Summer Camp: a first impression of God

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I stood a short distance from the rotunda listening to 100 teenagers and staff members singing worship music as an acoustic guitar gently floated a melody into the warm night air. An orchestra of cicadas and crickets chirped and sang with us as the kids lifted their voices to the heavens, which were lit up and on display that night with an eternity of stars. It brought back so many feelings of gladness and joy from times when I was a camper and discovering the love of God for the first time. And here I was, back at the same rotunda, witnessing kids encountering God’s love—some for the very first time.

This is summer camp. THIS is what church is all about.

As I stood there, I struck up a conversation with one of the kids who were on their own. I discovered they were not Adventist—not even Christian—and only came to camp because a friend was going. They knew no-one else at camp but their one friend and were amazed and caught off-guard by how friendly everyone was. They were especially intrigued by the fact that everyone made an effort to get to know them and include them. This kid had come from a complex life situation and had faced some difficult times for a young person, but by the end of camp, they were offering to help staff members in their various roles at camp. This experience at summer camp was their first introduction to God. 

What was your first introduction to God? For many around the world, their first introduction to God is not always positive. Whether it be through media portrayals of Christians as nutcases, or horrifying news reports of corrupt church leaders, or personal experiences with churches or church members, first impressions tend to last. For many young people, the Adventist church is often seen as being a dreary place with “lame” music and uncomfortable seats, rather than an environment which is alive and on fire for Jesus.

Now, it is widely accepted in psychology research that first impressions shape the way we interpret all secondary information we receive. Professor Eileen Munro wrote that, “Research in psychology has shown that we do not easily change our mind and tend to pay most attention to information that endorses our belief while overlooking evidence that challenges it.“ There is a simple reason for this—it is ingrained into us from a young age to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. We quickly evaluate within seconds whether an experience will bring us pain or pleasure, and our mind thereafter renders a perspective towards that experience for all future references based on whether it has been positive or negative. 

So, what first impressions are we giving of God? This is where summer camp has immense value. Not only do kids make new friends, play fun activities, eat delicious food, stay up slightly later than usual (not too late, we promise!) and enjoy incredible live music, but they experience God in a positive way. 

Every experience at summer camp is designed to point back to God as the source of fun and joy. Each staff member is encouraged daily to serve God faithfully by showing His love to others. Cabin leaders often share devotionals and talk to the kids each night about God, sharing their testimonies. Dramas are performed each night to engage kids in learning about the love of God, and powerful sermons inspire kids to open their hearts up to God. 

Summer camp truly is an incredible place to be. You come away feeling alive and on fire for God, whether you are brand new in the faith or an old-timer like me. It gives just a little sliver of heaven on earth in the space of six days, and despite the tiredness and bruises from activities, I find that when the time has come, I don’t want camp to end. But this feeling brings me to wonder . . . do our churches feel the same? Are our churches a little sliver of heaven on earth? And if not, why not?

I want you to be entirely honest about this next question: If that same kid, unfamiliar with Christianity, were to rock up to your local Adventist church on a Sabbath morning, would they have the same positive experience of God as they did at summer camp? 

I have attended summer camps since I was 12 years old. I am now 24, and still getting involved as a staff member. And during my time at camps, I have realised the secret ingredient which makes summer camp so unique: intentionality. 

Each staff member attending camp is intentional about sharing the joy of loving God with campers. Everyone has one goal and one purpose—to serve. We all serve in different ways: some in the worship band, others in drama, many as counsellors, and a bunch as activities or administration staff. But each staff member is working together to serve the kids and show them the love of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 12:12,27 says, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. . . .Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.“

Though all parts of the human body serve different functions, they all share a common goal—to keep the body alive and working properly. It is the same in our churches. Each of us has different strengths and weaknesses, but we should all share the same common goal—to serve others and share the gospel. As 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.“ Further, Ephesians 4:11,12 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.“

In these verses, we find that the purpose of ministry is to equip our congregations for works of service so they might reveal God’s love to others. 

Are we, in our churches, being intentional about serving? Are we working together with the common goal of witnessing the gospel to others? 

Our ministry to others should be simple and focused on service—helping others experience a positive first impression of Jesus. We need to point to Jesus through selfless service to be true reflections of Christ, the Humble Servant—who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

Let your church, your home, your life, be a little sliver of heaven just like summer camp—revealing the love of Jesus through intentional service to those who may have never experienced God before.

Summer camps ran right across Australia during the summer holidays, providing a wide range of activities for kids to enjoy, including: water skiing, horse-riding, paddle boarding, canoeing, flying fox, high ropes, leap of faith, mountain biking, master-chef, crafts, kite-building, steps (Zumba), beach activities, archery, Lego mania, bubble soccer, rock-climbing, snorkelling, surfing, waterslide, water polo, volleyball, basketball, touch footy, hockey, sailing, slip-and-slide baseball and cricket, giant swing, glow in the dark capture the flag, abseiling, remote-control car racing, and trips to the aquarium and trampoline/ninja park.

Altogether, somewhere between 231 and 260 non-Adventist kids attended summer camps across Australia, some experiencing God for the first time. Roughly 602 kids expressed interest in receiving Bible studies, and around 568 kids expressed a desire to be baptised. Approximately one-in-three kids expressed a desire to be baptised or have Bible studies.

Olivia Fairfax is an editorial assistant at Adventist Record.

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