One of my favorite events of ministry within the life of our church is our annual trek with kids and youth to summer church camp. We go to our Lutheran camp near Asheville, N.C., in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. It is appropriately named Lutheridge. Many church denominations have camps in that same area.
As you read the Citizen today, I am blessed to be in the middle of our week at Lutheridge right now. Having come here with campers for over 30 years, I can give you an almost exact account of our week, even though I’m writing this before we leave.
Sunday evening all of the campers, counselors, and staff gather in the open-air pavilion down by the lake side for the opening vespers worship service. Vespers means “evening.” There are nearly 400 total in the camp. For the various activities and learning opportunities, that total is divided into about eight areas, and each area is divided into cabin groups with eight campers and a counselor in each cabin. It makes for superb experiences with both large and small groups.
As everyone gathers for that Sunday night vespers there is great excitement and anticipation in the air, with just a bit of nervous apprehension about what to expect and the reality of being away from home — and away from all electronics — yes, away from all electronics — for a whole week. The service is quite informal, yet quite reverent, and the standard guitar camp songs fill the air and echo back from the surrounding hillsides. It’s beautiful and has that special flavor and feel that only church camp can provide.
Pastor Mary tells one of her stories, which is actually a somewhat lengthy “children’s book” with intriguing characters and a story line that tells the great truths of life and faith. She has memorized the story and delivers it with dramatic flair. Everyone listens intently, usually with a “congregational participation” phrase repeated throughout. Her husband, Pastor Tim, fellow pastor and co -director with her of the camp, leads the worship and songs and sets out the positive direction of the week to come.
As the campers and counselors are dismissed, they head to their cabins for additional getting-to-know-you games and finally the prayers and lights out in the cabins. Of course, some get more sleep than others, but all are safe and know this is a special week for sure.
Monday morning and every morning brings an early wake-up call from the cabin counselors, followed by an early morning devotion in the individual areas. These are called “Morning Watch.” There are some sleepy eyes, but the walk/hike to the dining hall gets everyone’s blood flowing and appetite growing. And the perfect location in the mountains makes the mornings particularly crisp and invigorating.
All the meals are “quite the events” in the dining hall where everyone in camp gathers for “fueling,” fun, and fellowship. The division of campers at the tables is different from the cabin groups, so everyone makes new friends.
The days then unfold in similar fashion for all, just with different scheduling. Mornings are filled with Bible teaching of some kind for everyone. My group is made up of middle school kids who are taking confirmation classes back in our church and are trying to extend that learning with intense Bible study all week at camp. We study the life and ministry of Jesus as told by Luke in his gospel account. Another group explores what it means to “be the church” by studying Ephesians. The other groups study and explore their faith in a whole variety of ways.
With the intentional Bible teaching sessions and the continued and repetitive devotion and prayer times, we all — campers, staff, and pastors — grow in our faith in exponential leaps and bounds. Again, that’s the true blessing of church camp.
But church camp is certainly not only about the head-down-in-the-Bible sessions. Church camp is fun! The kids have long and fun sessions in the swimming pool, with games and contests going continually. Another activity the campers always seem to enjoy is the time spent in the craft lodge making the traditional camp beading and braiding projects to take home. Screams of joy also come from both the high and low challenge courses and the climbing wall. Big field games of “Capture The Flag” also provide fun and exercise. The older groups also get to go off-camp and up further into the mountains and experience the mountain streams for hiking and creek-walking. Younger groups get to have cook-outs and go canoeing.
By Friday night when the whole camp again gathers for the campfire vespers service, the joy and friendship and faith and fun of the week all overflow into a unified experience of having a real relationship with God and with one another. It’s a feeling of oneness with God perhaps unlike any other. And the same thing happens again and again, year after year.
Church camp. What a blessing!
[Kollmeyer is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. For more information call 770-461-3403 or go to www.princeofpeacefayette.org (notice .org)]