Summer camp. The words conjure up many memories – some pleasant, and some not so pleasant. My first experience at camp seemed a dismal failure – a homesick eight-year old, perpetually nervous about rooming with a bunch of strange guys, overdoing it at the snack bar, and fearful about the greatest adventure feature of the camp – horseback riding. I happened to attend the week that a counselor broke his leg when riding a horse that slipped and fell. I was the fortunate one in our cabin selected to ride the same horse, intriguingly named “Ahab.” I sat tentatively in the saddle every day, ready to bolt (mid-air?) at the first hint of a slip. Dismounting at the end was no problem for me. I’d practiced it my mind scores of times.

The pleasant memory from that week lingers with me, too. The camp had a thing for learning Bible verses and shouting them together as a cabin.   For an eight-year old, the shouting was actually fun, and somehow the group exercise burnt a handful of potent verses into my young mind that 40 years has not erased.

Camps are a wonderful ministry tool. Good camps harness adventure, excitement, competition, and camaraderie to the engine of Bible ministry through preaching, counselors, and much needed time away from many of the normal distractions, entertainments, and influences that tend to keep us so preoccupied. The mix of the recipe seems to produce an ideal environment for the Lord to work in hearts.

After enjoying life-changing weeks of camp in my youth, now I get the privilege of sending my own children to camp – music camps, leadership camps, camps with just our church, and camps mixed with hosts of churches. I ask myself every summer, “How can I help them maximize this opportunity?”

Start Beforehand

My experience may not be the norm, but I’ve found that for my family, getting the most out of a spiritually-oriented week of camp starts early—well before the week of camp begins, and it means inserting myself into the mix of my teen’s excited anticipation. It requires a bit of communication and some coaching. Knowing they’ll be in a new environment, I want to prepare them for it. Knowing they’ll be in a spiritually intense environment, I want them to be ready to grow. The preparation is informal, but I’ve found I have to be deliberate and specific about it.

One of my priorities is to inquire kindly into the state of my teen’s heart. Camp is not the only catalyst for such conversations, but it is a good one. “How are you doing?” “Are you ready to profit from what you’ll hear ministered from the Word?” “What do you hope to get out of camp?” “Is there a particular need you already are sensing the Lord is at work on in you?” “Do you have any goals for camp?” Asking these kinds of questions, helps me guide him past the other exciting elements of camp to the spiritual emphasis awaiting him there. If God will give it, I want him to attend camp spiritually hungry and eager to harness what he’ll receive.

Along the way, it’s helpful to talk about the more overtly fun aspects of camp and prepare for those as well – enjoying the competition without being too competitive (like his dad!), preparing to let the games and other camp activities fulfill the purposes for which the leaders designed them instead of serving my own personal agenda, and so on. So much profit comes from camp when I can give myself to the purposes foremost in my leaders’ minds.

Nonetheless, I want my teens to have a ministry agenda while they are there. Somewhere in the conversation, we normally rehearse the need to be ready to use personal influence in a helpful, sharpening way. My teen is going to mix with a host of others, and he not only needs to be prepared to be sharpened by those around him, he needs to be ready to be an edifying, encouraging influence others. The causal things he says, the conversations to which he listens, the free-time choices, the meal-time conduct, etc. are all providentially provided opportunities to look for ways to please the Lord.

In addition, we talk about trying in appropriate ways to be a blessing to the counselor. Expressing gratitude, responding to their ministry, sometimes (if we remember in time) taking a small gift to leave with the counselor at the end of the week. Counselors may be in the middle of a busy summer, coming off a difficult week of counseling, or working through spiritual lessons themselves, and it can minister great encouragement to have a camper tell them God has used them in tangible ways.

Such conversations remind us of the need to be in prayer that God will use the week of camp and all those who minister in a formative way, to strengthen faith, to deepen spiritual resolve, to be a forum in which God can humble his children under His mighty hand. We can pray for those with whom they share cabins, for those who will minister to them, for those unexpected encounters the Lord might bring across their paths.

We’ve learned that not everything that happens at camp is spiritually helpful. Sometimes my kids may do something unwise; sometimes they are exposed to temptations from others, or are enticed to form friendships that would not be spiritually healthy, or to learn more from their peers than from their counselors. In appropriate, careful ways we think together how to turn moments of potential temptation into opportunities to make right choices.

The Home Stretch

After the grand reunion, a period of debriefing typically follows. If your kids are like mine, this usually occurs over days, not minutes or hours. Typically it begins with a flood of stories; if you have more than one young person who attended camp the same week, prepare for a tsunami! It’s a great time to listen. A lot of genuine, clean fun. A lot of spiritual food not yet fully digested. Lots of great memories and even early plans for “next time.” Some of the most helpful information, however, does not come in the initial burst of stories. Comments or stories eke out in the ensuing days and weeks that give a window into some of the most abiding moments of camp, and often provide opportunity to answer questions or do some further coaching.

Parents are typically eager to hear if the Lord worked powerfully in their hearts or in a more quiet way moved their spiritual understanding forward. It’s a humbling thing when He favors them with gracious ministry. And it’s a blessing when He gives us as parents further opportunity to nurture the truth sown into their hearts and come alongside of our young people as they remember the things they have learned and are growing to be assured of.