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Church youth camps: blessings, insights and tips

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“I go to St Bart’s, Toowoomba CHARGE Youth camp each year to connect with others my age and leaders in a friendly environment where I feel like I belong. This year I was excited to go to CHARGE Youth camp on hearing the theme was ‘Belong’. I knew right away that this was going to be the camp that would speak to me,” says Noah Gunders, with Youth Minister Peter Dutton providing valuable camp facilitation tips for parishes

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Noah Gunders – CHARGE Youth member, St Bart’s, Toowoomba

I go to St Bart’s, Toowoomba CHARGE Youth camp each year to connect with others my age and leaders in a friendly environment where I feel like I belong. This year I was excited to go to CHARGE Youth camp on hearing the theme was “Belong”. I knew right away that this was going to be the camp that would speak to me.

I have so many great memories from camp. But I’ll probably talk about the campfire on our final night at camp, just after hearing a testimony from a fellow youth. No one could see in the dark, but I began to cry. I had been scared at the start of camp because of stuff going on in life and I was struggling to feel like I belonged. But it was good to cry. A youth leader asked me if I was alright and I said I was ok, but then choked up. I told him I felt like I truly belonged at church and at camp. He then prayed for me, and it was very powerful – the most meaningful prayer I’d ever experienced.

St Bart's CHARGE Youth camp Saturday scavenger hunt

St Bart’s CHARGE Youth camp Saturday scavenger hunt at Luther Heights, Coolum, in October 2022 (Noah Gunders is pictured in the centre)

As a teenager, I’ve become more aware of the struggles of doubt that teens have. They can feel alone and like they have no one to relate to. They sometimes have questions they don’t share for fear they will be outcast. Sometimes the people we can best relate to are others like us. We live in a society where social media influences us, and our friends and people our age also influence us. Youth groups and youth camps are so important for young people, whether they have believed their whole lives or are just beginning on their faith journey. They’re fun and engaging, while also serving the overarching goal of making and maturing disciples of Jesus Christ for God’s glory.

My faith is important because I genuinely believe with all my heart that there is a loving God beside me. Being a Christian has helped me in times where I feel weak and need others to help support me. Church and youth group have both allowed me to peel back my shell of insecurities. I’ve always been a quiet kid and honestly, if I weren’t a Christian, I probably would have remained like that. But today my faith in Christ has enabled me to jump out and be myself with others who don’t judge me for who I am.

Here’s a cool way of thinking of it: if you go on a youth group camp, you’ll get to do heaps of fun activities and eat delicious food! You’ll have many opportunities to have your voice heard in group discussions and given the chance to ask questions. You’ll be inspired by testimonies and devotions. You’ll have “chill” time to play sports or other creative game, or time to just be chill. If you don’t like it, well just as well because it’s only three days of your life!

Peter Dutton Youth Minister, St Bart’s Toowoomba

It was a cloudy but still Saturday night, and we were toasting marshmallows around the campfire. The youth were still excited after a massive day. As we all sat down, one of the youths rose to speak and share about her own story of belonging. As she spoke, there was complete silence. She shared her story of how it has been a slow and challenging journey to find belonging, but that God accepts us as we are. She concluded by sharing how Psalm 23 has helped her know that she is never alone, and is always part of God’s family. It was a great reminder that God is always working, even when we don’t always know it.

Camp can be really significant for youth in taking next steps in their journey of faith. Travelling away can be helpful in this process because there are less distractions. A change in scenery can bring a change of mind-set, and possibly more openness to learning about God.

It’s important to note, that the rhythms of weekly discipleship are so critical for young people to continually grow in their faith. It’s one thing to have camp experiences, but the follow up afterwards is so important. Both are significant in a life with inevitable ups and downs.

The camp definitely needs to be fun, otherwise youth won’t want to come. If your aim is to introduce or help youth to grow in their faith, then there should be a clear Christian message and theme embedded throughout. It can be challenging to strike the balance between too much down time and structured activities. It’s good to always have youth wanting more, rather than having things drag on too long.

Youth are normally most attentive during the morning, so the majority of content is shared on the Saturday morning of the camp. We begin on Friday night with a devotion to set the scene, but youth are hyped up, so you can’t expect too much to sink in. Night times are good opportunities to be able to “go deeper”, and a campfire setting can be helpful with that.

Having the majority of our active offsite activities in the Saturday afternoon has worked well, and a range of activities can be helpful for different youth. Sunday morning is a great chance for a church service in a different setting, and also works well to consolidate the learning and theme for the weekend.

Youth camp flying fox

St Bart’s CHARGE Youth camp Saturday afternoon activity option, a flying fox, at Luther Heights, Coolum in October 2022

It doesn’t matter what stage of a faith journey a youth is at, camps are a great way to take the next step in that journey. It’s also a great opportunity to give youth a chance to share their testimony, give a devotion or run an activity or game. It’s also a good chance to give them leadership roles to help them grow. You can even trial a way of running something a certain way.

The benefits of parishes holding camps depend on the mission of the group. Camps are a great way of helping parishes grow. Camps can also be a way of bringing in new people to a church. It’s also a great way that adults can be involved in youth ministry in a one-off way, such as if they volunteer to assist with cooking if the camp is self-catered.

It doesn’t matter if you have three or 30 youth, it is worth investing in running a youth camp. The smaller the group, the easier to organise, and a great way to get started. Greater numbers often mean greater scale, complexity and cost and greater time to plan. So, just get started!

Top 10 tips for running a parish youth camp

  1. Pray – we serve a living God who is at work in the lives of people. Organise a group of people at church to be praying for the camp before, during and after.
  2. Research a good venue, and book well in advance to avoid disappointment.
  3. Organise and advertise registration details early and in various ways.
  4. Cater well. If you are self-catering find someone who can do this, and do it well. Good food makes a difference, and you can self-cater quality food for minimal cost.
  5. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. The more time you spend planning and preparing well, the safer and more effective the camp will be (e.g. detailed risk assessment).
  6. Be clear in the purpose and mission of your camp, and what you are trying to achieve, ensuring you align the program accordingly (g. the mission at St Bart’s is “to make and mature disciples of Jesus for God’s glory”. So, everything we do at CHARGE Youth camp is shaped by that mission).
  7. Establish a clear camp theme, and ensure this is woven throughout all aspects.
  8. Build a good team. Ensure you have people to help you, and delegate key roles where others are gifted – people may be just waiting to be asked.
  9. Have a clear plan and structure, with allotted times for activities. Having camp name tags, and booklets can be helpful with this.
  10. Set clear expectations by establishing rules you want youth to follow and behaviour management principles right from the start.

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