Emma Jean Hampton had been through this scene many times before. Church camp wasn’t new to her. She went just about every year.
Growing up attending Hopewell Baptist Church in Monroe, Hampton had heard preachers share the gospel hundreds of times. On this night, like all those other times before, she bowed her head when the preacher asked for everyone to consider what God was saying to them.
“Do you want to be saved?” he asked. “Then stand up.”
Hampton, who was about 12 at the time, just couldn’t do it.
“I bought into that temptation,” Hampton said. “Satan really got to me.”
As soon as the invitation was over, the music began, and everyone stood. Hampton sat on the pew and cried. That night, at Fort Caswell – the N.C. Baptist camp on Oak Island – she gave her heart to Jesus.
The decision changed everything about her life, particularly how she viewed others.
“I felt like I was overall just nicer to people because I realized that God sent His Son to die for me, which I didn’t deserve,” Hampton said. “He is such a gracious and giving God that there’s no reason I need to be hateful to people.”
Hampton is one of thousands of students who have made significant spiritual commitments at N.C. Baptist camps. Fort Caswell is one of three camps located around the state that are owned and operated by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. The convention also operates Caraway Conference Center and Camps in Sophia near Asheboro and Truett Conference Center and Camp in Hayesville. Each location operates several weeks of camp for different age groups during the summer.
“I think camps are really important because they provide an opportunity for students to invite their friends to come and join them,” said Matt Wilkinson, Hopewell’s youth pastor. “There are students that may never attend an event at our church, but they’re open to going to the beach with our group for a week. So, we’ve had students that have come for the fun, and they find a God who loves them. Those students are often the ones that end up surrendering their lives to Christ.”
Shane Pruitt, next-gen director at the North American Mission Board, preaches at summer youth camps – including at Fort Caswell – throughout the country each year. He describes youth camps as a unique time when students are away from their cell phones and devices and can be in a place where Christians are the majority.
“I think it’s just a great atmosphere for lost students who are there to really see and peer into the church,” Pruitt said. “I think the Lord uses preaching. I think, obviously, the Lord uses worship music. But I think one of the key aspects that the Lord uses for lost teenagers is just getting to be around Christians all week.
“So many of them go, ‘I want that same joy, that same community, that same peace that these other students my age seem to have,’ which I think is so rare for teenagers to see in each other. So, I think it’s just a ripe, fertile ground for the gospel really to advance.”
Thanks in part to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pruitt believes young people are more open to the good news about Jesus than they have been in decades. Inviting lost teenagers to church camp is one way for churches to maximize this openness.
“The pandemic did not create new problems; it just poured gasoline on problems that were already there,” Pruitt said. “You’ve got Gen Z now who are coming
to the end of themselves, at a much earlier age. They realized the world is broken. They realize they’re broken. That’s where we get to slide in with the gospel through a bold, convictional, public proclamation of the gospel.”
Pruitt urges youth groups to invest whatever they can in getting students’ lost friends to camp, even if that means paying the fees for guests. He also believes it’s important to support campers through prayer before, during and after camp.
“Every great evangelism movement, or every great awakening, begins with a strong prayer movement,” Pruitt said. “That’s why it’s essential to mobilize your church to pray. For instance, one of the churches I worked with last year – a large multisite church – organized its own camp with 1,600 teenagers in attendance.
To support this event, the student pastors created a schedule of 24-hour prayer sessions leading up to camp, throughout camp and during the post-camp follow-up period. Participants were invited to sign up, resulting in a powerful prayer force that supported the entire camp experience.”
Of the various camps Pruitt visits each summer, he says North Carolina has some of the best.
“I love the North Carolina camps because they want to be holistic in their approach,” Pruitt said. “They’re evangelistic. They want to reach the last teenager that’s coming. But they also want to be equipping. So, for the students who are coming, who already know Jesus, they are equipping them all week.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry is a freelance writer with more than 20 years experience writing about faith and ministry. This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of the Biblical Recorder magazine.)