Students, Churches ADVANCE Anyway Despite Summer Camp Cancellations
In early Spring, as South Carolina Baptist Convention staff processed how COVID-related closures would impact missions and ministry, it became clear that regular summer camp experiences would be cancelled. Thousands of individuals participate in SummerSalt, KidSalt and trips to Camp McCall annually. SCBC staff worked quickly to create an alternative for churches to still hold summer programs that would serve as a platform to share the hope of the gospel with the next generation.
“We are proud of the SummerSalt strategy, theme and development but its success can only be defined by God’s hand and favor. We are looking at opportunities for SummerSalt to continue serving our churches in more effective and healthy ways moving forward,” says Bryant Laird, director of SummerSalt, a week-long camp for middle and high schoolers.
Laird credits senior SCBC leadership with providing support and encouragement for the virtual camp idea launched for churches. A typical SummerSalt experience includes guest speakers, in-depth Bible study and worship led by vibrant college-aged staff and all under an exciting theme. The planning team identified key spiritual content goals for a virtual format and then invited guest pastors to record messages, camp staffers filmed devotions and the worship team offered several sets of performed music, among other resources. Churches were given free access to the material to use as they saw fit.
Justin Donnahoo is the student pastor at Journey Church and credits SummerSalt with his own spiritual growth as a teenager. Using the virtual resources, Journey Church planned a unique onsite camp experience. They invited some current and former SummerSalt staff to attend, which helped create what Donnahoo called “the right atmosphere.”
“This was the last year of SummerSalt for one of our students and at the end of the event he told me that was one of the best events he had ever been a part of. That wouldn’t have been possible without these resources,” Donnahoo says.
Utica Baptist Church also utilized the virtual resources, and Student Pastor Joe Steele says the experience helped his youth reconnect after being apart for quarantine. Students performed morning community service projects then gathered for worship and Bible study each afternoon of their four-day camp experience. Steele notes the small group questions opened the door for great gospel conversations.
“I am confident some of those conversations will result in decisions for Christ. Hosting this event filled a huge need our group had for community. I saw God use this to bind their hearts closer together as a family of believers. A huge thank-you to the South Carolina Baptist Convention for putting these resources together for us,” Steele says.
“It’s the hope of the gospel that changes us, and it’s available to us at SummerSalt and when we’re not at SummerSalt. Camp should complement the overall messages students are having through their local church,” says Laird.
Virtual resources for KidSalt, a similar camp experience aimed at elementary students, were also provided at no cost to churches and may be used during the summer or fall. The KidSalt resources include a special missions challenge to encourage community interaction. Director Kathy Miles estimates the camp has reached about 800 people.
“We couldn’t gather in person for KidSalt this summer but churches, families and kids across our state are still learning about a God who loves them and living a life that’s fired up for Him. Every church, every size, everywhere has a tremendous opportunity right now to take hold of the moments that God is giving us to reach people in new ways,” Miles says.
Student staffers helped produce content and provide leadership to both virtual camps. Silas Strawderman missed the chance to build relationships through in-person camps this summer but enjoyed serving alongside fellow staffers. He said the staff recorded KidSalt video podcasts explaining different concepts like salvation, church and the Holy Spirit.
“These materials were valuable because they answered common questions that kids have in a fun and concise way,” Strawderman says.
For more than 60 years Camp McCall has been hosting boys and men through a variety of outdoor activities paired with missions education, daily worship and messages from a camp pastor. Its popularity is evidenced by generations of returning campers, many of whom become summer staffers themselves. As the reality of a summer without campers set in for Director Matt “Spinner” Allen, the decision was made to spend the time discipling and mentoring the staffers already committed to serve.
“We created a four-week ADVANCE Discipleship Program, hosting half of the staff in June and the other half in July to allow for social distancing. The staff work incredibly hard. During a normal summer we don’t have extra time for the direct spiritual impact we’d like, so this gave us the opportunity to invest in our staff who are the next generation of leaders in our state,” Spinner explains.
The discipleship program includes structured times for devotion, book studies, chapel twice a week led by local pastors, local mission opportunities and greetings from ADVANCE team members and related ministry highlights. The staffers have helped smaller local churches with physical projects and ministries like food distribution. Spinner says summer staffers are also critical to the ongoing care and upkeep of Camp McCall, and this year is no exception.
Staffer Riley “Hay-Hey” Kinard misses having campers but has enjoyed the opportunity to grow staff relationships this summer. He says normal camp season allows for bonding with fellow staffers over the hard work they do and as they share the gospel with campers. The discipleship experience added new benefits.
“One of the biggest things I gained was stronger relationships with my brothers. We’ve been able to slow down, serve together and grow together spiritually in a different way,” says Hay-Hey.
Keaton Moore attended Camp McCall with First Baptist Marietta in middle and high school and now, as a first-year staffer, says he is excited to join the brotherhood that exists among staffers. He has been encouraged by other staff members’ testimonies and to see God shining in them. He admits being “bummed” to miss out on influencing campers but enjoyed serving the camp’s community and growing in his own relationship with God this summer.
Missions is fundamental to the staff experience and Spinner hopes some staff trips scheduled later in the year can still happen. He also acknowledges the uncertain impacts of lost revenue and ongoing facilities maintenance, some of which was interrupted this year due to volunteer groups not being able to come and serve. But in the end, this unexpected opportunity to invest in staff has been positive.
“We knew going into this that it would be hard to put a quantitative measure on this summer. But we have had multiple conversations with guys who’ve said they were wrestling with some kind of call to ministry, and the chance to be here for a month away from phones and other distractions has helped them come to some peace with what God was calling them to. I’ve seen a deepening and growth in spiritual maturity, and that part has been fantastic,” Spinner says.