Mark van Wijk grew up in a Christian home, regularly attending Sunday services. But the memory he has of coming to faith took place at a kids camp at Moirs Point in Northland. Many of his significant memories, as well as some lifelong friendships, trace back to Christian camps.
So it isn’t surprising that the community pastor for Summit Church in East Auckland is also involved with local Willow Park Christian Convention Centre. Over the past five years, he and Summit Church have intentionally grown a fruitful partnership with the team that runs the 7-acre campsite at Eastern Beach.
For churches, campsites provide reasonably priced facilities for conferences and kids camps. And for the 22 campsites in the CCCNZ network, churches provide income and the human resources needed to operate camps. But some churches, like Summit, decide to take this symbiotic relationship a few steps further.
The church already had some good connections with Willow Park when its leaders reviewed Willow Park’s trust deed. They saw that its goals—primarily around evangelism and discipleship—aligned perfectly with the church’s. Mark said that its kids camps are a particularly good forum for evangelism.
Campers come from all backgrounds, and kids from unchurched homes get a rare opportunity to hear the gospel and ask questions.
This year, Mark said that a woman who had no faith background contacted Summit via Facebook. She turned up on Sunday with her daughter, who had been the reason she had gone church hunting—her daughter had recently come to faith at a Willow Park camp. The following week, the two returned with the girl’s brother.
When kids from Christian homes come to faith at camps, the discipleship they need when they return home is a given. But for kids who come from families with no Christian background, it’s more of a challenge.
“We’re trying to step into that more,” Mark said. With his camp hat on, he uses his church networks to connect kids who have expressed an interest in faith and their parents with church communities near their homes.
Summit also promotes Willow Park’s events to its members, and many get involved in camps across all age groups. Mark’s wife Steph, a primary school teacher, was recently one of the speakers at a camp. Mark uses his background in tech to provide support on that front.
The church leaders have also been invited to support camp staff and volunteer leaders in Christian development, teaching and coming alongside them.
“Over time we’ve developed this high-trust relationship, where we plan and organise together,” Mark said. “We’ve just spent a couple of sessions coming up with a set of leadership values, because we want to have some consistent language at the camp around what it is that we value in our leaders. We want them to see themselves as ambassadors, knowing that they’re role models, that they’re representing Christ to the campers.”
Mark emphasised that building up a relationship like this is a long process. “You don’t start with, ‘We’re here to change everything you’re doing because we’re the experts’,” he said. A good question for churches and individuals to ask, if they want to develop a relationship with camps, is “How can I help?”
Mark and another leader at Summit now serve on Willow Park’s board, rounding out Mark’s lifelong involvement with Christian camps and bringing his on-the-ground experience to the governance level. (“Literally on-the-ground, towing kids around,” he added.)
With Willow Park and Summit Church, the support doesn’t flow in one direction. Mark said that camps can provide churches with great opportunities for their young people to grow as Christian leaders.
Willow Park runs a leaders-in-training programme during the camps. Over two years, youth complete eight modules that have been developed by Christian Camping NZ. Between 10 and 20 youth are part of each cohort, learning by shadowing camp leaders and gaining experience themselves leading young campers. They also get their hands dirty, helping with the cleaning and day-to-day running of the site.
Mark’s own sons are now cabin leaders, and his daughter is about to begin the programme.
“There’s a real progression through there,” he said. “They give them practical opportunities to share their faith and to pray with kids, to really exercise their faith. They share the gospel with them and worship alongside them, along with practical leadership abilities. A number of our young people use this as work experience when they’re applying for jobs.”
Mark recalled the opportunities that camps gave him, and his own parents’ involvement in Kiwi Ranch Curious Cove (in Marlborough). He experienced the “positive peer pressure,” benefitted from the friendships, and sees his own children and their peers growing through their involvement in camps.
And now, as a pastor, he views camps as both a place in which church members can serve and one that stretches their own faith and witness.
Get in touch with Mark: firstname.lastname@example.org
Story by Maryanne Wardlaw, Rongopai writer