“When was the last time you had four or five people in your church, in one morning, say, ‘I want to become a Christian?’” That’s a normal day at Teapot Valley Christian Camp—seeing four or five youth taking the next step towards faith in Jesus.
As CCCNZ’s Camping Enabler, Richard Davis has plenty of opportunities to say what he’s been asking for some time: “That’s the opportunity before us; don’t you want to be part of it?” In Nelson, leaders from the trustee churches that originally founded Teapot Valley have been asking themselves the same thing over recent years. They’ve found an ally in the camp’s manager, Paul Shutte.
Paul has managed Teapot Valley with his wife, Jocelyn, for the past 26 years. He said that in the early days, the churches had a much closer relationship with the camp. They participated in working bees on the site 25 minutes south of Nelson, helped with operations, and were the main source of campers.
“Over the past few years we’ve recognised that, unintentionally, we’ve drifted apart,” Paul says. “Now we’re starting to work out what more intentionally we can do to prevent that drift”. The drift is a national trend that many Open Brethren heritage camps are experiencing, and various currents are driving it.
Camps used to be places for youth to connect, be discipled, and invite friends into the church community; now church-based youth groups are typically the hub for those activities. Family life has also changed. Murray Gauntlett remembers helping his father do building work at Tōtara Springs in the 1970s and spending many holidays and weekends at Christian camps. “We did very little other things when we were kids,” says the elder at Grace Church Richmond and trustee for Teapot Valley. “Our parents were involved in the church and involved in the camp, and that was a major thing. … The way that we live now, we go away often, we do a lot more travel than we used to do, and you’ve only got a certain amount of spare time”.
“Twenty-five years ago, the majority of weekends would be churches,” Paul says of Teapot Valley’s clientele. “Now, we might have three or four weekends a year”. He says that in addition to fragmented calendars, rising costs and work commitments have contributed to the drift.
As churches have become more independent from camps, camps have hired people for roles once filled by volunteers and opened their doors to groups besides churches and schools. “We’ve had to diversify a little bit, and I guess within that the ministry component of what we do has changed,” Paul says. He says that they focus on serving their guests well, and take opportunities where they can to share the camp’s Christian foundation—a shift that offers new opportunities.
Earlier this year a group of Teapot Valley trustees, elders from three different churches in the Nelson region, and CCCNZ staff met together to talk about how they could be working together more intentionally. “To see the desire from a number of key people to make this work—and it will be a long journey, it’s a marathon, not a sprint—I’m so excited to see what can happen. It’s a template for what can happen through our nation,” says Richard.
To help draw churches and Teapot Valley together, Paul and his team plan to run subsidised camps for partner churches. They’ll also run kids’ programmes geared to non-churched friends, which also allows the adults to meet together. He says there are plenty of opportunities for camps to work with church pastors, small groups, staff, retreats and conferences.
Richard, who is also on the board of Christian Camping New Zealand, says that there are just shy of 70 Christian camps in the country. Nearly a third have an Open Brethren heritage, and each year more than 100,000 people attend a camp associated with CCCNZ.
Tōtara Springs alone sees more than 15,000 campers a year. “Every single one of those people is an opportunity for Jesus,” Richard says. The leaders at Teapot Valley, Grace Church, Hope Community Church, and Tasman Church are pursuing a closer relationship not just because the churches were historically invested in the camp, but because they see great opportunities for both the campsite and their churches.
“We really do need each other to fulfil our gospel mission in Nelson,” says Sean Young from Grace Church. He knows first-hand the role camps play in bringing young people to faith, and the importance of churches to disciple them. “I came to the Lord in a marquee on the grounds of Teapot Valley Camp back in 1997,” he says. “The camp has a place close to my heart”.
Over recent years, Grace Church has seen at least four young people who aren’t from Christian homes join the youth group. Sean says they became Christians at camp and, thanks to his church’s involvement there, found a community of believers.
Camps also provide ample opportunities for leadership development, both in service to others and in discipleship. “We’ve had a lot of our youth at camp either as a leader-in-training or as leaders,” Sean says. Over the winter holidays, about 50 youth from Grace spent time at Teapot Valley. “They’ll give up their entire holidays to be out there, which is outstanding”.
He’s seen a good flow-on effect. “It’s nice to see young people who want to serve others… It’s not easy for them. In fact the camps are getting more and more challenging with some of the issues and behaviour and background that they are having to deal with”.
Through these challenges, Sean said the youth have grown. “It has been awesome to hear some of the stories from my leaders when they come back,” he says. “It has been a positive for us, a real positive”.
At Teapot Valley, Paul says that they’re actively training young people from the three connected churches to be camp leaders. Most of the camp’s speakers are youth leaders from those churches, and there are plenty of opportunities for youth to grow their leadership skills.
Those experiences strengthen leadership within local youth groups, Paul said, and ultimately that strengthens the entire church. This is one of the main reasons that Richard is so passionate about his role. “A camp and a church together to train our next generation— it’s hugely important,” he says. “And that’s only going to happen if the church management and camp management get into the same room and start slowly—and it will be slowly—put processes in place for this generation to be growing in God’s word and for evangelism opportunities”.