I thought I was going to Lake Louise Christian Community and United Methodist Camp to preach as part of their 75th anniversary. Instead, God had other plans. I still preached a week ago, but I am convinced that God really wanted me up atLake Louise to see lives being transformed before my very eyes.
Gary and I arrived in time for dinner on Friday evening, only to discover that the senior high camp that week consisted predominantly of Grand Rapids District youth and counselors. Lowell and Grand Haven Church of the Dunes are the current powerhouses for camping on the district. Lowell had 15 and Grand Haven had 9 of the 70 campers. In addition, one of the camp deans, the music director and 3 counselors came from Lowell UMC while Church of the Dunes had one counselor and the camp nurse.
I am very aware of the positive impact that Lake Louisesenior high camp has had on Gary as well as all 3 of our children. What I was not prepared for, however, was the sweet, sweet spirit I experienced on Friday night at the traditional variety show, fire bowl, and senior speeches. The youth were incredibly well-behaved, polite and attentive. The love, care and support they showed to each other was also evident.
For today’s teenagers, who are trying to find their way in an uncertain world and often face serious challenges at home and in school, Lake Louiseis a safe place. It is a refuge where youth are free to share the pain of their lives and receive grace and hope. During the variety show, every single youth was applauded, no matter how polished their “act.” When I asked a counselor, “Are the kids always this accepting?” she answered, “Always. Always.”
In the evening, the youth went on a prayer walk and stopped at 8 different stations, with counselors sharing a favorite Bible verse and speaking encouraging words to the youth. We ended up at the fire bowl, where 9 seniors gave their testimony (other seniors spoke the night before). As the seniors poured their hearts out, sharing both the hurt and the joy in their lives, there were not many dry eyes.
One young woman never smiled the first year she came to Lake Louiseand was always off by herself, clearly carrying heavy burdens. Because the counselors stayed in touch with her, she returned the next year and the year after that. This year, this young woman was able to testify to her fellow campers how Jesus … and Lake Louisehad transformed her life. She said, “This place is heaven on earth. I learned that opening up is the best way. Everyone has treated me so well. The friends you make here are your real friends. They will stick with you.”
The best kept secret in the West Michigan Conference is that Christian camping is a critical component in the spiritual development of our youth. Church camp is really a concentrated and heavy duty dose of Christianity, which youth don’t often get in our local churches. Because youth are away from their normal routine and spend a week in a totally Christian environment, they are more receptive and open to encountering God. Church camp friends also often become lifetime and lifeline friends.
The reality, however, is that Christian camping has been on a slow decline in our country for the past 30 years in favor of specialty camps that advertise baseball, soccer, football, horseback riding, music, and boating. Most of our United Methodist camps in West Michiganare not gimmicky and rely almost totally on volunteers. They revolve around creating Christian community and encouraging decisions to become disciples of Jesus Christ rather than learning how to better kick a soccer ball. Christian camping not only complements the teaching that our children and youth receive in their homes and local churches, it is also an evangelistic tool for unchurched youth who come with their Christian friends and don’t know anything about Jesus.
If our local churches want to retain their own youth and also reach out to youth outside the church, they must recognize how powerful camping is in the lives of our young people and invest in our camping program. What can we do to “rethink church camp” and more effectively support all of our United Methodist camps in the West Michigan Conference?
- Personally encourage each youth in your church to attend a United Methodist camp and take a friend along. While there is a growing trend to sponsor youth mission trips in the summer, conference camping provides a different and complementary spiritual experience for youth.
- Have your Lay Leadership Committee find a camp coordinator to promote our camps.
- Plan a winter and/or summer all-church camp weekend so that more church members can experience the sacred beauty of our UM camps.
- Commit to having the church pay a portion of each camper’s fee by putting it in the church budget, scheduling a Camp Sunday offering or sponsoring a fundraiser. That financial help is a godsend to families in the church.
- Follow up with campers when they return home by asking them to give a testimony of their camp experience in worship and providing a safe, enriching environment where they can continue to grow in their faith.
- Put the names of all campers in the bulletin or newsletter and ask the congregation to pray for the Holy Spirit to be let loose in their lives.
- Encourage your pastor and lay persons to be counselors. I was so impressed atLake Louiseby the commitment and dedication of the counselors, many of whom had to take a week’s vacation from work to be there.
- Consider making a donation to one or more of our United Methodist camps to help with building and maintenance, which is a common concern.
- Some of our UM camps offer space to clergy for times of renewal and rest. Why not spend a few days in prayer and study at one of our camps?
My heart was most deeply touched at Lake Louise during the talent show. James and Parker played “Amazing Grace” on electric guitar and cello respectively. They didn’t play at the same time, nor did they each play the hymn through individually, nor did they play notes on a page. No, it was call and response, point and counterpoint, one improvisation answering another. It was also a metaphor for the church today, how new and ancient, contemporary and classical, young and old can make music together to praise God, respond creatively to the call of Jesus, and express amazing grace.
Then Cody began to sing a song he composed, accompanying himself on the guitar. I was mesmerized by Cody’s intensity and passion, as he expressed the deepest longings of his heart by using the gifts God has given him. “I’m just a no good humble servant,” he sang over and over as a refrain. I wondered, “How could a teenage boy even come up with a phrase as profound as that?”
Friends, James, Parker and Cody are not only the future of our church, they are the present church as well. That means we are in very good hands. Yet our own call remains: to nurture the tender faith of our youth as we model the servant leadership of Jesus Christ.
From one “no good humble servant” to another,