Christian camps can offer ‘real picture of long-term, life-changing effect of gospel’comment (0)
January 31, 2013
By Brittany N. Ragon
Christian camp ministry is not a new idea. The tides of the spiritual retreat experience have risen and fallen since the late 1800s, with terminology advancing from camp meetings to Christian camping to Bible conferences to church camp. No doubt, the average churchgoer over the age of 40 has heard it all.
But as the terminology describing Christian camp ministry has changed over the last 150 years, so have the ministry’s methods.
Now camp culture is seeing a rise in ministries like Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters (SWO), a high-adventure Christian camp nestled between the Ocoee and Nantahala rivers in western North Carolina.
Reared the son of a pastor, SWO Director and Cofounder Brody Holloway grew up in traditional camp ministry, attending camps as a student and working at even more camps in his teen and early adult years.
“The one thing my camp experiences had in common was a false picture of what it was to follow Christ,” he said. “It was a feel-good gospel.”
This is where the battle for effective camp ministry is fought, Holloway said.
“Historically over the last 30 years, there has been a roller-coaster effect in the way ‘camp impact’ has trended,” he said. “For instance, a guy in student ministry who has taken his kids to camp or inherited students who have a camp-type experience is sorting through what was real and what was emotional. For us, the vision was: ‘Let’s don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.’ We don’t need to eliminate camps from student ministry. We need to work to utilize, in a positive way, that camp experience with the goal of long-term discipleship.”
Ric Manning, student pastor of Pine Grove Baptist Church, Centre, in Cherokee Baptist Association, said he sees camp as an effective part of his student ministry because it “gives students an opportunity to hear a fresh voice in a setting away from their normal environment. It is a blessing to have camp staff share the same things you are teaching [your students] on a regular basis but with the talents God has given them.”
For SWO, that teaching is “gospel-centered discipleship by any means necessary,” Holloway said.
“Unfortunately a lot of camp situations are the equivalent of spiritual child abuse, where we mess with students’ feelings and mess with their emotions but we don’t give them a real picture of the long-term, life-changing effect of the gospel,” he said. “We say things like, ‘Come forward and pray to receive Christ; it is the greatest decision you’ll ever make’ or ‘Christianity is cool’ or ‘Christians can have fun.’ But Jesus makes it clear that the cost of discipleship is that we lose our lives for the sake of gospel.”
So SWO created a three-tiered approach for effective camp ministry: Relational investments in the lives of its staff and students, shared experience as a means of sharing the gospel and expositional teaching to create a strong biblical foundation.
“So what we’re doing is equipping students to pursue Christ and surrender to Him daily, not only to be saved by the gospel but to live and grow by the gospel. That’s what gospel-centered means,” Holloway said.
One way this is done at SWO is by creating an opportunity for personal relationship to trickle down from year-round staff to summer staff to students, which starts with ensuring its 40 year-round staff and 100 summer staffers are well trained and knowledgeable in biblical doctrine.
“Our staff spends the course of an entire semester in training for summer work, which culminates in 17 days of training at our facility,” Holloway explained. “So there’s discipling, training and investing in our staff after a strenuous selection process and then a continued investment in our staff throughout the summer.”
Holloway said that is important because investment in staff spills over into students, and it must be held together by a love for the gospel.
And SWO also strives to develop ongoing partnerships with churches so camp isn’t a one-time experience, but it becomes a “go-to” for student pastors throughout the year through Disciple Now weekends, purity weekends, guy/girl conferences, summer camp and leadership conferences.
But it’s the opportunity to participate in more than two dozen recreation options that often draws students to SWO. This creates a multitude of shared experiences through which relationships are built and a door to share the gospel is opened, Holloway said.
From whitewater rafting, zip lines and wakeboarding to mountain biking, snowboarding, paintball and a water slide, “it’s a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences packed into one weekend or weeklong event,” Holloway said. “Shared experiences get walls down quickly with students.”
Those established relationships then revolve around expositional teaching in worship services, breakout sessions and small group meetings.
In 2011, Barna Group, a research organization focused on faith and culture, reported a leading reason for “young Christians” leaving the church was that their Christian experience was “shallow.” Respondents’ reasons included: “Church is boring;” “Faith is not relevant to my career or interests;” “The Bible is not taught clearly or often enough;” and “God seems missing from my experience of church.”
These are the very things that drive the ministry at SWO, Holloway said.
“Students need to be challenged and pushed to do hard things, to do something other than be a consumer when it comes to Christianity. Camp gives us a platform to look a kid in the face and say, ‘What are you going to do with the gospel?’ Bible-belt Christianity is mild Christianity. Camp gives us the opportunity to challenge students — to call them to do something with what they’ve been given through the gospel.”
Now, 16 years into the actualized vision of SWO, Holloway said his passion for camp ministry is the same.
“I’m passionate about our system because we’ve seen the long-term effects of it,” he said. “We’ve seen 30 of our former students who have become staff go to serve with the International Mission Board as journeymen. But we have also seen at least double that many people come through as students and then as staff who are serving in church ministry, many of them as student pastors and student pastors’ wives. In a word, it works.”
But this is only the beginning, he added. “Camp is a unique platform that had been left in a static state for a few decades — not utilized in the way it should be. Not that we have in any way ‘arrived,’ but we feel like the Lord has moved us into a position where He’s shown us the fruit. The greatest days of student ministry and camp ministry partnership are ahead of us. We have a great vision for the future.”