All week long they’d been asked to consider God’s calling on their lives.
Now here they were — middle and high school students from all across North Carolina — gathered for morning worship at summer youth camp being asked one final time how they were going to respond to God’s call.
“We’ve been talking about a call to follow Christ,” said worship speaker Eddie Briery, pastor of the Church at Red River in Shreveport, Louisiana. “Today’s theme is to live like Christ. What does that look like? How are you going to go home and live like Christ? Is there anybody who would like to share?”
One by one, students came forward — just a few at first — but as more students shared, more students came.
Some spoke of how they’d trusted Christ for salvation that week at camp. Others spoke of rededicating their lives to Christ. One spoke of answering a call to ministry. Others talked about going home and sharing the gospel with their friends at school, on their sports teams or with their parents.
In that single service on a Friday morning in late July, more than 30 students responded to Briery’s invitation to share with their peers and youth leaders about how God had been working in their lives that week. Their stories were just a sampling of how God moved among the youth who attended summer youth weeks at Fort Caswell, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s coastal retreat center.
This year’s event drew nearly 4,400 attendees from more than 180 churches over the course of eight weeks from June to August. The total number of attendees was lower than in previous years as camp officials worked under a series of health and safety protocols to limit the impact of COVID-19. But after youth weeks went to a virtual hybrid format in 2020, attendees and staff were happy to be back in 2021.
Excitement and unity
“They were hungry to just be together,” said Merrie Johnson, who leads the Baptist state convention’s youth evangelism and discipleship ministry and has coordinated summer youth weeks for 20 years. “We had to implement a lot of measures to keep everyone safe, but if anyone complained, we would just say, ‘We get to have camp!’
“The excitement of the students being together was an overwhelming emotion.”
Safety measures that were implemented included performing enhanced cleaning protocols, conducting multiple worship services each day to allow for social distancing, and keeping church groups together instead of intermingling with other groups for Bible studies and other activities.
Johnson said that while navigating the protocols was challenging, she observed an unexpected benefit.
“The unity that took place at camp because of the youth groups having to stay as a group and not mix with other groups was a benefit we couldn’t have dreamed would take place,” Johnson said.
Through worship, sermons, Bible studies, skits and other activities, campers learned about truth, purpose, identity and living for Christ.
The theme of youth weeks was “Called” based on 2 Timothy 1:9, which says, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (NIV).
Each week, campers explored God’s call to salvation, sanctification and service. Through worship, sermons, Bible studies, skits and other activities, campers learned about truth, purpose, identity and living for Christ. Students were also equipped in how to share their faith with others.
“Being called to salvation was the foundational theme,” Johnson said. “We also focused on knowing God and His Word is the only real truth. We wanted them to understand what following Jesus really means.”
Briery, a veteran speaker from previous summer youth weeks, encouraged students to pursue their calling and allow God to use them now.
“We must not waste the days of our youth waiting to become adults because God needs godly young people,” Briery said.
Throughout the summer, students answered God’s call in several specific ways. Over the course of the eight weeks of camp, nearly 190 students trusted Christ as their Savior, more than 400 rededicated their lives to Him and more than 170 answered a call to vocational ministry.
Additionally, students engaged in a hands-on missions project during their week at camp by packaging meals that will be delivered to Haiti. This year marked the 10th year that Johnson and her team have partnered with the House of Abraham, a Christian orphanage for children in Jacmel, Haiti.
Students packed more than 104,000 meals and gave more than $44,000 in offerings to cover the costs of shipping and delivering the meals. Each box of food is prayed over before being loaded into a container to be shipped. Since the partnership began, students attending summer youth weeks have packaged more than 2.6 million meals for children in Haiti. And when each meal is distributed, the gospel is also shared.
“What I thought would be a summer of packaging a few meals has led to millions of meals and changed lives in another country from a camp in North Carolina,” Johnson said. “This partnership has been a God-sized task that only He could orchestrate.”
And it’s the changed lives that keep Johnson doing what she’s doing after 20 years of coordinating youth camps at Caswell.
“Seeing former students who were saved and called to ministry at camp now bringing their own youth groups to camp has been one of the best testimonies of God’s power to change lives that keeps me wanting to keep going year after year,” Johnson said. “Go God!”