Beyond Summer Camp Ministry

Originally published April 2000.

The question has now been put out there.  Any veteran in youth ministry may have already had the thought but Time Magazine put it in print.  Is the teenager disappearing?  Is the age of sweet 16, slumber parties (girls only, not mixed), and hours of car talk becoming something of another time?  The life stage of teenager has only been around for 50 years, but will it be around much longer?

We are seeing the changes first hand.  Boys and girls are becoming men and women physically between the ages of 10 to 13.  Most ten year olds are not even invited to our youth meetings yet.  Many high schoolers are getting into their career jobs while still in high school.  My high school hires students to do their computer networking and webwork.  Students are doing work on their teachers’ computers and getting paid.  Think about that.


A USA Today article noted the shortage of life guards, “There once was a time when a lifeguard’s job was a plum assignment: Sit in the sun, chat with your friends and earn spending money.  But today, high school and college students can earn more working at a grocery store or a fast-food restaurant.  And their opportunities are increasing: Pools and beaches now must compete with Dell and Microsoft.  ‘If your choice is between a wonderful job as a lifeguard at the beach for $7 an hour or $20 an hour working for a dot-com company, the decision may be purely economic.’” (Richard Wolf, “Lifeguard Labor Pool Very Shallow” USA Today, May 26, 2000).

The legal system used to protect minors but more and more teens are being charged as adults for their crimes.  Teens are exposed to serious issues at younger and younger ages.  They have to decide by age 11 whether they will be sexually abstinent or not.  We need to be giving True Love Waits rings at 11, not 16.  Then with adults postponing family responsibilities until later and later, where is the line to be crossed?  At what point is someone an adult these days?

In the Time article, the author, Walter Kirn, said, “The age of James Dean, the Ford Mustang and making out will seem, in retrospect, like what it was: a summer vacation from larger human history.”  (Walter Kirn, “Will Teenagers Disappear?”  Time, February 21, 2000).   Human history is changing at a fast rate.  With all those frightening changes, we as youth ministers should be providing our youth with a period of transition.  But as one youth minister told me, we have forgotten to explain this to them.  We have been operating with the assumption that the teen years are an assumed privilege when no one else seems to be giving them that any more.  Mark Senter, author of Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry, wrote in response to the Time article, “If Kirn is right, what is youth ministry: summer camp?” (Mark Senter, “View to the Future”

Summer camp times are truly needed.  But is this what youth ministry is all about?  Personally I want to be able to do more than that.  I don’t want my youth ministry to be an extracurricular event that gets added in if there is time and if it fits a schedule.  I want to provide true support in the time of growing in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and men.   Luke 2:52.

Barna Research Group wrote a recent report entitled Third Millennium Teens.  They found the top- rated issue for teens these days is educational achievement.  This is a different top need from the Busters.  For the Mosaics (as Barna refers to them), no other issue comes close.

Group Magazine ran a poll among their summer Group Workcamp youth.  Their number one concern was school grades. ( “A Really Big Big Survey We Did” Group Magazine, May/June 2000).  These would be a heavy majority of youth group youth.

I ran a very unscientific survey with youth ministers across the United States and found that 50 percent of youth ministers did not know when interim or report cards came out.  Many said they encouraged academic achievement but few seemed to have it incorporated into the program.  It was an add-on.  Someone told me that his church wouldn’t allow him to do anything but “spiritual” stuff.  Someone honestly told me that he had never thought about it.  He had focused on sports and stuff.  Only 31 percent honored honor roll students which is an achievement and a behavior pattern we should praise. This is a life skill that will shape them now as well as in the future.

No one had any academic requirements for leadership.  Hopefully it is the disciplined youth we are putting into leadership which makes such a requirement nil–but this is not what I see at my school.
If educational achievement is such a large need to youth and youth spend the majority of their time at school, why do we run our youth ministries in a separate circle from that?  Want more proof?  Why do parents feel it is okay to ground their child from church youth activities?  In their perspective, they are just grounding them from summer camp so they can help them focus on what is important.  What if we changed this and began helping with that important thing?

When I come to speak to a new group, my identity as a substitute teacher is what they grab onto.  After I’m done speaking, I have crowds around me to talk.  Not too unusual for a youth evangelist.  Yet what I am hearing is stories and stories about school.  Even such mundane stuff as an assignment.  Could this be because they have a connection with a “church person” and school?

This has caused me to think back to when I was a youth pastor.  I saw the school as a mission field– not as a place where my teens spent the majority of their time, the place where their future is formed and where high school alone brings great pressure.  From my youth group meetings I was preaching “win your schools for Christ.”  Was I just adding another pressure without addressing the real pressure?  Was I running my youth ministry in a separate circle from their lives?

There are some in our groups who are true achievers–and busy.  How many (guilty here) have given our youth a choice between youth group or something at school?  And we have used guilt in that process.  Or we’ve asked them to add one more thing to their plate.  All of this done without recognizing true needs.

I know this “campus missionary” movement is the hot thing right now.  But what good is a campus missionary who has low grades, tardies, and/or bad class behavior?  I know most of the Christian youth at my school of 2,500.  There are many who are more of a witness with their grades and classroom behavior than those who are involved with the campus club.

This really hit home March 9, 2000.  One of “my boys,” someone I was discipling, died.  It was a sudden accident that devastated the entire school.  During the mourning (with wails and fainting), stories came out about Frank.  Teachers were visibly upset because they enjoyed him so much.  Other substitutes came to his viewing because he made such an impact in their classes.  He was the type to set the tone for a learning environment, even for subs.  The students told story after story of Franks’ achievements. Everyone knew him as a Christian.  Thirteen hundred people came to the funeral.  Twelve hundred made a commitment to pick up where Frank left off.      Frank didn’t preach.  He didn’t hand out tracts.  He didn’t start a Bible club or attend one. He was a good student.  He was polite in class and didn’t push his limits, even if it was a substitute.  He worked hard and got good grades (not his strength).  He played with that little extra on the football field.  He smiled at everyone.  He talked to everyone.  And he always gave the answer as to the reason why he lived. Twelve hundred students were affected by Frank for the glory of God.  (To read the full story of Frank’s life and death, go to

I know, I know.  Not your youth.  They are not tardy.  They don’t take an extra lunch.  They don’t sit in the corner and talk during class.  But how do you know?  I know you can’t sub at every school your youth are at.  But what are you doing to know?

A most curious thing I have found out recently is that this “campus missionary” movement is a culturally white youth ministry concept.  The past few months I have been grabbing every black youth person I know and asking such questions.  I was the only white speaker at a youth conference (what a great experience) and when testimony time came, the youth gave testimonies of education and achievement.  When white youth are asked to give testimonies, it tends to be about personal needs being met.  One church I talked to is actually having fundraisers to give college scholarships (and not to Bible college) to their youth.

One of the leading black youth ministers told me that black churches see education as a way out and up.  It is incorporated into church life placing the church as one more infrastructure to develop their youth.  He stereotyped culturally white youth as having the family infrastructure to help education which is why we don’t incorporate it into our church youth ministries.  He was surprised to learn that a lot of our family infrastructures are not healthy and there is a gap of youth group and school.  We both learned a lot.

It seems that culturally white churches compartmentalize faith.  One youth pastor told me the problem with youth ministry is the youth just need to commit to God more and the youth need to be asked to commit to what is important in their lives.  With a compartmentalized faith, God will never be that important thing because He’s not a part of the important thing (school).  I recently had a student in class who I also just happened to be at his youth group to preach.  I was riding him harder than the other students.  When he asked me why (I thought you loved me?), I told him I expected more out of him because of his faith in God.  He had never been challenged like that before (he gave me the proof with his report card).  He told me that he goes to youth group on Wednesday nights but this is school.  That was not a cheeky remark.  It was a remark caught off-handed that spoke volumes.

Culturally black churches don’t do it all right either.  In my opinion, some of them lack holiness teaching.  They just have a different approach to youth ministry and in my self-consumed world, that is new to me.

Mark Senter also said, “For the major part of the twentieth century youth evangelism has tied relationships to entertainment…  If extreme sports symbolize postmodern youth’s fixation on the thrill of the moment and MTV’s Spring Break and Road Rules depict social norms, if WWF Superstars capture the fantasy of middle school kids and Crystal Meth is the drug of choice in middle America, how can entertainment possibly provide the basis for relational evangelism?” (Senter, Ibid.)

We can’t compete.  We’ve known that for years (since MTV, etc.).  We are able to offer safe places for youth to have fun (without fear of doing something that will get them grounded).  Or a place to meet God, to have an experience with God.  Then it doesn’t matter if it is MTV or WWF.  It alone is different and positive and summer camp.  All needed and required in youth ministry.  But is that all we can offer?

What if we tied relationships into life skills?  What if our Bible teachings on integrity, perseverance, honesty, obedience  and other Christian living principles took life because it would directly help achievement?  What if youth group became something of success importance and brought compartments of their lives together?

This is more than tutoring.  In my opinion, students who make honor roll should be brought before the church and applauded wildly every quarter.  We should be giving our young women life training and “turning them out” with high class debutante balls.  We should teach our teens how to eat at a 5-star restaurant with a “church” person.  Faith just moved into another compartment–and think of the memorable conversation you could have.

These are just ideas free to be stolen and used.  Ideas that tie life skills into relationships which will hopefully have long-term effects on someone’s life. There has got to be a zillion other ideas that are tying relationships into life skills.  Many in practice right now.  And I would guess those are the youth who are growing in wisdom, stature, in favor with God and men.