4 Warnings for Students Returning from Youth Camps
Youth Camp, and similar events, can provide some of the most powerful spiritual experiences young people will have in their lives! To this day, there are adult men and women who were in my youth ministry when I as a youth pastor who still say that Youth Camp was a time when they were the closest to God than any other time before or since. I can say, in my own life, even as a volunteer working Youth Camp, I too have had spiritual experiences at Youth Camp that are unrivaled in any other setting.
Then, we all come home, and life returns to normal. We go back to our home churches, our schools, our families, and we start dealing with all the same things we were before we got on fire for God at camp. All too often students feel overwhelmed, disenchanted, and suddenly defeated. The youth who left camp ready to storm Hell with a water pistol will quickly be faced with all kinds of doubts, and if not dealt with properly, depression. I’ve seen it too much over the years of ministry: pastors and youth pastors are left to pick up the pieces of frustrated young people, who don’t know what to do with what happened to them at Youth Camp in light of the real living situations they find themselves in. I can identify several adults who don’t follow Jesus today, and have told me something to the effect of, “If only I could be as close to God as I was at camp. I’ve never felt God like that again.” They actually left church because they couldn’t put together what happened at camp to what was happening when they got back home. I used to think this was just a Pentecostal problem. Then I met peers from different backgrounds in Seminary, and discovered they all have the same frustration. Whether it’s Youth Camp, Winterfest, or Winterspree- there is a down time that follows these events that can lead to serious spiritual issues. We do a really good job at pumping students up for Jesus, but we often overlook the next steps of grounding them in Christ and helping them interpret their experiences at camp in a way that will equip to be lifelong disciples of Christ.
So I want to offer some warnings for young people as they return home from Youth Camp. I encourage Youth Pastors and Pastors to debrief with their students as soon as possible and help them process what God is doing in their lives.
1. Don’t compare Youth Camp to your home church. You have had an amazing experience with God this week! But don’t confuse the Youth Camp “experience” with the spiritual experience. What God has done in you is greater than the environment you were in when He did it. Your home church may not have music like camp. Your pastor is probably not as “cool” as the camp evangelist was. You may return to a large church with a lot of young people, but statistics show that you probably won’t. Your church may not even have a youth group with as many students in it as you had in your cabin. And those altar services may not look anything like what goes on at your church Sunday to Sunday, but that’s okay.
Comparing spiritual experiences between each other, and between different churches is a really bad idea (Galatians 6:4). I know as a pastor, I’ve left a lot conferences thinking, “Man! If I could only get my church to be like that, I could stay close to God!” What I had to learn was, that the conference experience functioned according to its purposes; purposes that the local church is not always called to function in. In other words, the folks that plan Youth Camp plan it in a way to provide the experiences you have had this week. Your home church, though, is not designed to provide the “camp experience.” Instead, your local church is a place to grow, learn, and to serve others. What God has done in you at at Youth Camp should equip you to return home and be part of those things in new and vibrant ways. Don’t expect it to look the same or feel the same, it probably won’t, and that doesn’t mean that the people in your church are any less spiritual than those you’ve spent the last week with at camp.
2. Don’t let anyone talk you out of what happened at camp. Chances are when you return home you are going to be way more excited about Jesus then some of your family is. You will be more excited than your family, your youth group, and even some of the adults in your church. Because of that, sometimes people get jealous. I have seen well meaning adults deflate a young person’s excitement in no time flat. They may remind you that the real world isn’t like camp. They may try to convince you that whatever happened to you at camp was just an emotional experience, conjured up by loud music and flashing lights. But don’t let anyone steal what God has done in your life!
It is important that you remember the things that have happened in you this week. Testimonies are a HUGE part of being a follower of Jesus. In the Bible, time and again, God tells the people to do something that will remind them of what He did for them. People in the Bible did everything from stacking stones to taking Communion regularly to stay mindful of what God had done. You need to do the same. Do something to commemorate your experience: draw a picture, write it in a journal, make a YouTube video, Tweet it, write a Facebook note, just do something that will keep you in remembrance. When times get tough, and doubt starts to come in, close your eyes and remember where you were when God touched you- remember the song that was playing, the smells you remember, the camp sanctuary where the service was, etc. What God has started at camp, He wants to complete in you (Phil 1:6), so don’t forget it!
3. Hold on to what was spoken over you, but don’t let it haunt you. Camp altar services are a time where our leaders and peers often feel inspired to speak words of encouragement over us. Sometimes this may be a word of knowledge, where the Spirit uses someone to address a need that only God knows about. Other times, someone may be used to prophesy something to you; they may confirm a calling that God has put on your life, or they may be used to remind you of something God has already said in His Word. In any case, the things people say over us during times of spiritual vulnerability can have a major impact on our lives from that point forward.
When I was 16, someone felt inspired to tell me: “I see you leading thousands to Jesus. I see you on a stage and there are thousands coming down and giving their lives to Jesus.” Needless to say, I was stoked! To this day, I have not seen anything like the alleged word from God come to pass. In my early years of ministry this word haunted me, and lead to a lot of depression and doubt. I didn’t know what to do to get that word to happen. I tried planning crusades and tent revivals. Then I started pastoring, and my church never grew to huge numbers. I felt like a failure. As I matured, though, I have learned to hold on to words others speak to me, but not to let them haunt me. If what was said is God’s will, then God is able to make it happen. So if God is calling you, even if you don’t know what He’s calling you to do, just be a good disciple. Love God, love others, pursue holiness, be given to spiritual disciplines like prayer/meditation/reading Scripture/fasting, and you will be on the right track for God to do what He wants to do in your life.
4. All routines aren’t worth settling back into. When you get home you will have to settle back into what used to be normal. You will have home life, chores, homework, friends, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, internet, Netflix.. all things you have been largely deprived of this week at camp. Guess what? Not having some of those things is exactly what you needed to have the experiences you had. Some routine things are inevitable- others you can choose to do or not. Just because you get your cell phone back doesn’t mean that you should start blowing it up with text messages. You don’t even have to respond to all the texts you got while you were away!
Social media, texting, television, and other things can be huge distractions to our spiritual lives. There are studies that are showing that texting is even changing the way our brains process communication. We anxiously wait for that notification sound to go off, and we stop everything we are doing to see the text or Facebook notification we just received. It is an unhealthy addiction. You have already had a week away from these things, so take advantage of this time to break free from the overuse of things that distract you or cause you anxiety. You can save yourself a lot of pain in life when you learn to be free from so much noise, and learn to simply live life in the company of God and those closest to you.