the Camp Factor
Building a Stronger Covenant one Camper at a Time
By Dave Nesburg | June 4, 2018
I loved going to camp when I was young. Heading up to Covenant Pines Bible Camp in McGregor, Minnesota, every year was a great adventure into a land where games and candy mixed with worship and messages. I was taught about the love of Christ in ways that were exciting and very personal. Often the highlight of camp for me was the community that formed with kids from across the state.
A few decades have passed, and I have been the executive director at Portage Lake Covenant Bible Camp in Onekama, Michigan, for almost twenty-three years now. What started out as a three-year leave of absence from teaching high school has become an enduring passion to serve Christ at camp. Much has changed since I was a camper—in our culture, schools, communities, and churches. And some may wonder if camp is still a relevant ministry model. Yet, as I look at the role of Covenant camps today, I am convinced that they are more relevant than ever and vital to the development of our youth as Christ followers and of our shared community as the Evangelical Covenant Church.
Camp is a place of shared firsts.
Camp provides opportunities to stretch and reach beyond normal experiences. We encourage campers to begin by trying simple new things—getting a bit higher on a challenge course, paddling a river for the first time, trusting others in team building, or playing a new game after years of watching.
Sometimes a camper’s “first” is a surprise. One parent shared this comment from her son: “Camp has been the greatest victory I’ve had in the last eight months. Last week was the first time in my life that I’ve been popular.”
Camp is a safe place to grow and a place where you are supported by your community. Staff are trained to model a Christlike love that sometimes catches campers by surprise. They are charged with listening to and getting to know each camper for who they are.
Significant firsts, such as first-time commitments to follow Jesus or to reconcile with others when they return home, happen alongside such spiritual firsts as sharing a testimony, leading a devotion, performing a song, or putting it all out there in a skit. This shared wonder of first-time events bonds us together and allows us to be witnesses and accountability partners together throughout the year and throughout life.
These firsts are also experienced within the many churches that come for retreats. Tomas Ivens, former pastor of Esperanza Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, wrote to me a year after his church participated in a retreat: “We had fifty-four new believers during our camp retreat. I want to let you know that the leadership base of my church today is made up of those very people. I want our new believers and potential believers to experience God’s power at camp—this only happens at camp.”
Camp is a place of mentoring and training.
I jokingly call camp ministry training on steroids—a spiritually powered time of learning, growth, and challenge. Each year we have fifty young summer staff and interns who are trained and mentored in ministry skills, and then gently prompted to put those new skills to work. The staff learns how to get to know and respect each kid, even when they are difficult and challenging. We teach staff to create a camp and cabin environment that treats every camper with love and acceptance.
As the summer goes on we push and encourage those leaders to try new things and explore new gifts. Young staff members learn to be speakers, worship leaders, artists, actors, and athletes. It’s a place of self-discovery. Sometimes I think of camp as the seminary farm team—a training ground for future ministers and church leaders.
One summer when I was working on staff at Covenant Pines, the music leader, Rosie Peterson, assigned me to a leading role in the staff musical, which included singing a solo. This was far beyond my skill set and comfort zone, and I didn’t think I had the courage to even attempt it. But I did it. And with the support of my staff family I began to understand that I could do more through Christ than I ever imagined.
Camp is a place of shared friendship and experiences.
When Portage Lake was founded in 1946, it was the goal of the founders to get kids out of their everyday environment and into a place where they were surrounded by God’s creation and could hear more clearly the call of God. Today campers come from a variety of backgrounds and settings. At camp we join together in a positive and affirming setting, and those shared experiences lead to friendships that carry on well past the week of camp.
At Portage Lake our family camps have become like family reunions—filled with deep love and commitment to Christ and each other. The best part of these family weeks is that as new people enter the “family” every year no one is a stranger long.
During retreats and summer camps, campers from rural settings, cities, suburbs, and everywhere in between share in a week of adventure, fun, worship—and ice cream. Our Covenant camps have made it a goal to intentionally grow and change to meet diverse needs and to create experiences that include everyone. As we create programs, we listen to what our churches say they need. And those programs grow and change as we seek to come alongside pastors and parents.
Each year at our men’s retreat we travel off-site for the annual men’s trap shooting sessions. I watched as a group of older men from northern Michigan went out to shoot with a group of young men from urban Detroit. The two groups could not have been more different, and I wondered how it would go.
That night at dinner I observed these men of different generations sitting together laughing, eating bacon (available at every men’s retreat meal), and recalling stories of their day. From these men’s retreats our Covenant church up in Cheboygan developed an amazing ministry relationship with City Covenant Church in Detroit. They shared experiences, worshiped together, and became friends. Real camp communities develop through shared experiences—and are then released into the real world.
Camp is a place of shared worship.
Our chapel worship exposes campers to many musical styles, speaking styles, and creative ways to learn about Christ. We sometimes move beyond the chapel walls to worship in remarkable settings. We hold services in an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by towering maple trees, or we go to the shoreline sand dunes along Lake Michigan. There it becomes easier for a group of high schoolers to imagine the creative wonder of God. Through worshiping together, campers from all over are knit together as one body of believers.
After our latest conference-wide senior high retreat, Terrio Cosse, youth minister at Kingdom Embassy Covenant Church in Muskegon, shared, “Our experience was extraordinary for people of all different races to come to worship and serve the same God.” His students were impacted by the weekend of worship and the opportunity to play with a diverse group of kids from across the state.
As the Covenant continues to grow, Covenant camping continues to offer opportunities to develop a true denominational family—closer together and closer to Christ.