Written by Brent Bonvanie
I think all of us who have worked at VBS or church day-camp have some deep-seated jealousy towards overnight camp. Sure, we get our sleep and are only responsible for children eight to ten hours of the day, but there is something tantalizing about competent staff and acres upon acres of forest and fields.
In comparison, church camp can feel far more… suffocating, especially for city churches. Part of me would cringe any time my staff took the kids outside. Trading the gym and classrooms for fresh air was great; the multiple band-aids and incident reports from kids falling on the parking lot, not so much.
There are two main limitations that come with running camp out of a church: budget and space. How do you make camp fun when your budget is limited to craft essentials? Or how about when your camp rooms are used by other ministries, so you can’t keep decorations or activities set up overnight?
If I learned anything from nine years of camp, it’s that while having space and supplies make it easier to create a fun environment, the real factors that keep kids entertained and excited to learn about Jesus, as cheesy as it sounds, are enthusiasm and creativity.
Cast Your Vision
This begins long before camp ever starts. As a camp ministry leader, your first task is to get your congregation, your community, and your team to buy into your vision. Define why your camp exists, and then tell everybody! Your conversations with prospective parents, your flyers, and your Sunday morning announcements should all emphasize your goal to produce a fun, exciting, and life-transforming summer camp experience.
Gather Your Supplies
Next, make sure you have the tools to pull this off. Be strategic with how you gather supplies. If you know in the fall that you will be running camp the following summer, then be looking for deals all year round. Take advantage of your Costco membership and buy those five litre tubs of glue. Ask for donations in your church bulletin. You never know who has been stockpiling craft supplies over the last 12 years for just such an occasion.
Inspire Your Team
When your vision has been cast and your supplies gathered, the next step is to inspire enthusiasm and creativity in your team. Between training on policy and procedure, build in some “improvisation time.” Give your team ten minutes to come up with an awesome game using your limited supplies. This will teach them how to have fun without the luxury of high ropes courses or giant soccer balls, but also how to react when some of your activities inevitably fail or run short.
It is also wise to learn your team’s strengths. Can one of your volunteers look at toilet paper rolls and see potential superheroes, trains, binoculars, and any number of animals? Not everyone is built to teach the Bible lesson or make fools of themselves on stage, but the camper huddled in the corner during the game of Octopus will remember the leader who encouraged them to play and promised to run with them. Train your staff so that their enthusiasm is evident, no matter their strengths.
Own Your Creativity
Finally, remember that limited resources do not have to stifle your creativity. One activity that stands out from my camp years was a maze we built out of mats and cardboard boxes. The kids had to crawl under the mats and through the boxes without being seen by the guards (leaders standing behind mats that were standing upright). It was nothing fancy, but with dimmed lights and leaders who played their roles well, the kids loved the atmosphere and sense of urgency we created.
Your teaching time does not have to be fancy either. An excited teacher with a prop or picture is far more effective than an elaborately designed but poorly performed skit. The goal of church camp should always be for kids to start or develop a relationship with Jesus, so play to your strengths when teaching what that means.
Bigger is not necessarily better. A large property, fancy equipment, and great decorations might get your campers’ attention at first, but what they will remember is how we as leaders treated them. Did we have fun with them? Did we encourage them when they were down? Did our actions reflect Christ, and did we enthusiastically and creatively point kids to Him?
No matter your budget or space, your answers to these questions are what matter and will create the atmosphere for a truly memorable and life-changing summer.