LCN Article
The Values of Living Youth Programs

January / February 2021

Gerald E. Weston

Dear Brethren,
Teens and those new to the Living Church of God probably know very little of my past involvement in the Church’s summer camps, and since I plan to take direct oversight of our teen camp in Texas this year, I thought it would be helpful to share some background.

My upbringing was in the world, participating in Boy Scouts, Explorer Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, and organized baseball, tackle football, basketball, and swimming. My wife, on the other hand, was privileged to spend her teen years in the Church. Among other opportunities, she attended the first two summer camps held by the Radio Church of God, forerunner of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG). It was a very different world back then, for both of us. Many leaders both in and outside the Church in the late ’50s and early ’60s had been in the military during World War II and approached summer camp with that background.

Carol’s first camp, in 1962, was more like boot camp. The pioneers of that first Church-sponsored camp lived for eight weeks in small booths without air conditioning in Big Sandy, Texas. They had to get up in time for 6:00 a.m. exercises and go through rigorous dorm inspections. Nevertheless, there were plenty of fun activities and enduring bonds of friendship were formed. It could not have been too bad, as Carol and many others returned for the second year.

My first involvement with the Church Summer Education Program was in 1983 in Orr, Minnesota, teaching swimming and water polo. Even though I had plenty of experience with camping and athletics, I was amazed by how well-organized the schedule and activities were. I then worked at the camp in Big Sandy over the summer of 1986, and in Orr again from 1987 through 1994. My responsibilities ranged from water sports to Christian Living and overseeing the high school staff.

There were three sessions of three weeks each in Minnesota during those years, with more than 500 campers and staff per session. Working the first session was of great personal benefit, especially under Dr. Kermit Nelson, who put us through a one-week orientation prior to the start of camp. This, along with working under four different camp directors over the years, was great training for the future.

In 1995, I helped organize the first Global Youth Camp at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, where I served as Assistant Camp Director and outlined the programs. I continued in the same role for the next two years, near Siler City, North Carolina, before moving camp to a more remote location near Pickford in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Following the disruption that brought about our name change to Living Church of God, Dr. Meredith appointed me as North American Youth Development Director, and I directed the Living Youth Camp in Michigan from 1999 until 2008, where we averaged around 200 campers and staff each year. It was also my privilege to start the Missouri Preteen Camp at Camp Sherwood Forest in Cuivre River State Park in 2000. In 2009, we took 80-plus campers on a week-long canoe trip through parts of Voyageurs National Park, on the border between Minnesota and Canada.

After 25 years of working with the Church’s summer camps, I “retired” to focus more on responsibilities with the Work in Canada. However, I occasionally came out of “camp-retirement,” taking part in camps in the U.K. and Belgium, visiting the Lone Star Camp in Texas for two weeks in 2017, and experiencing the 2018 Adventure Camp.

Growing in Our Approach to Camp

Because of this experience and background, I want to share part of an approach that several of us have developed. It involves more than expertise in activities and requires a well-trained staff that understands, teaches, and guides by example the mission and goals of camp. Following our first camp in Missouri, we realized the importance of building a staff that understood and “bought into” the program’s ideals.

It also became clear to me that the approach used in WCG, while excellent in many ways and with the best of intentions, fell short. From the very beginning of WCG’s Youth Opportunities United programs, the fundamental idea was that providing sports opportunities for our teens would keep them in the Church—and it did, with some. That may be an oversimplification, but my point is that many young people still abandoned the Church, regardless of those programs; they were not the stellar success hoped for.

We realized that this dynamic had to change, and knew that people love that in which they invest time, energy, and resources. That is one reason we strongly urge parents to teach their teens to earn money in order to pay for at least a portion of summer camp expenses. They get more out of camp when they have some “skin in the game.” We also try to put more emphasis on our youth and teens being personally involved in the Church, whether through earning their way to camp, contributing special music, setting up chairs, or serving in some other capacity on the Sabbath. They can also help care for the physical needs of an elderly person in the congregation, perhaps by raking leaves, mowing a lawn, or fixing a meal.

One program that will be revived this year is that of having a limited number of high schoolers serve as camp staff. We know that many teens have appreciated this opportunity, and we also know that, when they teach the values of camp to others, they begin more deeply to “buy into” those values themselves. This also provides the camp program with future leaders in various camp responsibilities.

Striving for a Godly Atmosphere

So, what are these values? First, we strive to do all things decently, in order, without confusion, and in peace (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). Decency involves right standards of dress, godly language, and proper behavior. Orderliness requires diligently planning activities and training the staff so that all are “on the same page.” Confusion is avoided by consistency in approach at all levels. When things are done decently, in order, and without confusion, the result is peace.

Second, we have three main rules: Don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt others, and don’t hurt things. This is why “practical jokes” are not tolerated. Due to the escalation factor of such pranks, people and things eventually get hurt. People are also hurt by ridicule, put-downs, or being left out. We introduce traditions that encourage concern for other people and that make sure no one is left out. Staff are encouraged to give each camper personal, individualized attention, to “Make someone’s day every day.” We want every camper to feel that all the staff really care for him or for her.

Third, we strive to de-emphasize “cool.” When someone is trying to be “cool” in the way he or she dresses or acts, the focus is on the self, and when everyone is trying to “out-cool” others, you have a camp filled with self-centered individuals where the “un-cool” are left out. That is not outgoing concern!

Will we ever attain a camp where all campers and staff live these ideals perfectly? I think you know the answer—but there are many expectations and traditions we introduce into the program to encourage outgoing concern and discourage self-centered behavior.

We must always keep in perspective the proper emphasis we should give the Living Youth Programs, neither over-emphasizing nor under-emphasizing their importance. We want to work in harmony with the commission God has given us.

Currently, about 25 percent of the Church consists of non-baptized individuals age 25 or younger. That is a significant body of believers who can benefit from focused attention to help them come to real repentance and commitment to doing the will of God. Camp is a major way to spiritually feed and uplift these beloved young people, and with God’s help, we will use it to do exactly that.