When Methodism founder John Wesley made the decision in the 1730s to take the Good News outside of the sanctuary walls and into God’s natural creations, he questioned himself.
Was it wrong? Was it too radical to take worship outside into the sunshine, among the trees?
Christian camps, he wrote, “allow people to come to a place apart from the rigors and responsibilities that might otherwise disrupt a focus on Spiritual growth. Even more, the Church intentionally wants people to enter the creation because of the growing recognition that the natural world actually speaks of the Creator. Multitudes sense God’s presence afresh while in the midst of nature.”
Christian camp, whether for an adult or a child, is a place to grow in love, grow in your own walk with Jesus Christ and to nurture others.
So, each year, the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church designates a Sunday in February to tout the rewards of attending church camp. This year it is Sunday, Feb. 24.
Camping Sunday is the perfect time for those who have attended camps to share their stories. They also can share a message of the need for scholarship money to help send kids to camp.
Individual churches can help the Board of Camps and Retreats by providing scholarship donations.
Each year, thousands attend one of the three camps or the Life Enrichment Center. Many come year after year and are eager to spread the word about the experience.
“They arrive on a Sunday or Monday and it is a week where they are in a relationship with other campers. They are in cabin groups, small groups, they are doing activities around camp,” Program Hospitality Coordinator Tanner Smith said.
“At Riverside, they are kayaking, shooting archery or sling shots, doing crafts. It’s the same at several others. There is a high ropes course, sailing, canoeing, that sort of thing.”
In the midst of all that fun, there is an overarching theme—kids either begin a relationship with Jesus Christ or strengthen the one they already have and do that in a beautiful outdoor space.
“They are going to worship, going to small groups, going to praise and worship,” Camps and Retreats Director Mike Standifer said. “And we get to do it in a fun environment.”
There are no cell phones at Christian camp, no tablets or laptops. That makes it a better experience for building relationships, making new friends, immersing in the spiritual Christian world.
“Any given weekend there are amazing things happening at camp,” Smith said. “They are taking a break from their real life, getting closer to Christ, experiencing nature and God’s creation.
“We have a tough time reaching out directly to pastors and getting in their ear. We really rely on people that come to our sites to bring those stories back to their congregations.”
It tends to mean more to people when they hear about the camps from those who have experienced them, Smith said.
The Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church has laid out the seven foundations of camp and retreat ministry.
Partner with United Methodist Churches and Agencies
Provide Sacred Places Apart
Extend Christian Hospitality and Community
Nurture Christian Faith and Discipleship
Develop Principled Spiritual Leaders
Teach Creation Care and Appreciation
Inspire and Equip Lives for Love and Justice
This is what camping in the Florida Conference provides. Warren Willis Camp is in Fruitland Park. Other camps include Centenary Camp in Quincy and Riverside Camp and Retreat, located on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in LaBelle.
The Conference offers summer camps for about 4,000 kids each year and keeps its camps open year-round.
“All across the Bible we see examples of people leaving their daily life and escaping to the wilderness to connect with God,” Smith said. “Elijah going to the mountain and seeing thunder and volcanos and fire and still hearing the voice of God.
“Leaving a busy ministry to escape to the wilderness and pray, to be connected to the Father. We want to give opportunities just like that to get away from the emails and the phone calls. Give time back to yourselves and back to Christ.”
Camp leaders have created materials for churches to use in relaying information about the Christian camps, along with a video to show at the churches.
“If churches can’t use that on Camping Sunday, they will take some time in worship over the next year and talk about camping and retreat and the Biblical principles behind it,” Smith said.
“I do think camp is a place for (participants) to get away from what is normal,” Standifer said, “and have a great time being themselves and learning about God in a special place.”
—Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer in Valrico.