The Abiding Value of Summer Camps
In a few weeks time, a group of youngsters from this church, loaded up with rucksacks, sleeping-bags and Bibles will be heading off to camp. It’s thirty-four years since I first set off from home carrying more-or-less the same equipment. My first Christian camp was at Pendine on the South Wales coast. It was run by an eccentric school-teacher with a passion for evangelism. That camp changed my life. I was already a believer, but I had had little opportunity to mix with other Christian teenagers. I had never been thrown into the evangelistic deep end before. Yet here I was sharing the gospel with godless lads from morning to night, standing up to give my testimony in evening meetings, joining other team members for early morning prayer-meetings. As the week went by, the atmosphere became electric. We prayed that youngsters would be saved, we expected it to happen, and we saw our prayers answered. By the end of the week a number of lads and girls had professed faith in the Saviour. I can remember going to bed joyful after giving away my spare Bible to a twelve-year old lad who said that he had come to Christ.
When I returned home, something of the impact of that camp stayed with me. I had discovered that evangelism was exciting and I wanted to carry on preaching the gospel. I had witnessed the power of prayer and I wanted to pray, on my own and with others. I went back to school in September and my school-mates saw the difference. I started attending the nearly defunct school Christian Union. With one or two other enthusiasts I started a lunchtime prayer meeting and an after school Bible-study. Then I started two more prayer meetings before school. And I was determined to lead my class-mates to Christ. And indeed some of them did come to the Saviour and are serving him today. All that sprang from my time away at camp. I wonder if I would be a preacher of the gospel today apart from what I learned then.
Going away on camp has changed many lives. Anne’s story would be very similar to mine. She was fourteen when she heard the message of the cross preached at camp with a power and sweetness that she had never known before. Like me she was already a believer, but from that day there was a new determination to serve and please the one who had died for her.
Many believers can look back and say, ‘It was at camp that I learned to live for Christ. It was at camp that I became sure that my life’s work was to preach the gospel. It was at camp that I found the friends who encouraged me and have been my example ever since’. Some would add, ‘It was at camp that I found my life partner – my husband, or wife’. Untold blessings have come to young Christians away at camp.
But more than that, so often, it’s at camp that children and young people have found the greatest blessing of all. Many Christians look back and remember that it was at camp that they first found the Saviour.
Some of them came from Christian homes. Yet it was at camp that their hearts were opened and they were drawn to Christ. Perhaps they knew and approved of the gospel in their heads, but it had never reached their hearts. And then at camp, as the gospel was preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, they found themselves cut to the heart, weeping over their sins, longing to be saved, crying to Christ. Others went to camp determined to resist the gospel. Perhaps they had been hardening themselves for years. But there, at camp, they found the hardness melting. And they could resist the Saviour no longer.
And it’s not only youngsters from Christian homes. Many from godless homes have also been saved through the work of the camps. A Christian teenager brings his unconverted friend; a school-teacher takes a group of unconverted pupils. They come for all sorts of reasons – because of the variety of activities on offer; because the cost is low; because they respect the friend who invited them. Some come curious to find out what this Christianity is all about; some come determined to stop up their ears; some come thinking they are already Christians . . . Whatever their state of mind, God has broken in and saved them.
Why are so many youngsters saved while they’re away on camp? A girl from a Christian home listens to gospel preaching each week, unmoved and indifferent. She goes away to camp and there she’s converted. Why does that happen so often?
We can explain it in many ways. We can point to natural factors. Firstly, there’s the physical setting. For youngsters who have grown up in the city, a week out in the countryside can be an awesome experience. For a little while the campers have stepped away from their familiar world – the world of school, the world of the TV, the internet, the off-licence. They’ve stepped into an unfamiliar world where everything seems different. Things that seem so important back home may seem trivial here in the shadow of the mountains. A youngster steps out of his tent, looks up at the stars, and sees what he’s never seen before – the vastness of the universe and his own insignificance. Here in this unfamiliar setting a young man or woman may be open to ideas that at home would never be considered.
Secondly, there’s the social setting. A youngster away at camp is surrounded for a week by people talking constantly about spiritual things. Perhaps at home (s)he’s conscious that if she ever shows interest in ‘religion’ she’ll be mocked. But here she’s in an atmosphere where people talk without embarrassment or inhibition. The same ‘peer pressure’ that holds her back when she’s among friends at school can now push her forward. Other people here on camp are excited about the Bible, God, the gospel. Why should she be the one left out?
And thirdly there’s the emotional setting. Put fifty or a hundred adolescent teenagers together for a week and you are likely to have a very heady and emotional mix. Guitars strummed round a camp-fire, outdoor activities that set adrenalin flowing, instant friendships made and secrets whispered in the tents – all this makes for a very emotional atmosphere. For many youngsters, camp will be the most exciting and enjoyable time they have ever known. Perhaps in the past, they’ve thought of Christianity as dull, dreary, negative. But now they discover that a week organised and led by Christians can be full of fun and excitement. Their old prejudices against Christianity are dissolved – they’re ready to plunge into something which seems to offer so much happiness.
These are all completely natural factors. If Mormons or Moonies organised a young people’s camp, the same natural factors would come into play. But does that mean that conversions at camp are a natural thing and therefore false? Not a bit of it. The fact is that God often makes use of natural factors to prepare the way for his own supernatural work. God puts his elect in situations where they will be inclined to think about spiritual things. He brings us into contact with people who befriend us and make the gospel seem attractive. He allows us to see how many happinesses his people can enjoy even in this world. So it isn’t surprising that God brings many of his elect to camps where he will make use of these natural factors.
But these natural factors alone will never save anyone. All these factors may be used to make someone willing to listen to the gospel. But then the Holy Spirit must do his own supernatural work. He must apply the Word. He must show these lads and girls that they are guilty, lost, wicked; that they deserve God’s judgement and wrath; that God would be justified in casting them into hell. He must make them feel their need of a Saviour. And he must open their eyes to the Lord Jesus Christ so that they are drawn to him, ready to cast themselves on him entirely. He must bring the dead sinner to life.
How much wisdom camp leaders need to discern what is natural and what is supernatural in the experience of the youngsters in their care! A lad comes to his tent-leader, in tears, saying that he wants to be different, he wants to be forgiven, he wants to become a Christian. How can the leader be sure that this is real spiritual conviction, and not just the natural effects of the camp atmosphere? A wise leader will be very cautious before pronouncing that this lad has truly been awakened. Many campers have had such intense feelings while they’ve been at camp, but a fortnight later show no sign of life. That is why I will never say ‘So and so has been converted at camp’. By all means let’s say, ‘so and so seemed very moved’ or ‘so and so has made a profession of faith’, but let’s wait before we assume that so and so has truly repented and believed. In fact let’s wait till the day when he or she has been baptised. In the New Testament churches, no-one was viewed as a Christian until their faith had been made visible in baptism.
This year, ten young people linked to this church will be away at camp. They’re signed up for the Christian Camps in Wales camp under canvas at Dolgoch, Tywyn from August 23rd to 30th. Pray for them individually and as a group. Pray that each of them will be guarded from the emotional and spiritual dangers of a week in the heady atmosphere of camp. And pray that this year’s camp will be a truly life-changing experience for each of them. Believers from churches all across the UK will be praying for the camp. Let’s join them in praying that the camps will play a part in raising up a generation of young men and women full of love for Jesus Christ and zeal for his kingdom.
And who knows, maybe one of these days, we’ll sit down and start planning our own church camp – for young people aged 0 to 90.
This article appeared, summer 2008, in the bulletin of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport, of which Stephen Rees is Pastor.
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