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How Not to Emotionally Manipulate Students at Summer Camp

There are many pivotal moments that can happen for teens at summer camp. However, how can leaders guide students without manipulating them into a decision?
Summer Camp

The rest of the church may be slowing a bit once school lets out. But for student ministries, this can be one of the busiest times because the summer season equals summer camp season. For many teenagers, summer camp experiences are some of the most formational times in their faith. A lot of teenagers make a decision to commit to following Jesus, some may experience a kind of calling to be in professional ministry, some decide to get baptized, or some decide to re-up their spiritual habits and commitments. And all of these things are great! As a leader, who wouldn’t want these for the students they are leading?


There’s just one problem. 


Sometimes, as leaders, we can get so excited about the concrete metrics of decisions being made and the measurable change we want to see in our students that we unintentionally use environments like camp to rig the system. We work towards an end we have in mind, but one that doesn’t necessarily track with where our students actually are. It isn’t that we are trying to manipulate what’s happening, but the truth is, the circumstances surrounding camp make it really easy to do.


Combine good music, moving messages, distance from home, and the exhaustion that comes from little sleep and long days in the sun, and it’s easy for a teenager to feel compelled to make a decision at summer camp that may just as much be a result of sleep deprivation as it is a move of the Holy Spirit. 


So, what does that mean for us?


How do we lead students, without manipulating students, this year at summer camp?



1. Resist the urge to push for definitive decisions made in this one particular week at summer camp.


Obviously, it looks and sounds great to be able to come back from camp and share with our church staff and elders the stats of decisions made. But when we stop treating camp like a finish line and more like a step in a long-term spiritual journey, we begin to see that seeds may have been planted at camp that don’t necessarily come to fruition until later—maybe even far beyond the scope of our ministry reach. And that’s okay. 


Summer camp doesn’t have to be a place where we “seal the deal.” But it can—and should—be a place where we intentionally invest in the lives of our teenagers exactly where they are, coming alongside them as they are. In other words, there may be a salvation moment in the week of camp. However, just as meaningful is the likelihood for simple, run of the mill, movement at camp. It may be harder to measure or name or get our church pumped about, but it is just as important.


2. Use your words to ask more questions than make leading statements.


We are all emotional creatures. But teenagers? They are especially emotional. So, when a student responds emotionally at summer camp to something said or done, the best thing we can do as leaders is lean in. Ask questions so they can learn to draw conclusions on their own and not be dependent on conclusions we may draw for them.


Why do you think that made you emotional?


What do you think that means for you?


And maybe the best thing of all to say: Tell me more.


Let them take the lead in talking about their experience and how it might translate to their life back home. The most important thing we can do for teenagers in our ministry is not determine for them what God is or isn’t saying to them in the highly emotional and the zero emotion moments. Rather, it’s coming alongside them and helping them discern what God’s voice sounds like, what God’s leading might look like and how to grow more attuned to God’s activity no matter where they are. 


3. Acknowledge to yourself (and your students) that a well-crafted environment can affect our emotions and our emotional reactions don’t necessarily equate to God’s activity.


There is often a direct relationship between a camp environment and the impact that camp experience has on a student. Having powerful worship twice a day for five days, coupled with impactful messages from charismatic speakers may make it seem like God can’t help but be speaking. And God MAY be doing just that! But when we equate emotional reactions with God’s activity, we set students up for failure when they are living their normal everyday lives.


We need to help them understand that God is just as likely to speak without the effect of low stage lighting and a smoke machine. When they are sitting at home, walking between classes, or going to bed, God is there in those moments too. And when we only draw attention to God working by connecting dots to a teenager’s emotion, we may get a powerful camp experience, but an anemic normal life experience.  


Camp, for many teenagers, is a pivotal experience they remember for the rest of their lives. As leaders, we get to play a part in making it something worth remembering, but it doesn’t need to be just because of a singular spiritual moment or faith decision that was made because all of the environmental cues fell into place. It can be because relational deposits were made, memorable experiences were had, and investments into the long-term health of our students took priority. 


 That’s a goal worth aiming for.


For more on this idea, check out the Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast, Episode #79 for a conversation about how to not emotionally manipulate students. You can find it here! Also, read about some ways to wisely guide your students this season at summer camp here!

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