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Camp, Teen Staff, and the Arc of Christian Formation

One of the aspects I am most excited about in the transition from Youthfront Camp South to Youthfront LaCygne is with regards to the arc of Christian formation in a young person’s life. We are creating an opportunity at LaCygne for high school and college age people to further develop a robust faith that they can own.

This was already happening as Youthfront operated Youthfront Camp South for high school students, but the intentional shift to becoming LaCygne —an intentional community of prayer and service—helps the progression in one’s faith to be more pronounced, and it is given room and opportunities to flourish. Let me relate my own story to you, as I think it helps inform what we are trying to do at Youthfront LaCygne.

I grew up attending Youthfront Camps when they were still called Circle-C and L-Bar-C Ranch, and Youthfront was called Kansas City Youth for Christ. I remember loving my cabin leaders as a middle school student. Without those staff dedicated to guiding me in my experience there, and the friends that I attended with, I do not believe the time and money spent there would be worth it. There was a session each morning that included a dynamic speaker—some of whom I still remember by name—and worship. We played a large-scale organized game in the morning as well. In the afternoon we enjoyed all of the fun spaces that were open, including a dry slide where the rider would sit on a burlap sack. Yes. This was a long time ago. We finished the afternoon by studying with teams and participating in competition style bible quizzing.

Every evening after dinner was the rally. The rally was long, but contained time for the goofy sports directors to announce point totals for the day, play games, make people eat weird stuff as a challenge, and dance around. This was always fun. By some miracle there was a transition from that time into another speaking session, worship, and a response, which usually included people being available to pray with anyone who had more questions or desired prayer.

Either before or after each night’s rally, we also dressed up in costumes and played the big-event game for the day which ranged from Mission Impossible (Night Strike) to Hillbilly Hoe Down. In the evenings, if you were lucky, you could also sneak in a game of air hockey, and snag some ice cream, coke, and giant pixy sticks in the snack shop. These days were long and full of life.

It was easy to return home from these experiences with great memories, the feeling that $20 could last forever there, some new friendships, and the temporary ability to make my parents think I had miraculously transformed into an obedient, good-natured child. That faded about as quickly as the smell of lake water in my clothes once they were washed.

At that age, I was attending camp because my parents helped pay for it, my friends were going, and our church partnered with Youthfront regularly for experiences like camp, Serve Day, Impact, and Club 121. After a few years of this, a couple camp crushes later, and a few visits from my former cabin leaders while they were passing through Lawrence where I lived, the spark of being at camp, mowing lawns to raise money for it, and playing the nightly events had lost its luster. But something new was on the horizon: the next level of participating in life at camp. Teen staff.

At this point in my life, I had grown up in a loving Christian home. I was a pastor’s kid, and had been taught extensively about the bible, and what it should look like to be a Christian. Most of my friends attended our church, and despite my bent towards rebellion and taking things to the extreme, I could do okay at providing the right Christian answer when prompted. When I joined teen staff I was 14, headed into 9th grade, had served my time as a “sevie” in junior high, and was done being a generally lame person. I was ready to break out and be who I wanted to be. I had secured a number of weeks as the ATV supervisor assistant, and it didn’t matter that I was eating the dust of the 10 riders in front of me. I got to be at camp, for free, and hang out with high-schoolers. Something different happened on teen staff though.

I was shocked and surprised to find out that teen staff wasn’t just the next level of camp crushes (though I still tried to make it out to be), or getting to ride ATVs more than any camper ever would. I discovered juniors and seniors in high school who were talking about the bible, prayer, evangelism, and their struggles as Christians like I had never heard before. I participated in conversations and worship times with the teen staff community that seemed less produced and showy than anything I had seen at the rallies or big Youthfront events. I was being mentored by the teen staff supervisor who seemed to really care about my life and was concerned with helping me to learn and grow.

So I reached an impasse. Either I could bail and find some Christian sugar-high where all that was required of me was to jump up and down and scream Jesus every once in a while, or I could buckle in, settle down, and try to figure out what it might mean for me to cultivate a relationship with Jesus Christ for myself, and with the support and teaching of my peers and mentors. The four high-school years I spent on teen staff totaled roughly 30 weeks at Youthfront Camp South, and countless hours developing new practices and rhythms of my Christian faith. With the help of my teen staff supervisor I began to learn to lead worship songs for the teen staff community. I had developed a rhythm of scripture reading and prayer that I remained committed to at home throughout the year, and I forged some very close friendships that continued to grow and become a vital network of encouragement, challenge, and exhortation in my life. And…maybe some crushes too.

I learned to serve other people and pattern my life after Jesus Christ “who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) Teen staff isn’t built on getting the most fun out of the week, but instead, the entire framework is based on serving the life of the community at camp, and helping in any way needed. Strangely, the teen staff program at Youthfront continues to have more people apply than there are spots available, and people continue to name teen staff as a primary reason for developing a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

This is why it is important for us to think about Youthfront LaCygne and creating a place where late adolescents can continue to be nurtured and challenged in their faith. If we are merely giving high school or college students another neatly packaged and spoon-fed camp experience, we are not fully allowing them to develop a growing faith for themselves, and we certainly aren’t allowing for a foundation and framework to exist that becomes applicable in settings outside of a camp experience. So we have turned the corner, and we are now more interested in creating a playground where Jesus Christ can be found in all of the ways that Jesus Christ can be found. We are inviting late adolescents to be on pilgrimage, because we believe—along with our spiritual ancestors—that going on journeys is important. We find that God is able to work with us in ways unlike those experienced when we are comfortably and numbingly settled in our everyday routines. We hope, in fact, that people develop this discipline while coming to LaCygne and continue a similar habit of spiritual retreat for the rest of their lives whether that is to LaCygne or some other place for spiritual rest, regeneration, and formation.

It is important to note that this isn’t to disparage our efforts at Youthfront Camp West with elementary and middle school children. In fact, true to my own experience as a child, what Youthfront Camp West offers is very appropriate for this age group. Then, as children grow and develop interests and passions of their own, LaCygne is postured to afford space where these passions can be ignited, and where there is no separation in our lives between the spiritual and unspiritual, or the mundane and the religious. Developmentally, this seems to be a very healthy arc of Christian formation and progression in the life of an adolescent.

We hope that what people experience and learn at LaCygne is up to them and guided by the instruction and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Because LaCygne is home to all kinds of people, it is positioned to host all kinds of people, and provide opportunities for prayer, play, work, rest, solitude, conversation, contemplation, nature, fine arts, scripture, music, and relationships. These opportunities exist out of the overflow and expertise of the residents there. In this way, it is the same way that I learned to play guitar and lead corporate worship from my teen staff supervisor. Since LaCygne seeks to recognize the reality of Christ’s presence in all things it will mean that people coming on pilgrimage will begin to grow their own faith and their own sense of seeing the reality of God’s kingdom here and now. Today. Right in front of us, and deeply rooted in us.

It is to this end that we seek to make a stay at LaCygne as affordable and accessible as possible. We believe it is for all ages, but we focus on late adolescents. We believe that high-school and college age people are fully capable of thriving in this atmosphere. We are intent on inviting late adolescents to rise to the occasion and take hold of the opportunities at LaCygne and their own personal growth in a way that we haven’t fully offered until now. We believe and trust the time and space to the supervision, guidance, and direction of the Holy Spirit, and we fully expect for God to move and work in ways that we could never develop into a program, plan, or schedule. We hope that many people come to find life in this place and recognize that these kinds of experiences are what form and shape us profoundly as adolescents, and continue for the rest of our lives.

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