Reflecting on this summer of camp ministry
As the campers left grounds on Saturday, and then hours later the entire summer staff did too, our season of ministry at Timber-lee came to an abrupt end. I felt the whiplash of a quick transition from a mentality of full-steam-ahead-don’t-quit-until-the-end to suddenly one of wait-what-it’s-the-end-how-do-I-act-normal-again in just a few hours.
I had two groups of elementary school aged campers, three groups in middle school, and two groups in high school. Eight straight weeks with a maximum time-off of about four days over the 4th of July break. While I recover from this sprint-marathon of a summer, I want to offer up some reflections about what God has been teaching me, and maybe give an example or two to illustrate each point. Interspersed are some photos from this summer that our camp photographer captured (and they are unrelated to the text surrounding them, just general photos). This post is more for my own personal benefit than yours — after all, most of what I learned has been learned from experience, and therefore is not something I can communicate in writing. But whatever. Here I am writing it anyways, and here you are reading it anyways.
10 Reflections From This Summer of Camp Ministry
1. Being vulnerable even to those who look up to you. Something I did not understand before is that I had tried to present myself as perfect rather than the lazy, slobbish, forgetful, doubting, undisciplined, worried person that I actually am. Presenting myself as perfect is hard to avoid because I want to be a good influence, and ultimately my influence should be towards Jesus, who was perfect. Why would I want them to see anything other than Christ in me?
For whatever reason, during high school week I got real with my cabin one night. We were talking about global missions and the need for people to leave North America, leveraging their jobs for the spread of the Gospel. It was a great conversation. And then I shared something that had happened to me back in April. I was at Together for the Gospel, T4G, in Louisville. What I did not realize prior to arriving was that I had signed up for all of my breakout sessions with David Platt. All of them. I love Platt — his sermons have influenced me greatly over the last few years — so this was not a problem.
At one of his sessions Platt asked us to pray, “God, send me wherever you want to send me,” even if you are convinced that God has no plans to send you abroad. Just to have the willingness at heart to pray that prayer, no matter what actually comes of it. I started to pray it, but stopped myself. I couldn’t say it. I felt fear creeping up in me, fear that I didn’t know I had until that moment. And for almost the whole rest of the conference I was consumed with the question, do I really trust God with my eternal life if I can’t trust him with my current life? There was a whole mix of emotions bouncing around inside me: fear, confusion, hypocrisy, frustration. Like I had somehow failed at being a “good Christian.”
I shared all this with the few campers sitting around at the time. Matt, Thomas, Ty, maybe a few others. Matt commented words like, “Gee, Ross, this is all so different from last year. I just remember you being this perfect counselor, but now you are telling us all these things you are failing at and still working on.” Which was a hillariously on-character comment if you know and love Matt as I do. I’ve been slowly learning to share stories like this one. Because even though the person I’m pointing to is perfect, I am not and never will be perfect. And my campers are not and never will be perfect. What they need is not some far-off vision of what a flawless Christian looks like. They need to see someone who struggles in different ways, as they do, so that they can see how to process through those struggles. That is far, far more helpful.
2. God’s sovereignty. I guess I’ve always been a big fat Calvinist. Though for the past two years I’ve found different theological systems to help me understand it all. This summer there were some changes here. The first was that I began to process on a new level some of the implications of God’s sovereign election. My spotify playlist for the summer was almost all King’s Kaleidoscope and Beautiful Eulogy, so you can imagine why. If I’m so convinced that salvation is not a gift to be accepted or rejected but rather God’s effectual calling drawing to himself his elect, then maybe I should stop explaining salvation to kids like its a prayer or a commitment you make to God. Maybe I should explain the gravity of sin to them and see if God by his Spirit begins to change their hearts from the inside out. Maybe I should pray for them more and talk a little less. Maybe.
It’s also crazy to see God’s providential hand guiding different situations that have happened. Like, the one kid who accidentally forgot to sign up for the high ropes course is the same kid who had tons of questions about God that he wants to ask me one on one. Well, thanks to his forgetfulness during the sign up paperwork, we had two hours to talk, just me and him. And that conversation was, by his account, potentially life-changing.
Or another camper, who I met while volunteering in 2014 and 2015, and then had in my cabin in 2016, and then bonded with a lot in 2017, and then had again this year. He got to camp and found out he was in some random other cabin, not with me or the friends he came with. We scrambled very last minute to rearrange things, and it all worked out because someone had last-minute dropped who was supposed to be in my cabin. Which meant I had seven campers, and thus an open spot for this kid. God directed that process, somehow, so that it all worked out. I had a borderline-life-changing week with him, too.
Strange to say it this way, but I also saw God’s providence in my sickness. Halfway through the summer I developed bronchitis, and then two separate upper respiratory infections, a bad stomach bug, a normal cold, and then a sinus infection. My health was nearing an all-time low at one point, when several of these were overlapping. But God in his providence directed these circumstances so that… actually, I probably shouldn’t write this story and post it on the internet where it will remain forever. But let’s just say that it was 1. absurd, 2. miraculous, 3. involved some screamo preaching, and 4. was based on Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and may be the subject of a future blog post. God is good, and in his wisdom directs even garbage situations like my run of illnesses to result in good.
3. That 14 year olds are adults. I began research for my Senior Thesis this summer. The project will focus on the Age of Majority and how it’s a total mirage that was constructed 100 years ago. One of the relevant books I have been reading this summer is Robert Epstein’s The Case Against Adolescence (which I know is not the best book on this subject but it will work as a starting point). The whole idea is that the category of “adolescence” was socially constructed to accommodate a new social strata of industrialized societies, and their middle classes, even though there is no basis in biology for this category. The result is a fundamental mismatch between a teenager’s capacities and their expectations, the capacities being way higher than what we expect of teens. And so we are “infantalizing” them, or babying them along instead of expecting them to act like adults.
The obvious implication is that we should use biology, not social convention, to decide when someone becomes an adult. The biological marker would be puberty. The social convention would be 18. Something I was reflecting on the whole summer was the rapid rate of change in my campers by their age — just how different a 10 year old is from a 12 year old, and just. how. different. a 12 year old is compared to a 14 year old. I’m not sure that I have all the developmental categories straight to explain it yet (which is the goal of my Thesis), but it was clear to me that my campers entering 8th grade and above were in every functional way adults. Which meant that for them, I pushed hard on understanding the Bible and on living a full Christian life. Much harder than I think I had pushed in past years.
4. Helping boys express their emotions. In May I watched a documentary called “The Mask You Live In” that dealt with the gendered social expectations of American boys and the harmful effects this can have. I didn’t love it, but the documentary said some valuable things and helped me assemble my thoughts on this topic. The main one is this: that our society conditions boys to not feel emotions. But… you can’t not feel emotions. Feeling emotions is just part of being human. So what our society actually does is condition boys to not express their feelings, or only express them in unhelpful ways.
I cannot tell you how many times this issue came up with my campers. Maybe a hundred times. And I only had about 50 campers. Boys are trained to bottle up their feelings, and move on. (Then bottle up the next feelings, and move on, and then the next ones, and move on). This continues until they no longer have the capacity to hold them in, and they have a mega-meltdown and let everything come flying out. Unfortunately, even here this doesn’t work because you cannot ever really, fully conjure back up feelings that you have repressed. You can only bring back half the passion. This is why recognizing and expressing feelings in the moment is so important. Not that boys need to cry all the time, like when they stub their toe playing soccer. Holding back those tears can be an act of courage to continue on in the game. But other tears — like in the death of a close friend, for one of my campers — need to be shed.
5. The Local Church is where it’s at. One of the inherent flaws of camp ministry is that it only lasts 6 days a year, but the camper is living the Christian life for all 365. There are so many friendships made this summer that I wish I could continue, but it is just not feasible to travel outside my little North Suburban area. I am so limited in what I can do for these kids after they leave. The most is to reply to their emails a couple times a year. This is why I want to do youth ministry in the Local Church, where I meet students on their first day of 6th grade and walk with them in the faith until they graduate high school. Forget six days, that would be seven years of discipleship. God can use camp ministry in really important ways in their lives. He did for me. But it will never be the primary source of their discipleship, and that’s where I really want to head when college ends in a few years.
6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin. At least, they should. To look another person in the eyes and say, “you are wrong on this, and you need to change what you are doing” in a way free of judgement, being only gracious, and yet firm and insistent… That balance is hard to strike. But I think that there was one moment in the summer when I did strike it, by the power of God’s Spirit. It was brought to my attention that one of my campers was living dat partyboi lyfe in all its hallow glory, and posting it online. When that was shown to me, it almost broke me.
So we needed to talk. We went to a mostly-secluded place on camp grounds and talked it out for a few hours. And it took all the courage in my heart to look him in the eyes and say that I knew exactly what was really going on. Even though he played the part of the good little church boy when around me — which meant that such a confrontational conversation was bound to completely change our relationship. And it did. But I was also clear that nothing I was saying came from a place of bitterness or frustration or anger or disappointment. But that just as God’s love reaches out to us when we don’t deserve it, my love for this camper was reaching out to him even when he didn’t deserve it. And I want nothing but the best for him.
It was the most difficult conversation I have had in a while, which is saying something given the kind of year this has been for me. But at the end of it all, much like the two campers I mentioned before, he was thankful and said that because of that conversation, he would not go home from camp the same person as before. The lesson here is not to shy away from difficult conversations, because God can write a beautiful story of redemption through them.
7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality. This was something I already knew but which became more and more obvious by the day. By “The Church” I mean effectively every church everywhere. And by “failing” I mean a true F, not one of those 59% F+ grades, but a solid 20% F- grade. Of course I was limited on what I could say. I could say nothing to my grade school campers (which makes sense). But with the older kids it was important for me to be a frank and open source to talk about different topics in this area.
The most common one was porn, of course. I would love to enter prophetic-voice mode and call down droves of locusts and frogs on every youth ministry that has never mentioned this to their students. If I hear the question “is it sinful to watch porn?” from one more eighth grader I swear to God I’m literally going to go burn their church down. Not because the student is at fault. But their youth pastor sure is. And their parents sure are. And that is just ground zero for a whole life of future disobedience to God’s design for their sexuality.
This is what happens, by the way, when your whole “purity” message is just “don’t have sex before marriage,” end of story. Christian students are given basically zero other guidance than this because the youth pastor is afraid they are stepping on the parents’ turf, but meanwhile the parents assume the youth pastor is covering it. hahahahaha. And so random ol’ me had to explain, no less than a half dozen times, the way that God has designed the male body to deal with sexual abstinence, and that God’s plan for Christian sexuality is chastity in singleness, and to submit all sexual desire to the authority of Christ, who himself was single for his entire life and did not sin, and… (I think I wrote about this once…). This is so basic that it could be taught in a half hour lesson at youth group. If it sounds like I’m bitter based on my own poor experiences growing up, that would be because I am and this is a widespread problem in American Evangelicalism.
8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ. You know what 7th graders like to do? They like to yell, and scream, and throw sticks against trees while ironically quoting memes they don’t like. They are eager to learn more about God but get bored if you used technical vocabulary. But they can totally handle the technical vocabulary — it’s just boring. They love playing kickball and 9 square, but don’t like “aesthetic spaces” designed solely for socializing. High schoolers love those. But 7th graders don’t. They want to have deep conversations but not all the time and those conversations will meander around the bend and form ox bow lakes so big you didn’t think a single conversation could have produced that. They want to worship God by song but they also want to have fun while they do it. They don’t have much of a boring-tolerance yet, which is fine. Whatever, so what if they get tend to get bored. Just do more exciting things. It will work out.
What is crazy is that somehow I can become a 7th grader when I’m around them. Or a 9th grader. Or a 5th grader. Being an age chameleon is exhausting, by the way, but it is in part how ministry is most effectively done for these campers. Becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9). My goal is not to train 7th graders how to live the college life for Jesus. My goal is train them how to live 7th grade for Jesus, and then in a few years we’ll get around to how to live high school for Him. But for the time being, I cannot afford to have unrealistic expectations about their development. I just have to enter into their developmental stage and show how Christ impacts it.
Which means I cannot get mad at my 4th graders for being homesick — but I can use it as an example to talk about how Jesus was away from home for 33 years and missed his father tremendously. Nor can I get mad at my 8th graders for wanting to date every girl at camp — but I can show them how our priorities for who to date are mostly set in scripture in Proverbs 31 and 1 Peter 3. Neither can I get mad at my 11th graders for complaining to me about their college search — but I can help them think of ways to use their interests in Business, in Engineering, in History to further advance the Kingdom.
9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing. There was a phrase used by this dumb youth group I went to my senior year of high school. They would say, “You can belong before you believe!” all the time. But something that God has taught me this summer is that that doesn’t always work. For example, if 51% of your Christian community doesn’t believe, then you no longer have a Christian community. If even 20% do not believe, I am not sure how you will get anywhere with discipleship. So maybe the number is 10%. Or maybe there is no ideal number because the number goes up and down based on how extraverted or intraverted those people are. I don’t know.
But I do see the importance of making space for people who aren’t all the way there yet. That was me just two years ago! Christian community is always reaching out with the out-reaching love of God, and that means we will always have people who aren’t all the way there. But including those people can be a huge problem, especially for those who believe and are young in faith. Like campers at a Christian summer camp. I have a few examples in mind of times when that went south quickly. I’m not sure how to balance this tension, but I know that Jesus found a way to do it.
10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants. One week, the speaker talked in chapel about SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. It is a basic framework to show students how to not just read a passage of scripture, but also interact with it. I love this already. But then my favorite camper, ever, says to me that night, “Ross, I really liked what the speaker said about SOAP. Can you show me how to use that?” and yep youbetcha I can. So the next night we read through Philippians 2:1-11.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by becoming like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
♪♫♪ Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature
of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ♪♫♪
This is a passage about the unity that Christians can have by looking out for one another. Our primary example of this is Jesus (though Paul also gives Timothy, Epaphroditus, and himself as examples in the book of Philippians). As this camper and I read each verse, observed things about it, thought of places in our life we can apply it, and then prayed over it all, something struck me. He is the most humble kid I’ve ever met. He doesn’t need this passage at all. (That’s part of why I appreciate him so much). I, on the other hand, am the owner of rossneir.com and anyways could use some lessons on humility.
Here’s what I was wrestling with. God by his providence can work miracles in these campers lives through any counselor he wants. It isn’t about us in particular. Our ministry is enabled by the Holy Spirit, not our own authority or persona or years of experience. Romans 1:16. The power of God brings salvation to all who believe. Not me. The power of God. The question I had been wresting with is whether next summer I should return as a counselor or as a village leader, which while one step up on the org chart is honestly a way worse job. My former VL called the position a “glorified janitor” because all you do is clean up vomit all day, seemingly. I don’t want to do that. I want to be with the kids. But maybe that is just a reflex of my pride, my unwillingness to serve others, my confidence in my own effort to make camp ministry work, my deep lack of faith in God to be the God of the impossible.
I don’t know. Maybe all those reasons are hyperbole and I just don’t want to do it because vomit is gross and wet beds are gross and bossing people around is inherently confrontational and I’m comfortable where I’m at. But God was convicting me not to rule it out just because it is service to others. Jesus was all about humble, self-giving service.
My 10 points of reflection, in bullet fashion, are:
- Vulnerability in mentoring
- God’s sovereignty
- 14 year olds are adults
- Helping boys express their emotions
- The Local Church is where it’s at
- Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin
- The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality
- Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ
- The awkward balance of belonging and believing
- Humble service because God can use anybody he wants
This summer was a season of seeing firsthand the goodness, the sweetness of God, through magical, super-human highs and through frustrating, embittering lows. I saw God relight a passion in the hearts of students who you would never think would come around. Only He can warm and soften a cold and stony heart. At least one of my campers openly professed faith in Jesus for the first time. Several others basically did too, but having not grown up in the church, they didn’t have the categories to be able to describe what they were feeling for the first time. My prayer for the summer — that God would create a love for the Bible in the hearts of my campers — was absolutely answered affirmatively. (More than my prayer for good health…). I saw a few junior high and high school students who had struggled with a lot of pain in their walk with Christ find new healing and redemption in Him.
For this summer, I, like David in Psalm 16, have nothing but thankfulness to God, because “apart from him I have no good thing… because he alone is my portion and my cup… I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken; therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices… because you make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”