“Can I have a piggy back ride?” asked Mariah, a beautiful brown-eyed fourth grader. Unable to say “no,” I smiled and pulled her up onto my back. Tired from a long week, I had been looking forward to the farewell ceremony but now that it was here, I didn’t want them to leave. That summer in July I had been placed in a cabin with twelve grade school girls. As their counselor, I was with them around the clock, eating, sleeping, and playing the days away. Camp Elim is a summer camp in the mountains of Woodland Park, Colorado designed to share the gospel with youth who have never heard of Jesus and to encourage growth among those who already have a relationship with him. Primarily for grade schoolers and middle schoolers, the goal of Camp Elim is to help young students experience God on an entirely new level. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interact with these girls daily and build relationships with them and show them the love of God. On the first day, Mariah stole my heart. She reminded me so much of myself as a young girl: quiet and shy. Determined not to let her slip through the cracks and go unnoticed, I spent time with her, going to the pool, memorizing Bible verses, and simply talking about the day and her life at home. As we started to build a relationship, she started to become more comfortable and began to ask questions. Our talks became deeper and increasingly more serious as she asked about heaven and hell, the end times, and how to live a Godly life. Her curiosity proved to me that she was engaged with her spirituality and desperately seeking guidance.
Mariah’s burning passion to know more is what is often lost when student’s become older and head off to college. With three fourths of students in youth groups leaving the church between the ages of 18 and 22, an epidemic is taking root. What must be done in order to keep students engaged and desiring an intimate relationship with God?
Exploratory on Problem:
When youth leave home and go to college, their interest and focus on spirituality greatly shifts. Nearly 61% of today’s college aged students were once involved in the church and have now completely walked away from anything spiritual (Barna Group). In addition, 19% of teens feel that they were never reached by the Christian community and therefore continue to stay distant and uninterested (Barna Group). Why are 80% of America’s youth and tomorrow’s leaders disconnected from faith and religion? What has driven this pattern of abandonment and how can it be fixed?
Some people believe that youth’s lack of interest in the church can be attributed to regular development of independence or stress caused by school, jobs, and social life, but the leading problem stands with the church itself. Christian churches are failing to provide students with enough spiritual depth and support to convince youth that Jesus must be a vital part of their lives. Too often the goals of youth ministries are to attract large quantities of people through “cool” games and activities that fail to provide a deep spiritual impact on those attending. Youth do not need to be entertained but instead shown how to maintain a personal faith with Jesus. In Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens, Carol Lytch believes that the different levels of commitment and loyalty to faith when students go off to college is heavily attributed to whether or not the student experienced God in a live changing way while they were growing up (Lytch 57). Churches have the power to engage students “in intense states of self-transcendence uniting emotional and cognitive processes,” states Lytch (Lytch 25). God must be a real part of a student’s life in order to remain a study priority throughout the college years. Once God becomes alive to a person, faith becomes the driving force for their life. The church must change it’s methods for reaching youth, otherwise generations of spiritually apathetic individuals will continue to arise.
However, all the blame cannot fall on the church as an institution. Some of the cause behind students abandoning the faith upon entering college can be attributed to a lack of solid relationships with the Christian people that make up the church. Students need strong role models in their lives who they can go to for advice or simply for a listening ear. Today youth aren’t turning to face-to-face personal interaction but instead are spending countless hours focused on technology: playing video games, skyping friends, facebooking, and texting. In his book, “Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture: Bridging Teen Worldviews and Christian Truth,” Walt Mueller suggests that technology is this generation’s way of finding purpose and meaning in the world (Mueller 21). Over the internet students can express their feelings and thought openly. Technology provides a way for youth to find someone who will listen to them, connect with them, and form a friendship. Therefore, it is key that men and women seeking God’s heart commit to investing in the lives of young students so that technology is not their main source of social interaction and encouragement. Time and energy must be spent so that students can grow spiritually through mentoring.
Lastly, the hypothesis that teens are simply uninterested in developing their sense of spirituality is completely incorrect. In his book, The Spirituality of Revolution: The Emergence of Contemporary Spirituality, David Tacey explains his belief that youth are naturally spiritually inclined (Tacey 59). Youth are willing to venture into the unknown in order to find a God and grow in knowledge about this higher power. The only thing lacking is someone to guide them and help focus their journey so that youth can experience an incredible God who will change their lives forever.
Profile of the Organization:
Camp Elim’s mission is “to provide a Christ-centered, youth-oriented retreat environment that encourages evangelism, spiritual growth and training in order to develop followers of Jesus that impact their home, church, and the world.” Through weeklong summer camps or weekend retreats in the winter, Camp Elim is an organization intent on impacting students lives in a positive way.
The Camp started out as a small gathering of people who wanted somewhere to send their kids for Bible teaching during the summer and has now grown to become a place where over 200 students can experience Jesus while enjoying the outdoors and developing lasting relationships. The name “Elim” comes from Exodus 15; it is the hope that this camp would serve as an “oasis” of rejuvenation for students just as the place of Elim did for the Israelites wandering in the desert. David Tacey found that youth are naturally spiritually inclined and have a deep desire to develop their sense of spirituality (Tacey 59). Elim is a place where youth can seek truth and grow in knowledge about Christianity because the Camp gives them the freedom to ask hard questions and do some soul searching.
Throughout the year, seven full-time staff members run the Camp. From cooking food to doing maintenance on the facilities, to organizing activities, these dedicated individuals work to make Camp as effective and as enjoyable of an experience as possible. During the busy weeks of the summer and winter camps, volunteer staff are “hired” to help out. Counselors live in the cabins with the grade school and middle school students and lead devotions, build friendships with the campers, and focus their time and energy on loving the kids. Kitchen Staff, Maintenance Crew, and Office Assistants keep the Camp running properly and work to provide for the students basic needs. Lastly, the Program Staff creates and leads the activities for the whole week. Chapel Sessions, Competitions, Cabin Clean Up, Group Discussions, Free Time, Verse Memorization, Outdoor Adventures, Devotions, and Night Games are only a few of the fun and exciting activities included in a week at Camp.
However, Camp is not merely a place to play games; it is also an intervention of sorts. With the knowledge that masses of students are abandoning the faith after leaving high school, the staff is intently focused on building close relationships with students at these younger ages to help facilitate spiritual growth as they mature. These students are a part of a culture, crying for someone to befriend them, listen to them, and understand them (Mueller 21). As the week progresses, campers and counselors spend countless hours together and are able to form a deep bond. For every member on staff, full-time or volunteer, the chief goal is to tell students about Jesus, demonstrate His love for them, and encourage them to grow in a relationship with Him. Even if only one student accepts Christ and decides to live a life following Him, then Camp has been a success. Just a single student completely devoted to seeking God has the power to change the world for Him! Camp measures its success by the good fruit evident in the lives of their campers. It can often be difficult to see immediate change in a student’s life, but even if only one person is positively impacted by their experience at camp, then the Director believes all of the hard work is worth it. If one person’s eternity is changed, then that in itself is a great enough reward.
In order to impact a student’s life so drastically, the Program Staff plans for times of instruction, group discussion, and one-on-one interaction for the campers to be with their counselors. Usually during the Chapel sessions, a concept or story about Jesus is presented, then during group devotions the story is explored in greater depth, but it is during the one-on-one’s that the students feel most comfortable asking questions and truly engaging with Jesus and Christianity. One-on-one time gives campers the chance to open up and be heard. Providing this relational opportunity for youth to develop lasting friendships with Godly men and women is crucial because it allows the students a safe place to seek truth. If students experience God, they will have a greater chance of following Him after high school and into college and more youth will remain involved with the church (Lytch 57).
Evaluation of Organization:
I believe that Camp Elim is very successful and effective in impacting youth for Christ. During a typical week at Elim, there are usually around three kids who accept Jesus for the first time and about ten who choose to re-dedicate their lives to Him. Even though these numbers may seem small, the amount of impact one person can have on the world is limitless. Each young student who is set on serving God has the power to influence their family, friends, and acquaintances to chase after Jesus as well. As students leave Elim each week and return home, they get to share what they have learned with others and also have the opportunity to change the way they live and interact with their friends and family. When those around them see a difference in their lives, they will want to know what caused it.
Criteria: Preaching the Gospel?
Camp takes the opportunity to teach the gospel to get youth thinking deeply about faith. Every person who attends Elim engages with God or the idea of Him on some level through chapel sessions, devotions, and one on one discussions with counselors. The mass majority of students who attend Elim come back for at least one more summer and some even devote their summer’s in high school and college to volunteering and working the camp. Since so many people return and have a deep desire to continue to grow spiritually and be challenged, it is clear that Elim is succeeding at reaching youth for Christ.
One of my best friends on staff now, attended Camp with me back in middle school. Over the past several years I have seen her completely transformed because of her experiences at Elim. In middle school, Elena was a crazy, outgoing girl full of joy and excitement for life but without purpose. Her mood changed sporadically with her environment and she often went through a full spectrum of emotions based on how others treated her that day. Together we attended camp during elementary school and middle school, and each year we were told of Jesus’ love for us and how He could completely change our lives, but Elena never fully bought into that idea. Finally, in eighth grade, one night we were sharing testimonies and she broke down. She realized that she didn’t have her own testimony to share and deeply desired to let Jesus be a part of her life. No longer did she want to find her value in what others thought of her, but instead in Jesus’s words. That night at Camp Elim changed Elena forever. Suddenly she was a completely different person! She still exhibited the same happiness and joy that she had before, but now it was undying and bubbling up from deep within her. In recent years, she has continued to return to Camp and has spent her summer’s counseling other middle school girls and showing them the love God has for them. The impact she continues to have on others is an example of the power of God’s love and the important work Elim is doing in the lives of youth.
Criteria: Building Lasting Relationships?
Each year, relationships are built and strengthened at camp. Camp Elim heavily stresses the importance of connecting with others who can encourage and challenge a person in their faith. Counselors work hard to connect with each child throughout the week and have mission centered conversations. As students start talking and opening up, the counselors are able to talk to them about their passions, hopes, and dreams for the future. A friendship and mutual trust is formed and by the end of the week, a deep bond has been created. At the end of the week, phone numbers, email addresses, and home addresses are exchanged and the counselors commit to contacting each child during the year. Birthday cards and a cabin photograph are sent out to remind each student that they are important, that someone loves them, and that someone is there for them. However, relationships are not only formed between counselors and students but also between staff members. As staff interact with one another by serving alongside each other, playing in games, and praying during early morning meetings, many laughs are shared and connections are made. Each person speaks encouragement into the lives of the others in varying ways from a simple smile to a written note of praise.
Someone I have come to know deeply through my time at Camp Elim is my sister. Even though I consider her my best friend, we rarely talk about our faith, things we’re struggling with, and how we need prayer. I’ve attended Elim with her since third grade and have had the opportunity to work alongside her during high school. Each week brings new situations to work through and during those difficult times, Joanna and I have relied more on each other and have sought out one another for encouragement and strength. We still talk about boys, school, and sports, but now we also go deeper than that and share our hearts. Leaving home and going to college, it has been such a blessing having a true friend to go to about anything and without Camp Elim, I don’t think I would have ever become this close to Joanna!
Areas of Improvement:
An area where I think Camp can improve would be in the number and range of campers who attend each week. Most of the students who attend Camp Elim are from white, upperclass families who have grown up attending church. While this is not all completely negative, it does limit the amount of influence the Camp can have on different ethnicities and people from varying levels of income. If Camp could attract a wider range of students, then there would most likely be better discussion because of differing viewpoints and backgrounds and students could have a wider impact on the state of Colorado. In order to reach a wider audience of students, Camp Elim should advertise at different middle schools and elementary schools across the state. By sending a representative such as a counselor or full time staff member to the schools during the month of May right before summer break begins, both parents and students could become more informed about Camp Elim and the scholarship fund for kids who can’t afford it on their own.
After the closing ceremony, as we said goodbye, I suddenly wanted to spend more time with Mariah. I wanted to relive all of the moments leading up to that point that I had shared with her. I didn’t want her to leave because we had become such good friends and I could see God actively working in her life. I was fearful that if she went home, she’d forget about what she had learned at Camp and wouldn’t receive the same encouragement to pursue Him wholeheartedly that she had been given at Elim. However, as we took one last picture and gave a final hug, I remembered how Camp had drastically changed my life and was hopeful that it could do the same for her. I committed to staying in contact with her and refused to let our relationship suffer with distance. Today, Mariah and I send an occasional text to each other and send cards to one another in the mail. Her love for others is evident and I can continue to see God’s hand on her life. Camp Elim is successful at reaching youth for Christ and helping students experience God on a very real and personal level. Churches and youth groups across the country need to follow Camp’s lead and start changing the way they do ministry. America can no longer afford to continue losing members of the church and instead needs to focus on helping youth engage with Jesus and the radical life He led. I believe that a person only has to experience Jesus one time and feel His love to be forever enthralled by Him. Once a person falls in love with Jesus, he will never turn back.
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