focus is on discipling younger leaders, who shadow storytellers and song leaders, and a couple times a week, take over their roles. Some years, these young leaders go on to reproduce the camp in a rural community, such as Blaine Lake, Sask. Brown also mentors a Bible college student who takes on much of the role of director.
Last year, a girl entering Grade 3 approached Brown on the third day of camp saying she had asked her mom the night before to pray with her to accept Jesus. “We celebrated together and talked about the party the angels were having,” says Brown. “We give the message, but the Holy Spirit does the work. And how beautiful for the parent to do with her child and for us to come alongside them.”
Brown’s advice for other churches: “The key for me is that people have conviction in their heart to be part of this. I don’t want to twist arms.”
If a church wants to start a camp, “don’t force it,” she says. “Pray first; ask God to tell you who you should connect with to put a team together.” If they feel called they’ll know, “I’m not just in the kitchen making snack; I’m part of what God’s doing in children’s lives this week.”
And don’ t worry about numbers: “Some of my greatest experiences have been when we had a small attendance,” say Brown. “Just trust that God is bringing who needs to be there.”