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The Perfect Storm: What Makes a Student Camp Successful

On October 28, 1991, a nor’easter off the coast of Nova Scotia absorbed Hurricane Grace and collided with a third weather system. The convergence of those three weather systems was so intense, meteorologists called it “perfect,” meaning that it could not possibly have been more potent.

… could not possibly have been more potent…

Sounds a lot like student camp to me.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 have been a camper at least once at a summer camp run by a religious organization with religious teachings or songs in its program, according to researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion (based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). That percentage pushes to 50 percent for conservative and mainline Protestant teenagers.1 Pretty crazy numbers when you step back and consider roughly 20 million teenagers will attend a summer camp at least once during their most formative years.

That reality alone should make this summer and your student camp experience important. But it is one thing for a teenager to attend and another thing for them to have an incredible experience. Which begs another question: are there non-negotiable components that make a student camp successful?

Great question.

This summer marks my 30th year attending a summer youth camp. Interestingly enough, I never attended summer camp as a teenager. God did wreck my life while serving as a counselor (what we used to call small group leaders back in the day) for a group of middle school boys at a summer camp when I was in college. As a 13 year local church youth leader (full-time paid staff) I have planned summer camps, led summer camps, took students to summer camps, and served as a small group leader at summer camps….

For the last two decades I have served as a main stage communicator at summer youth camps. And I would assume that you would assume that I would say an incredible communicator is a non-negotiable for a successful student camp. Nope. It helps, but it’s not critical. Years ago I received a late-night call from a youth leader friend. He asked me if I would speak the last two sessions of a student camp. The host church had chosen to send home the camp speaker (another story for another time). It had not been a great experience. But guess what: God still did amazing things that week. Students loved the experience. Students started following Jesus. Despite the speaker.

Another natural assumption is that fantastic programming — a banging sound system, dazzling light rigs, and elite musicians and singers — are irreplaceable. Again, all of those things help but they aren’t critical. 30 years have afforded me the absolute best and the most mind-boggling, infuriatingly horrible summer camp programming experiences imaginable. Jesus seems to do His thing regardless of our attempts to rival a Justin Timberlake show or set relevance back to flannel graph and overhead projector days.

What makes a summer youth camp experience so impactful is really quite simple: It is the perfect storm. Incredible leaders like you create an insanely fun, safe environment away from normal where significant relationships — students and adults — have an opportunity to converge with the life-changing reality of Jesus. That is the secret sauce. And there is nothing quite as potent.

Ours is a culture where everyone is in a hurry. We are incessantly impatient for results. Unfortunately, most of us have adopted a lifestyle similar to that of a tourist: it’s as if life is one frantic pursuit of selfies and Cliff Notes, like we are all Clark Griswold standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon staring for three seconds… before bolting to Wally World.

I am convinced the power of student camp is that it allows our teenagers to slam on the brakes. I think emotion typically displayed by teenagers at the end of a camp week has more to do with having to return to normal, the pace, the exhausting grind, than anything else. At the same time, our leaders are able to press the gas and fast forward relational trust. A small group leader spending a week at student camp — away from normal — with their small group of students is the equivalent of six months of once-a- week investment. It is concentrated, like a dark-roast, double-shot “red eye” espresso  from Starbucks (stayed awake for 48 hours straight).

So by all means, make your programming insanely excellent. Communicate with relevance. Be creative. But never lose sight of the secret sauce…

And remember there is a storm coming.



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