CHURCH CAMP — A PLACE WHERE THE SPIRIT DWELLS
Swarms of hundreds of high-energy kids, shouting, cheering, calling out to friends, sponsors, and to no one in general in a cacophony of sounds and activities seems to be a good general description of a typical kick off to a week of an Assemblies of God church camp — wherever it might be located in the United States.
Yet over the last 10 to 15 years, God has been expanding His influence in church camps across the nation in a way some might find unexpected. Instead of just being activity hubs through the “church camp season,” God has been transforming these once relatively Spartan camps into destination centers designed to not only host church camps and youth retreats, but additional events, even those not specifically religious or tied to the Assemblies of God.
Sue Nigh, the executive director of the Ohio Ministry Network’scampgrounds, known as the Heartland Conference Retreat Center, says the facilities are now suited to host groups in size from as few as two to groups up to 700 and offer those groups a variety of amenities.
“The campground/center was running in the red every year,” Nigh explains. “We were either going to have to sell it or do something to make it profitable.”
The issues of money and ministry are often complex, but as Nigh explains, God is not only providing the money, but also a ministry that most didn’t imagine.
Under the direction of then Ohio Ministry Network Superintendent Doug Clay, Nigh was instructed to “fill the rest of the calendar” at the center with nature events for schools (to utilize the grounds’ 362 acres), church getaways, and even non-religious events such as leadership development trainings and corporate team building.
“Now we have hundreds of guests on the grounds every week who are not affiliated with the Church or Assemblies of God,” Nigh says. “But what’s incredible is that people come here, even with no religious background, and they can feel a difference — they can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit and they start asking questions.”
Nigh says that the center has become so popular in the region that they have had to turn away many groups requesting to use the center, so currently the Network is in the process of raising funds to nearly double the capacity of the center.
Noting that the addition of the non-religious events has brought about countless opportunities to plant seeds of faith in people’s lives, Nigh says the new approach to “service ministry” has led the Network to make plans for even greater spiritual ministry.
In addition to offering specialized “Going Deeper” Holy Spirit weekends, “Called Weekends/Camps” for those called into some kind of service, training and ministry to foster families, and helping former drug addicts become evangelists, the center is also going to work with small rural and urban churches.
“So many smaller churches have people making decisions for Christ, but the church doesn’t have the resources or the staff to do discipleship,” Nigh explains. “We’re developing training where new believers from across the state can come for a weekend and be immersed in the truth of the gospel, understand it, and learn how to share their faith in practical ways.”
Nigh observes that this once-traditional church camp has blossomed into a ministry center that now plants seeds of faith in those apart from God; is able to nurture and grow seeds of faith through retreats and training; is still able to see healings, Baptisms, and a harvest of souls through church camps; and will continue to see an exponential harvest as God works through the efforts of those impacted by the center’s ministries.
Yet, Nigh isn’t finished with the “reveal.” As a cabinet member of the AG Camp Network that comes together annually to share ideas, fellowship, and gain training, she says the Heartland Conference Retreat Center is far from alone when it comes to this revolutionary ministry model.
Jaroy Carpenter, the executive director of Lakeview Camp & Retreat Center in Waxahachie, Texas, and his wife Kim, shared how by working to be financially sustainable by opening up to outside groups, God has been doing great things at the North Texas site.
Kim gave an example of an outside group of military veterans being on campus for 21 days as they were transitioning into corporate positions. The training included mandatory stress management classes. About two weeks into the event, an AG church held a youth retreat in an upstairs location, with the music drifting down to the weight room where some of the veterans were working out.
One of the men, Dustin, after learning what was taking place, asked if he could sit in on the services. He later described the services to Kim: “It’s crazy. We’ve been here for over two weeks, going through multiple stress relief classes a day, and never have I ever felt such peace and freedom in my life!”
Borrowing a guitar and unknown to the center’s staff, Dustin began holding services of his own, singing songs he had learned while sitting in on the youth retreat, and inviting other service men and women to join him.
A few weeks later, the camp received an evaluation form back from the group. One of the last question on the form is: “Were there any faith decisions that were made during your time at Lakeview?”
“There were about 80 people in the group, and they wrote down that 59 faith decisions had been made!” Kim states. Jaroy, surprised by the number, called and confirmed it.
“There was no misunderstanding,” Kim says. “Fifty-nine, rough-around-the-edges men and women, fresh off a variety of military experiences — who did not come to our camp for a spiritual retreat — made decisions to follow Jesus.”
Nigh says that these kinds of reports, of God’s presence at AG camps and centers unexpectedly impacting visitors’ lives, are not uncommon. Just as the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of thousands of youth every year — calls to the ministry, baptisms in the Spirit, physical and emotional healings, salvations — His presence continues to draw upon the hearts and lives of people who choose to enter grounds dedicated to glorifying God.
“What happens at Heartland Retreat Center and AG camps and centers across the U.S. changes the world,” Nigh says. “When people visit, whether for a day or for weeks, they have the opportunity to experience the love and presence of God. And that’s what we want — for Jesus to be lifted up.”