MIDDLE SCHOOL CAMP MISTAKES AND MISSES, Over the last 10-15 years, I have chosen to run my own camps for my groups and/or decided to run missions trips in place of summer camp. In my last two churches, we have rented out camps, hired outside speakers and musicians, and ran most of the programming and activities ourselves. I say this not in that I know everything, but to say I know the difficulty and challenge of putting together a whole top to bottom, hopefully “successful” camp/trip/experience. Also, over the recent years, I have been brought in as a speaker at camps and retreats once again to be transparent, I know the challenge of being on the “stage” communicating to a group of students (and leaders) that I will only know for a few days. It also has given me a realistic perspective on the difficulty of the behind-the-scenes “staging” of camp big group times.
All this to be said, instead of offering a direct review to any specific camp, organization, or event, I would like to offer a few general thoughts on often common mistakes and misses (*even my own that I have made) when it comes to middle school (jr. high) camps, retreats and trips…
Too Much Downtime. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop?” While this generation of students is over-scheduled and lives with parents that pack their calendars, too much downtime may also be a mistake. It is a challenge, but middle school camp schedules need to find a good balance of relaxed downtime and intentional planning. Over the years, I have learned the difference between “free time” and “option time” for middle schoolers. Half-hour buffers throughout the day are perfect, and an hour or more of a gap in a schedule leads to boredom or worse creative trouble (*idle hands..)
Over Producing and Under Planning. After a couple of year of screens and digital content, this summer, more than ever, students are DONE with produced videos and screens. They have had enough of ‘”screen babysitting” while adults sit back. Students need live up-front speakers, hosts, and worship. They watch YouTube, TikTok, and social media videos…ALOT anything you make or show will pale in comparison; quite honestly is almost a waste of time.
Cellphones also need to be left off and should not be a part of any activity or game maybe…MAYBE they can be used for the Bible App and note-taking. It is hard work to plan and engage students in teaching and activities, but umm…that is our “job,” and even more, it is our ministry!!
Worship as a Concert. “If it is too loud, you are too old?” Maybe the old saying is true, but I think that cranking the volume doesn’t actually make the music or worship better? Perhaps I am “too old”? Worship is a concert for an audience of ONE. I think there needs to be excitement and passion in worship, and yes, even fun at moments. The challenge is middle schoolers need to learn how to worship, what worship is (and is not), and experience worship.
When we choose to make it a concert, they became spectators and not participants. When the volume is so loud and lights are so bright, that they can’t hear or see the person next to them, they miss the beauty of the body of Christ worshipping together.
Lack of Quantity and Quality of Food. You want to know a secret key to a successful camp, conference, retreat, and any other event for middle schoolers…FOOD. I know it seems unspiritual, and we can argue about the “theology” of food another time. I think there is a good “argument” from the fruit in the garden to the last supper to the marriage supper of the lamb that food matters. I will tell you this it matters to middle schoolers. The food needs to be good. It needs to be enough. It needs to represent the dietary needs and the health of the group. Skimping on the food quantity and quality is a huge miss and mistake.
It will become part of students’ memory and assessment of their time. It will also be one of the first things parents ask. The old joke about “bad camp food” is no longer one we can tell and laugh off. A single taco, a scoop of rice, and a handful of chips for a middle school boy that can finish a whole pizza by themselves do not equate! (True story, from my 8th-grade son)
Not Offering Personal Quiet Time. If we are not offering “be still” moments every day, we are missing out on an essential spiritual practice, especially in the busy and loud world, our middle schoolers live in every day. Campe may be the only time they experience and/or are “forced” to sit in quietness with God, ever!
We want our students to have personal quiet time and grow deeper in their relationship with God; why wouldn’t we offer and teach them how to have one while they are away from their everyday lives?
Dumbing Down Content. Middle schoolers are smart, and they are not elementary kids. The BIGGEST mistake and miss in ALL of the middle school (jr. high) ministry (and to be honest, my pet peeve) is dumbed-down content. Dressing up kids ministry or reducing high school ministry and calling it middle school ministry is not ministry at all. Middle school is a unique and specific age, stage, and spiritual moment. The education system has specific content, standards, and licensure for “middle years” (5th-9th grade).
We make a mistake when we try to use games, lessons, and programming that is not thoughtful and planned specific to 5th-8th graders. It is even a bigger miss when we don’t because we will be dismissed by them when we do. When we talk down to them or treat them as big “little kids”, they will
Focusing on Hot Topic and Issues. Everyone loves the juicy content stuff and the edgy topics. Things that need to be talked about, and middle schoolers need to spend time diving deep into God’s word to understand, but camp is not that time. It is a short, condensed time where one key theme, topic, and passage should be targeted. It is also a time away from parents, family, and the church faith community. This is not the time to try to talk about sexual topics, emotional issues, and other divisive social issues. There is just not enough time to really do these topics justice, and there is also no a time to truly process them well. We miss the moments of next steps, dedication, and renewed spiritual life when we try to use this brief moment to “solve” a larger issue.
Excluding Parents and Families in the Long Run. When we do not have open and ongoing communication with parents, we exclude them from the experience and spiritual next steps. Way too many camps create a bubble of experience where parents are left out. Spiritual moments end up as emotion-driven and staff-dependent.
Regular end-of-the-day updates, highlights, and photos should be sent out at the end of each day. Even short snippets of videos of activities and speaking at parents being engaged and prepared to process with their students when they get home!
The church and youth ministry, in general, has embraced family/parent ministry. There is a better understanding of inter-generational ministry, as a part of long-term faith, when we make camp a separated spiritual journey moment we disconnect students from their family and the family of God.
Hype Over Holiness. An easy mistake and miss, especially when it comes to camp, is putting a more significant value on the hype than on holiness. I am not saying make it boring and somber. Camp IS a hype moment, and it needs to be huge and exciting, packed with fun but camp can also have a unique opportunity to present holy moments. Surrounded by God’s creation, other believers, hearing different voices speaking, and spending extended time away from the distractions of the normal life sets up young students to seek holiness. Unfortunately, there can be a tendency to create a different set of distractions or completely overshadow moments of the divine by only offering a hyped-up program.
Even in those sacred final moments of the final big group time when God has prepared hearts for salvation, a rededication, or even a call to ministry it is easier to turn up the party than to tune into God. We have to choose not to have another “Church Clap” dance party, right after a speaker brings us to a powerful life-changing moment.
Emotional vs. Eternal.
For as long as I can remember, going back to when I was a middle schooler at my first camp, emotions tend to run high at the end of camp around bonfires, at the altar, and at parent pick up. The final miss and mistake is a classic that has continued to be a challenge for as long as I have been doing ministry to students (24+ years full-time)—highlighting the emotional and missing the eternal, working up the emotions to get students to make a decision, playing off of a song or a story to get a temporary moment, instead of seeking to long for the eternal long-lasting life journey.
Seek more than a short-lived once-a-year decision but looking for ways to point middle schoolers to a long-term, year-long discipleship process once they get home! Camp can be the catalyst to a whole entire year of ministry, don’t miss the opportunity by making easily fixable mistakes!