While thousands of youth from churches across the state were busy making arrangements to attend summer youth weeks like they normally do each year, COVID-19 had other plans.
The coronavirus pandemic may have prevented churches from attending camp in the traditional way, but it hasn’t stopped Baptist State Convention of North Carolina staff members from bringing camp to N.C. Baptist churches.
Thanks to a virtual camp experience, youth groups can still receive the same programming they’ve come to expect from summer youth weeks at Fort Caswell, which draws nearly 7,000 attendees to the North Carolina coast for weeklong camps each year.
“We wanted to deliver a camp experience that mimics what they would receive at Caswell as much as possible,” said Merrie Johnson, senior consultant for the Baptist state convention’s youth evangelism and discipleship ministry, also known as BeDoTell.
Utilizing a series of prerecorded videos and an accompanying curriculum, Johnson and her BeDoTell staff have provided churches with a customizable camp resource that’s the next best thing to all being together at Caswell.
“Even though the virtual camp experience was a lot different than what we are used to doing, I feel like the BeDoTell team did a great job of making it feel like we were there with them,” said Ella Simonds, an 11th grader who attends Catawba Heights Baptist Church in Belmont, N.C.
Catawba Heights is one of about 70 churches that have utilized the virtual camp option to date. The virtual camp content provides four days of camp programming for churches and can be accessed remotely. The recordings include skits, devotionals, games, testimonies, worship, preaching and more.
When COVID-19 forced state convention and Caswell officials to adjust operations that prevented summer youth weeks from taking place in the traditional way, Johnson and her team quickly sought to find an alternative way to deliver camp. The result is the virtual camp experience. But pulling it all together wasn’t easy.
First, Johnson discovered a camp curriculum aptly titled “Pause.” Johnson and her team adjusted months of planned activities and services to align with the new theme. Then, Johnson and her staff of 25 college students spent three weeks at Caswell in June recording and editing sessions from Hatch Auditorium, the forts and other iconic Caswell locations. Veteran youth weeks’ proclaimer Eddie Briery, lead pastor of the Church at Red River in Shreveport, La., came in the final week to record his messages. In less than a month, a summer’s worth of camp was ready for churches to access through the virtual camp experience.
“We have all been forced to pause from what we would call our normal life,” Johnson said in the camp’s introductory video. “BeDoTell is focused on the biblical message of redemption in Christ. This message can be encountered wherever you find yourself this summer.”
Some churches have opted to keep their reservations at Caswell and utilize the virtual camp content or create their own camp experience. Brian Hemphill, who serves as director of Fort Caswell, said nearly 1,500 attendees from 65 churches that had previously registered for summer youth weeks still plan to come to Caswell over the course of the summer.
“Many are doing the virtual camp experience while others are doing their own program content,” Hemphill said. “Church groups are pleased to know that we are open and that they still have a chance to retreat and just get away.”
“We have all been forced to pause from what we would call our normal life.”
Changes to this year’s youth weeks’ schedule has resulted in occupancy that Caswell normally doesn’t have during a typical summer, Hemphill said. Caswell officials are still accepting new reservations for the summer. Interested church groups should contact Caswell’s reservations department at (910) 278-9501 for information about space that is still available.
While some churches have opted to still come to Caswell and utilize the virtual camp experience, others have used the material in an alternate retreat setting or even as a Wednesday night series.
“One of the great things about the content is that it can be adapted to fit your church’s needs,” Johnson said.
This year’s virtual camp experience focuses on developing one’s spiritual life through Bible study, prayer, Scripture memory and more.
Justin Shultz, student pastor at Catawba Heights Baptist Church, said he knew a virtual camp experience would be different and had questions about how well students might stay engaged through a virtual camp. His questions were quickly answered, however.
“BeDoTell hit the mark on producing a virtual camp experience where students stay engaged,” Shultz said. “From the very beginning, our students stood and sang with the music, took notes with Eddie’s preaching and intently listened to testimonies and skits.”
The message resonated with Shultz’s youth group members, as well.
“With people stuck at home and not much to do, stopping and reflecting on God is the best way to cope with what is going on in our world,” said 10th grader Brianna Cope. “Overall the camp experience virtually was amazing, even though it wasn’t quite the same. It was still a time I will never forget.”
Added eighth grader Ryan Cope: “This camp experience was very different, but I still enjoyed it very much.”
Johnson said churches can still order the virtual camp experience to use with their youth group. A one-time $100 fee covers production and licensing costs. Churches can order and utilize the material between now and the end of the year. More information is available at bedotell.com.
“We didn’t really know what to expect, but the virtual camp experience has been well received,” Johnson said. “We had no idea if we could pull this off, but God had a plan even when we couldn’t see the way. We are humbled that He would use this, and we give Him all the praise.
“As I often like to say, ‘Go God!’”