Talk to parents who grew up in church and it isn’t long before they tell you a story involving a camp. Where crazy, whimsy and adventure happened… You see their eyes begin to crinkle and the sound of a giggle emerging as they remember…
Camps where kids get to have their world shaken!
They are spaces were we get to engage with life and love in ways that every day life doesn’t offer.
This year we mixed up our camp strategy. Kids have changed.
Up until this year we had placed value on the big. Big worship, big numbers, big games. Trying to create that ‘Wow’ experience. We realised that this wasn’t going to work with our changing demographics.
Suddenly we went from larger numbers of Christian school kids to public school kids who have never heard the word ‘Jesus’ outside the context of hitting your thumb with a hammer or in a fight. We had grade 6 & 7’s suddenly entering Friday nights in droves with families turning up with carloads of kids, whereas our grade 9+ moved out into work and college. We had kids who had never opened a Bible and you certainly couldn’t use the Christian jargon, “Read this scripture…” If we rolled out what we had always rolled out at camps these kids would have just run.
The playing field had to change.
Instead of offering just one big camp we began to offer more smaller camps taking into account age differences. The conversation changed from, “How can we create the best camp experience,” to “How can I best meet with you, see you and love you.” We moved from perfect to present. From experience to belonging. We knew the kids needed space, community, vulnerability and authenticity.
We squished into a beach house and we spent the time being with each other. Playing soccer, beach cricket, making piles of toast, watching movies, chatting and talking about God, love and life. We sat with kids as they touched a Bible for the first time. We showed them how to open it and where to start reading the adventures of Jesus. Imagine our delight when we found that they had gone home eager to show their parents and siblings how to read the adventures of Jesus.
At our last camp life at the table was squishy. We could have chosen to eat in a big spacious room but instead we chose close and personal. All squished into a tiny kitchen where people had to figure out how to get the vegemite from one end of the table to the other, and squishy and noisy are all part of family. Saying grace gathered around the table is a holy moment, a part of being part of God’s great big family.
Parents began to whisper the changes they were seeing in their kids. A young girl finding space to breathe when everything in her world was collapsing around her. Another went home and shared with her mum the messages we gave and then how to find stories about love in the Bible. Another mum was so grateful that we simply loved her son and made a strong connection with him. He’s since started coming to youth group…he feels like he belongs. There is something powerful when we love beyond our own kind. We find it easy to keep connection with people like us but there is something powerful when we build connection with people who aren’t like us. This mum was so impacted that we connected, accepted and loved her boy despite the fact they weren’t church goers.
Every child that comes has a story. We get to be part of that unfolding story. Sometimes we hear the impact of camp through story at youth group, small group or school. But for many kids we will never know this side of eternity how camp impacted them. How sitting at the table doing life and love together shaped and formed them. How touching the Bible and having a first God conversation affected their heart and soul.
Small doesn’t mean bad…so often we get caught up in numbers. More numbers means our reach is bigger but often our engagement is smaller. Engagement is where belonging, connection and love begin. Jesus selected 12 and engaged with them. He went out after the one seeking engagement. Yes he spoke to large crowds and there is a place and space for that but we also need to create spaces that move beyond reach and get down to engagement. Engagement, being present is a way of doing life and love.
I have been on this journey of being okay with small, that engagement is as important as reach. It can be hard to connect with the one in a crowd.
I’m finding that God is using us even though the playing field is different and the players look different to the players of my history of youth group and camps.
I love that God is God not matter the structure. He is still wanting to love, to connect, to redeem, to change us. I’m still on a learning curve and don’t have all the answers. I don’t have a secret recipe for camp success. But sometimes I think we just have to be open to loving God’s different and being open to different ways of accepting, welcoming, loving and discipling.