Eleven-year-old Benjamin Cunya attended a Seventh-day Adventist summer camp for the first time this year.
Benjamin, a native of Peru, eagerly jumped out of the car when he arrived at Camp Victory Lake in the U.S. state of New York. Even though he is learning English, he went on the prowl for friends and fun. He said he found both — and more.
“I’ve learned that God made the Earth and made mankind beautiful,” he said. “My mom wanted me to come here and learn more about God. I’m glad I came.”
Benjamin is among more than 23,000 children from across North America who attended the church’s 67 camps and conference centers this past summer. Every year, more than 1,100 campers make decisions for Christ, and about 300 are baptized.
Jesus is at the heart of the camp experience, said Bill Wood, coordinator of camp ministries for the North American Division.
“Camp ministry is youth evangelism at its best,” Wood said.
“Imagine a small child who stands in line waiting, clasping their pillow anxiously as the director hands out cabin assignments,” he said. “The child is ready for adventure, but they may not even realize that the adventure they will soon embark upon will show them the most amazing picture of Jesus they may ever encounter in their entire lives— a picture that will take them finally to live forever with Jesus in the kingdom of God.”
Adventist camps, which have changed thousands of lives through the years, started inauspiciously 89 summers ago in the state of Michigan. In 1927, Luther Warren, 14, and Harry Fenner, 17, recognized that the boys in their church needed a ministry that would help them grow their relationship with Jesus. The two walked down a dusty country road, talking. Soon they stopped and knelt in a field and asked God to lead in their dreams and plans.
The boys’ prayers were answered shortly thereafter when Grover Fattic, who had dreams of his own for a wider ministry to young people, presented a proposal for a summer camp program to the East Michigan Conference leadership. Fattic was serving as conference Missionary Volunteer secretary at the time and, with approval but no conference funding, Fattic founded a Boy Scout camp at Townline Lake.
The first Adventist summer camp, organized by Fattic at Townline Lake, Michigan, lasted for 10 days and cost $10 per camper. The conditions were less than ideal and, indeed, some parents who drove their sons out to the camp thought it too unsafe and took their sons back home, Wood said. The 18 boys who stayed swam, camped, and fellowshipped together.
“The event was so successful that Fattic organized a similar experience for girls the following summer,” said Wood, who has been involved with Adventist camps for 40 years and continues in his retirement. “That first group of boys helped birth a program that was quickly followed in Wisconsin, California, New England and, eventually, across the nation and world.”
Those humble beginnings grew into Adventist Youth Ministries, which includes Adventist Camp Ministries, Pathfinders, and Adventurers.
Today, most conferences in the North American Division own a youth camp, and the combined 14,600 acres (5,910 hectares) of Adventist campgrounds is worth about $1 billion. Some camps are located in rustic environments and operated only during the summer and early fall months, while others are large camps and conference centers that cater to members of their local conference and outside Christian or secular groups that rent the facilities.
Nearly 370 staff members and their families work all year long at camps in the North American Division, Wood said.
“Most of our camp and retreat centers operate year round,” Wood said.
He said more than 35,000 Adventists attend children, teen, and family camps every year, but they represent a small fraction of the total guests.
“Many camps host non-Adventist retreats, family camps, and secular conferences, and this is subtle evangelism at is best as it gives our non-Adventist friends a new look at Adventists,” he said.
The children who spend summer days on Adventist campgrounds unplug their electronic devices to enjoy the great outdoors. A variety of activities, which include swimming, water skiing, climbing, arts and crafts, and campfire moments, keep the campers and more than 2,700 summer staff members busy. But Adventist camps are more than that.
Camps provide a safe haven for youth, said Norm Middag, a pioneer in Adventist camping in North America and founder of the Association of Adventist Camp Professionals.
“Camps provide a place in a natural setting where young campers as well as families can enjoy wholesome outdoor experiences and for families, a cost effective vacation,” he said.
Not only do campers learn how to be part of a community and develop new skills and interests, but they also develop spiritually, Middag said.
“Camping helps develop spiritual meanings and values that help the camp users strengthen their character,” he said. “Lifetime friendships are made through these experiences. And the main purpose of our camps is to provide an atmosphere where young and old alike can experience a new relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Summer camps also provide their young adult staff members with an opportunity to develop a commitment to the Adventist Church and see their faith in action as they seek to win campers to Jesus, said Jason C. North Sr., youth and camp director at Camp J.R. Wagner in Cassopolis, Michigan.
Among those staff members is Chelsea Dancek, who has served as a counselor at Camp Kulaqua in High Springs, Florida, for several years.
“God showed me that camp is a time to learn to better love and be loved,” she wrote in a July 13, 2016, blog post titled, “Not Just a Summer Fling.” “He taught me that the campers and staff I was surrounded by were not only people I could minister to, but also windows into His heart.”
Debra Brill, a North American Division vice president who chairs youth and young adult ministries, said Dancek’s story is repeated in the experiences of hundreds of other young adults who have worked as staff at Adventist camps. She said research commissioned by the North American Division in 2009 revealed that more than 60 percent of those employed at summer camps retained their connection with the church, moving on to become denominational leaders in Adventist churches and institutions.
God is using summer camps to bring about decisions for Christ and baptism into the church, said Rob Lang, camp director at Cohutta Springs Youth Camp (CSYC) in Georgia.
“There are so many ways God connects people to a saving relationship with His Son, Jesus,” Lang said.
He shared how God worked in the life of a camper named Elise Jones this past summer.
Jones had been to camp before, but this summer she decided to sign up for two weeks. Her first week was at Ultimate RAD Camp, a teen specialty camp that offers a different outdoor adventure every day. Jones tried mountain biking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting. For her second week, she went to Teen Camp 2.
During both weeks, the teen grew close to her camp counselor, Lizzie Williams, who encouraged her spiritually, Lang said.
“Elise prayed about it and experienced such a feeling of peace,” Lang said. “She decided it was time to take her stand.”
She was baptized at camp on July 16.
Jones, who entered high school this fall, described camp as “a fresh start.”
“Everyone at camp is there to support you and help you grow closer to God because you are basically all family at camp,” she said.
Her father, Matt Jones, principal of Atlanta Adventist Academy, is thrilled his daughter attended camp. Days after the baptism, he wrote in a letter to Lang: “I just want to thank you for the incredible ministry of CSYC. Words serve as insufficient containers of meaning and emotion watching my youngest come up out of the water at her baptism last Sabbath.”
Cohutta Springs Youth Camp ministers to more than 1,800 campers each summer. Across North America, more than 1,100 campers make decisions for Christ every year, and an average of 300 people are baptized.
Camp “is a great place to make decisions that can last for eternity,” Lang said.