Coming Apart and Working Together: Christian Camping and the Local Church

“Only five more days until camp begins. I’m sooooo excited.” This is a typical Facebook status for many young people as they count down the days until their week at camp. Staff have also been preparing for the week, desiring “to give God a part of my summer” or wanting “to help campers take that next step spiritually.” A Christian camping experience is frequently the high point of the year for many and rightfully so. Let’s examine the value of this type of ministry to a local church.

What is the purpose of Christian camping?
Many of God’s people will testify how the Lord has used a camping ministry to help them grow spiritually. Many have been called into Christian service because of challenges from God’s Word presented in a camp setting. So what makes this type of ministry effective? In the midst of our busy lives and ministries, we need to come apart from the overt temptations and distractions of this world to get our spiritual batteries recharged. The Lord Jesus in Mark 6:31 called his disciples to “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.” The pressure of ministry was great, and there was a need for a time out. Properly executed, Christian camping meets this need.

Spiritual and physical refreshment have always been a blessing to God’s people. It is interesting to consider Israel’s celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles as described in Leviticus 23. It was to be a joyous time of refreshment, celebrating the gathering of the season’s harvest. Lasting for eight days and including two Sabbath days, the people lived in crude, temporary booths, reminding them of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. This was what we might call a vacation, but one with spiritual significance. With its rest from normal labor, spiritual emphasis, and lessened conveniences from those of home, one can see how Christian camping accomplishes similar purposes as this feast. Matthew Henry, commenting on the Feast of Tabernacles, said “It is good for those that have ease and plenty sometimes to learn what it is to endure hardness.” We can all use some of this.

What is Christian camping?
The question is a good one. While there is no Christian camping ministry found in the Bible, Christian camping can help local churches fulfill their God-given mandate to evangelize the world and edify believers. Sometimes a definition is helpful. Consider the following.

Christian camping is a retreat from external worldly influences that allows individuals to focus on their relationship with God. This is generally set in a more primitive creation context designed to encourage genuine spiritual decisions and growth that persist upon returning to one’s local church.

So a Christian camp provides a unique setting for spiritual growth decisions that will further prepare individuals for service in their local church. There is a spiritual focus. There is an attention to personal relationship with God along with daily application of the Word of God. Camp is frequently a place of spiritual decision.

A godly environment with reduced external worldly influences, coupled with encouraging fellowship from campers and staff, becomes fertile soil for planting seeds for growth. Placing a camper in a different setting in the context of God’s creation requires increased attention to routine everyday tasks. This heightened alertness carries over to personal spiritual issues, helping the camper to consider seriously their own spiritual needs. Unique activities support spiritual goals by providing a positive and enjoyable atmosphere for personal evaluation and decision. Camps that extend for multiple days allow time for campers to understand that many daily issues they face back home pale in significance to the eternal issues they are confronted with at camp. The cumulative day-by-day effect of preaching the Word of God helps to accomplish God’s intended purpose in the life of each camper.

While a camping ministry has great potential, there are challenges in building and maintaining an effective Christian camp. Practically, it is difficult for any one church to own and operate a camp. Costs and staffing needs become prohibitive. Some camps develop independently of individual church ministries and become ministries unto themselves, never developing a close partnership with participating churches. When planning for the future a growing camping ministry often encounters a critical decision point: namely, should the ministry continue to grow? In its desire to continue growing, it can become larger than its fundamental churches can support, bringing the temptation to include compromising churches in an attempt to continue and expand the ministry.

Fundamental Christian camping’s challenge is to figure out how to incorporate the benefits of a camping program without detracting from our local church ministries and without compromising our fundamental position. We have strived to meet both of these challenges with our Ohio Bible Fellowship (OBF) ministry at Peniel Bible Camp.

Peniel Bible Camp has strong ties with our local churches.
For over fifty years, men of the OBF have had the vision to jointly conduct camps that support their individual churches. Since 1970 we have been blessed to use our current 360-acre site in central Ohio. Our OBF camping ministry, Peniel Bible Camp, serves churches with its twofold philosophy.

First, “Peniel Bible Camp is a ministry of the Ohio Bible Fellowship designed primarily to facilitate and supplement the local church ministries of the Ohio Bible Fellowship. We seek also to minister to other likeminded ministries.” Peniel is not a church; it does not have a membership, hold regular Sunday services, administer the Lord’s Table, or practice baptism. It does not take the place of local churches; instead, it exists to help churches in their ministries.

Second, “Peniel Bible Camp seeks to meet the salvation and spiritual growth needs of all campers by leading them to appropriate spiritual decisions.” In other words, the camping ministry is seeking the same things that local churches are: giving the Gospel to the unsaved and building up believers to become more like Jesus Christ.

The OBF has been careful to maintain a local church focus over the years and across the many churches that participate. While a full camping program is directed by our OBF churches, the facilities are available to rent by other like-minded ministries. The participation of other fundamental churches that send campers and staff is very much appreciated. In the Old Testament, Peniel was a place where Jacob met God face to face (Gen 32:30). Our camp verse, Colossians 3:23, encourages all participants in our program to do everything “heartily, as to the Lord.” Actively considering one’s relationship to the Lord and decisively acting upon the Word of God naturally follow from this command and are consistent with the desires of our local churches.

The close involvement of pastors helps ensure a local church focus in the overall direction of ministry. The camp property is owned by the Ohio Bible Mission, whose board is made up of OBF members. Most of the board consists of pastors from our churches. A committee of OBF Pastors directs the overall camping program for our churches. An OBF Pastor serves as the director for each camp and pays close attention to the spiritual needs of campers and staff.

Supporting our pastors in this ministry is a small group of full-time, part-time, and volunteer staff who assume responsibility for activities, maintenance, and operation of the camp. Each year over 150 people from our churches volunteer to serve in one or more of our camps. The volunteer nature of our staff helps to keep costs low and gives local churches ownership of the ministry. It is not uncommon for our churches to list Peniel Bible Camp as one of their church ministries on their website.

Peniel Bible Camp strengthens our local churches.
So how does camp impact our churches? As stated before, individuals receive challenge, instruction, and practical application from the Word of God. At Peniel, our chapel preaching from the Scriptures is the primary spiritual focus. Counselors frequently rehearse and build upon the chapel messages during cabin times. Our camp schedules provide time for personal Bible study and prayer. Spiritually strengthened individuals return to strengthen their own churches.

Over the past several years it has been my privilege to work with many of our volunteer staff in the application process and in our Training Camp. I’ve rejoiced to see many staff members challenged to a closer walk with the Lord by application requirements. While they serve, they have been drawn to closer dependence on the Lord as they deal with their own limitations as a counselor. They have rejoiced as they have seen some under their care come to know Christ as Savior or yield an area of their life to the Lord. They return to their churches knowing firsthand the joy of concentrated ministry and look for additional service opportunities as they return home.

It has been my joy to see a number of young people anxious to become of age to serve at camp. We have been given several young people who are ready and willing to serve with a good attitude. This is reflected by one of my favorite statements made by one of our teen workers. When asked about her attitude, she laughingly told me to just slap her if her attitude was bad. While I would not do this, it was refreshing to see she was serious about having a good spirit and doing what was right. This past year we have had more volunteers than we could use in some areas. This is also exciting to see. Their enthusiasm for ministry is contagious both at camp and back in their home churches.

Besides ministering to young people through youth camps, we also seek to strengthen families through our Family Camps, Father/Son Retreat, and Mother/Daughter Retreat. What pastor would not want a family in their church to spend a week under the teaching of God’s Word and fellowshipping with other believers, instead of spending lots of money on the questionable and transitory entertainment that the world offers? Who would not desire to see growing relationships between parents and children in their church?

Peniel Bible Camp needs wisdom for the future.
Does Christian camping have a future? Yes, but there are challenges that must be addressed if a camp ministry is to continue to be fruitful. Busy campers have many competing and conflicting demands for their time. They need reminders about eternal priorities and an understanding of the value of camping ministry participation. A growing desire for greater amenities and higher expectations for entertainment must be managed carefully without creating an amusement park atmosphere. The program directors at Peniel have provided varied, creative, and exciting themes, making each year a new event to anticipate without the need of expensive infrastructure.

Increasing costs and government regulation must be managed carefully. Because of our volunteer-based structure, we have been able to keep our costs comparatively low and intend to continue doing so. This enables good participation. Government regulation has increased and we must continue to combine good citizenship and stewardship. We must be careful not to expand beyond our needs and build more than can be supported by our fundamental churches. The Lord has been gracious in providing us a wonderful facility for Christian camping that is debt free, and we must be diligent in our continuing stewardship.

Finally, we must be conscious of ministry transition needs. The Lord has blessed us with dedicated and talented leadership over the years. However, as some of us are advancing in age, younger ones are needed to refill the ranks. May the Lord give us grace to proceed at His pace as we develop plans for a sustainable ministry at Peniel.

Clearly, this ministry cannot exist without with the direction and participation of OBF and other like-minded churches. Pastors will need to see camp as a valuable ministry of their church. They will need to educate their people about the value of Christian camping. They will need to encourage their people to make the sacrifices necessary to attend and serve. As we do this I trust that we will come apart, work together, and as our camp song concludes, “find a fellowship so grand.”

January 2010

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The OBF Visitor is the official publication of the Ohio Bible Fellowship. Feature articles from past issues of the Visitor are made available here for your use. You may read, distribute, and use this material as long as you do so in its entirety and without modification. All articles © The Ohio Bible Fellowship.

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