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  • Writer's picturePZ

Summer Camp and the Local Church

Updated: Apr 24

NOTE (April 24, 2024): The link in today's #WakondaWednesday is supposed to direct to THIS ARTICLE, not the one below, which is from last week. Either way, both are worth the read :)

It is said that Camp Wakonda is "a place set apart." If you've been a part of Seventh-day Adventism in Wisconsin for more than a few days, you may know that the word "Wakonda" is a Lakota-Sioux term, which means "set apart." In Wisconsin, Camp Wakonda is known as a wonderful place where wonderful things happen. It truly is a place set apart for special ministries, both in the summer and year round. Camp Meeting, Summer Camp, Club Ministries events, Public Campus Ministries retreats, and various other week- and weekend-long shindigs take place there, and are a blessing to those who attend.

I grew up attending and working at Summer Camp. I attended an overnight YMCA camp in Indiana called Camp Tecumseh. Though it's a little less evangelistic than some of our Adventist summer camps, I still learned some important lessons about God and relating to others. Years later, I worked at Timber Ridge Camp, the Adventist camp in Indiana, and that is where I came of age. I learned about leadership and responsibility, I learned that I wanted to be an Adventist (not just because it was the right thing to do, but because I truly wanted it) and felt the call to be a pastor. I played various roles such as maintenance, counselor, guitar teacher, praise leader, actor, and kitchen worker.

Eventually, after five summers at Timber Ridge Camp, I found myself at Camp Wakonda as the Boys Director. This was Greg Taylor's first year as director--he had been my Youth Pastor in Indiana prior, and invited me over to help. By then, I was 23, I had a lot of experience with summer camps, and I was happy to assist in his and Kim's transitional summer. By then, I had developed a burden for camp staff, because I had seen so many of them "fall away" from the church, even after having such an awesome and spiritual experience at camp.

To be clear: empirical studies show that individuals who attend and work at Christian summer camps are likely to stay in the church at much higher percents. I talk about this all the time, because it is true and I love camp for it. It worked that way for me, and it worked that way for many others I know. As I write this, I'm taking a doctorate class where the classmate who sits next to me is a fellow pastor in Wisconsin and we worked at the same camp in Indiana together (at different times). Another student in our same class is a pastor in Georgia, and he himself worked at Camp Wakonda. The person who sits on the other side of me has been a pastor in Wisconsin and has preached many times at Camp Wakonda--his son even worked at the camp. But that is not to say that all stay in the church.

And that is what brings me to my point--and this has been my advice to camp staff since my time as Boys Director at Camp Wakonda, back in 2011: "don't let camp stop when camp is over."

What does this mean? You can't just go to the "place set apart" and then leave the "place set apart," and leave it at that, expecting there to be lasting results. If camp is just a place, then it is temporal and temporary. For camp to do what camp is supposed to do, it needs to be more than just a place. It needs to be a catalyst for something greater in your life.

You've probably heard the story: when I worked at Timber Ridge Camp my first summer, I was actively running away from God. I just loved camp so much that when Pastor Charlie invited me to work there, how could I say "no"? So I went, determined to be agnostic and broody, and listen to my heavy metal music in my headphones, and not make any friends with any weird Adventist kids. At the end of the summer, I had re-dedicated my life to God, I was singing along with the camp-y Christian songs, and I had a whole new community of close friends. I didn't want it to end. But it did end--it had to. I'm not saying that I didn't have any issues that year, as the result of going to camp, but in the midst of all the craziness of a senior year of high school, I heard God's voice clearly: He was calling me to be a pastor.

Here I am, nearly 20 years later. Summer Camp did that. And that's why I am so passionate about Summer Camp now. But it's not a magic potion. You can't apply it once a year and expect it to change your life. At the same time that I was dedicating my life to ministry, working toward degrees and jobs that would help me preach the gospel, I had friends who were falling into bad habits, falling into depression, falling into bad habits. Why did Summer Camp have the transforming effect on me, but not on them?

It's hard to say with complete accuracy. Again, Summer Camp isn't the only factor at place. I don't know what happened in their lives, within or without Summer Camp that contributed to their falling away from the church. But I know the key factor for me was this: Summer Camp persisted, long after Summer Camp was over.

I continued to connect with the friends I made at camp. I let the messages at camp change me, beyond the summer. I started to pursue the thought that I could still play praise songs, and still act in bible plays, and still get into holy shenanigans with friends, and still tell kids about Jesus...long after the summer was over. That was a vision that compelled my life, far beyond the event that is Summer Camp.

The TL;DR version is this: Summer Camp is ministry. And ministry can happen any time, anywhere, and I believe God calls everyone to do ministry. I even believe that about you, reading this article.

This is why I wanted to apply the name "Wakonda" to our entire Youth Department. Again, Wakonda means "set apart." And while I am all about the "place set apart" at Camp Wakonda, I also desperately need kids to latch onto the message that they are set apart for a special purpose and that God has a plan for their life that extends far beyond the physical boundaries of the camp.

Where does the local church factor in? I have the personal belief that the local church is the most important part of ministry. How can that be, after an entire article about Camp Wakonda? The local church is where ministry happens the other 51 weeks out of the year (or the other 44 weeks, for camp staff). Summer Camp cannot have the impact that we want it to have, unless it has an intentional connection and a relationship of mutual support with the local churches in our conference.

Even before Summer Camp, even as I was running away from God in my head, I was involved in my local church. I was a TLT in Pathfinders, I was a junior deacon, I helped set up and take down potluck every weekend. I wrote last week about how I had been included on the pastoral search committee and was given the opportunity to help choose the next youth pastor (indeed, my input determined the decision). I played guitar on the praise team with that youth pastor. I sang in the church's choir. I served the homeless in downtown Indianapolis with our youth group. I attended, and later helped teach the local youth Sabbath School. I was involved in the conference Youth Rally that took place at my local church, by helping with various components of making sure it was successful.

Summer Camp was a catalyst for me, yes. But it can't be Summer Camp only. The local church is who will be there for young people after their catalytic event, to guide and disciple them--whether campers or staff (maybe even every summer). Which is why I want Summer Camp to be as connected to the local church as possible. Because Summer Camp can be its best when it is an extension of the local church. To the point that, although it's not the case 100% of the time, I trend toward hiring our local youth and young adults to work at our camp. Because their churches are the ones I'm forging relationships with, their pastors are people who I know and communicate with, their Pathfinder clubs will come back through the camp in the fall and winter for various events, they often are connected with Wisconsin Academy (where I am involved in various programs), and even if they go to public college, we have a ministry network for that. Discipleship continues, intentionally, when our camp is local and it is connected with local churches and their ministries.

Last year, we baptized 19 individuals (campers and staff) at Summer Camp, and dozens more made decisions to be baptized at a later date. We weren't prepared for this. After a couple of years directing the Summer Camp, we wanted to be intentional about creating a more spiritual atmosphere, and one where we were creating a more local atmosphere where campers will meet other kids their age all around churches in Wisconsin. We prayed extensively over the changes we were making. Not everyone was sure they would work. But praise God, we saw the immense fruit of kids choosing Christ.

Since we weren't prepared for the huge response each week, some of the ways we communicated with our local churches were subpar. I've talked with several local pastors about how they were excited for the decisions, but felt rushed or surprised to minister effectively in response to the rapid information we were giving them. We also felt a bit rushed and surprised. So we are making efforts to be better prepared for communicating and ministering alongside our local churches and pastors. Because for these campers and staff, we're so proud of the decisions they have made. But we also want to make sure there is a smooth transition back to the rest of their year in their local church context. Ultimately, we want to see these decisions continue, but we also want the way they happen to be a blessing continually, and not just at camp. Baptism isn't just a photo op to make the camp look awesome. Baptism is someone's life decision, and the beginning of a lifelong journey that Summer Camp largely doesn't touch: that's why the local church is so important.

Local churches: we pray that you will consider sending your young people to Camp Wakonda for Summer Camp this and every summer. We believe it is an impactful ministry that can help keep kids (indeed studies show it does in many cases) in your church for the long term. Send us your teens and young adults as our staff, because working at Summer Camp is a leadership opportunity that can literally change lives--and often it leads to a lifelong love of ministry, in and around local churches. Even if you don't have young people to send as campers or staff, consider supporting in other ways like volunteering for camp cleanup and construction projects, or giving toward our Worthy Camper Fund, which helps us to get campers who can't afford Summer Camp to the Summer Camp.

Finally, along my journey I was a pastor in local churches for nine years. I get the struggles of local churches and their pastors. I understand how the conference can sometimes seem disconnected, distant, and disinterested from local church concerns. I want to transform our Wisconsin Conference youth ministries like Summer Camp into something that is involved, intimate, and interested with local churches. That can only happen with your help. I covet feedback from, connection to, and partnership with our local Wisconsin churches. So please reach out. Please let us know how we can do better. Please ask about our initiatives and vision for youth ministry and wrestle with us over some of the ways they are manifesting. The truth is, Summer Camp typically isn't all that involved in local church life. Making this change, realizing this vision, will be a process and the way it works is if we are in communication with members and pastors from our churches.

If you made it this far in the article: thank you for reading. I care a lot for our young people and the journeys they are on. Together, we can keep a generation of young people in the church (the local church), help them to learn about the calling that God has set them apart for, and equip them with tools for a lifetime of leadership for Christ.

[image: Drew Weaver, pastor of the Marshfield district, baptizing one of the young people from his church on the final day of Teen Camp at Camp Wakonda]

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