Camp Ministry – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I just got back from a week of Christian summer camp. Here are some thoughts in the light of who Jesus is as the union of humanity and the Trinity:

The Good: Camp Higher Ground, where I took eight kids from my church and served on staff, is definitely a camp that is focused on telling kids the good news of who they are in Jesus: children of the Father baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Camp is also a lot of fun – especially for those who love camp ministry. I often find when I talk to people who love camp ministry – the ones who come back to serve year after year – that they talk about the impact it has on kids’ lives. But when I watch them doing camp ministry I can see that they are having a blast. Camp ministry folks enjoy chapel, swimming, and crafts as much (or more!) than the campers do.

Sometimes I wish we could be more honest with ourselves about the fun of ministry. Yes, we serve others in the gospel because it helps them but we also do it because that it is what we want to do. Our Daddy in heaven is okay with that. He has given us the freedom in Jesus to choose the ministries we like and to do them because we enjoy them. Take this blog for instance. I hope what I write here helps others, but even if it doesn’t I would still do it because I enjoy it! I think camp ministry people would have camp even if no kids showed up – and that’s good.

The Bad: Camp is only a few days in the lives of the kids who participate.

As much as we focus on telling them the truth of who they are in Jesus, and as much fun as it is, it still takes incarnational ministry to really change lives and help people grow up in Jesus. By incarnational ministry I mean living in relationship with people day in and day out, week in and week out, for years – the way the Son of God lives forever with humanity through his incarnation as the human being Jesus Christ.

This is why the Church is infinitely more valuable and important than camp ministry – or any other event ministry. Camp ministry is the icing on the cake, but if there’s no cake then all you have is icing – which isn’t very substantive. If I really care about helping kids grow up to trust Jesus then I have to live in relationship with them, in the name and power of the Trinity, day in and day out for years.

The Church is also far more efficient than camp ministry. My congregation of 50 people spent $3,000 in tuition and transportation costs to get me and eight kids to camp. I personally drove 1100 miles and spent a week away from family, church, and my community. In contrast, the Monday night kids’ group that we do with these same eight kids costs us about $700 a year. I drive 1 mile from my house to the church building every Monday night.

And which of these two has the greater impact on the kids’ lives? It’s the time they spend together every Monday night, praying, reading the Bible, and playing with each other and the adults who are committed to them for the long term.

Sometimes I wish that more of the creativity, money, time, and energy of Christians was spent trying to strengthen Churches and not so much on trying to create intense spiritual experiences at once-a-year events like camp.

The Ugly: Anyway you slice it, camp ministry is never a neat, simple experience (but then again, no ministry is ever neat and simple.)

Maybe “ugly” is too strong a word, but I don’t think “messy” is too strong a word. People are complicated and life is not lived in black and white, it’s lived in color, with all the shades and colors of human experience overlapping, clashing, and (sometimes) harmonizing.

That’s another thing I like about Higher Ground. Most of the people who minister there aren’t trying to force people into boxes and categories and they’re not trying to wrap the week up in a package at the end with a nice little bow on top. Camp ministry helps us see that Jesus has included humanity in the life he shares with the Father and the Spirit and that is never going to change. As messy and difficult as life can get we know that we have all eternity – not just a week, a year, or a lifespan – to keep being baptized in the assurance of who we are in Jesus and to keep healing from the broken results of our fallenness.

~ Jonathan Stepp

3 comments so far

  1. Jerome on

    Amen to your observations! I kind of feel the same about our once-a-year VBS here…lots of work and money spent for a 4 day event. Whew! But…

    Maybe we can think of these intense times, out of our normal routine, as being like the few disciples that got to go up on the mountain with Jesus and experience the Transfiguration (talk about “Higher Ground!”). Then they came down and trudged around with Jesus in the lowlands again… But what they experienced up top had to effect them in their every day ministry – then, and later, after the ascenscion. We just got back from the Church conference in Dallas, and it was wonderful, jam-packed with the Gospel – WOW! Hopefully, that mountain-top experience will color our Wednesday night Bible study, with the meal prep, meal serving, time with brethren and the sometimes exasperating kids that come every week… Hey, got an email from Jeff McSwain – he enjoyed the hanging out and the inspiration! Aren’t relationships are great?! Blessings on your week.

  2. Ted Johnston on

    Hi Jonathan and Jerome. I appreciate both of your insights and I concur with both.

    Ministry on the “mountaintop” can never be a substitute for ministry in the “valley.” Just as it has been said that “all politics is local,” the same can be said about ministry. It’s fundamentally about our sharing in Jesus’ relating in the Spirit with people over a legthy time in day-to-day life. This is the essence of relational disciplemaking-it’s about shared life.

    Why then mountaintop events? I see their value as starting and deepening relationships that can then continue and deepen in the valley. The mountaintop is a place to receive vision and renewal to fortify life in the valley. If moutaintop ministries never connect with ongoing life in the valley, then they should be re-evaluated and re-tooled, or perhaps scrapped.


  3. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks for the comments! I like the comparison to the mount of transfiguration, and one of the parts that’s interesting about that story is when Peter says “let’s build a shelter for everyone.” It’s as though he’s saying “let’s all settle down here on the mountain-top and not go back to the ‘boring’ real world.” I think it’s that impulse that we all want to see us avoid when it comes to event ministry.

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