FARMINGTON, Maine — Ann Lawrence, manager of Farmington Conference Center in rural Maine, knows the eternal difference that camp can make in the lives of young people.
Nestled in a region of the nation with a small evangelical Christian presence, Farmington is the only Southern Baptist-related conference center in New England. Amid that challenging setting, Farmington’s staff and volunteers are seeking to shine the light of Christ for children and youth.
“Camp changed my life – so camp kind of has a place in my heart,” affirmed Ann, who also serves as the director of Farmington’s annual girls camp. Noting that she has worked over the years at Christian camps in Alabama, Florida and Maine, she described camp as “kind of like my, ‘if I can get there, I can breathe again’ place.”
Citing research that indicates a large percentage of teenagers who are active in church often drop out of church during their college years, Ann said the camp staff began to ask themselves: “What is God calling us to do here to make their faith stickier when they leave than when they come?”
Focusing on the overall goals of input, output and impact, Ann said her team invited several of the older campers to help brainstorm about such input as the ideal number of campers and staff needed and the output of life change among campers. Describing impact, she added, “If those life changes happen, what does it look like in their families and their communities because that impact happened in their lives?”
Building “Faithful Followers of Jesus”
The bottom line, she said, is that “we want the kids to be faithful followers of Jesus and making disciples and that’s all we’re about.”
“Missions is one of our avenues for them getting that to happen, for them to see the possibilities of what God might lead them to, but we don’t try to say you’re going to be a missionary,” she pointed out. “We say we’re all missionaries. If we accept Christ, we’re all to help make disciples of others.”
How does that happen in practical terms at a rustic, picturesque Baptist camp in New England that ministers to a few dozen children and teens each summer?
With typical camp activities ranging from swimming, hiking, archery and a ropes course to overnight tent camping, cookouts and s’mores, staff members purposefully seek to build personal relationships with each camper. Add in Bible and missions studies, daily devotionals and nightly worship services in an outdoor amphitheater and the camp’s spiritual focus becomes clear.
“We’re very intentional on what we present as far as their quiet time, their Bible study, the worship time and even reflections, which are often called devotions,” Ann said. “We figure the more you layer, the more they hear God’s Word, the better off they’re going to be so that’s what we’re doing. The more they interact with God’s Word, the better.”
Nate Foster, director of boys camp at Farmington for the past three years, is a personal example of the camp’s life-changing impact.
“When I turned 9 years old, I had just finished third grade; I came up to camp for the first time and absolutely loved it,” Nate reflected. “As a camper, it was my favorite week of the entire year.
“My first year here was actually when I heard the gospel preached and I became a follower of Christ,” he added. “I’ve always felt a special connection to the camp and it’s been a real, real close place in my heart.
“The environment, being set aside in the woods in a rural setting, was a great time for me to get alone and spend some time surrounded by people who love the Lord. It really forced me to be in God’s Word and I grew a lot from that,” Nate said. “I’ve always been excited to come back every summer.”
During his three summers of leading the boys camp, Nate said he has come to realize that “while games are important and while fun activities are good at creating memories, the only lasting impact we can make in the Kingdom is if we preach the gospel and pray for the Spirit to move in the hearts of these young men.”
Ben Story, a high school junior at Monmouth Academy in Maine, has been coming to boys camp for five summers. This year he moved up to the camp’s training track, a more in-depth discipleship and training program for a select group of high school campers.
Describing boys camp as “my spiritual happy place,” he said, “This is where I’m closest to God. Two years ago, I accepted Christ right there in the red cabin. I love this place. It’s an amazing place to learn and grow in Christ.”
Strategic Recruiting Efforts
The camp staff strategically recruits volunteers both from New England and across the nation to lead, mentor and interact with the children and youth attending camp. This summer, volunteers traveled from as far as Arizona, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee to serve at Farmington.
“When I see somebody that has a passion that I know the kids will catch and that God will use, I always say, ‘Have I got a place for you to serve!’” Ann said.
Melissa Miller, who works alongside Ann as co-director of the girls camp, began serving at Farmington 12 years ago. She said she quickly “fell in love with the whole idea of being able to be in one setting and pour into girls for a whole week and get to know them in relationship.”
“We want the girls to come away basically looking at their relationship with God, experiencing Him here in a setting where they are away from other distractions, where they are loved by mature believers and that they can listen to God and think about what is the next step in their relationship with Him,” Melissa explained. The ultimate goal, she added, is for the campers to follow God’s direction beyond the camp setting and apply the truths they learn to their daily lives.
Gracyn Kestner, a student at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., served this summer as a cabin leader for girls camp. “I definitely love how this staff loves on the girls. You can tell that they care,” she said. “It’s fun to see the girls interact.”
Noting that “we’ve been talking a lot about how we see or hear God throughout the week,” Gracyn said, “It’s amazing what you can do when you really open your eyes and your heart to God.”
Pouring Into Campers’ Lives
As she recruits volunteers, Ann said, “The missionaries that spend time with my campers have a huge impact on the staff and campers. Those are the kind of missionaries I look for. I want somebody that’s going to spend time with my kids and my staff.” If the campers “can have an experience with what a real live missionary feels like and does and how they’re doing things, it impacts them better than just a speech.”
Lori Bryan, an international consultant who has served with various humanitarian groups in several countries, talked with campers about “the different aspects and ways that you can do mission work.”
Currently serving in Rwanda where she is involved in education, Bible orality, trauma training and fighting malnutrition, Lori affirmed the opportunity at camp “to pour into girls’ lives and share with them experiences of how God uses your life if you’re willing to give up the rights to your life.”
“I hope it has opened up their eyes a little bit wider to the world we live in,” she said, “and that it opens up their hearts to opportunities that they might find viable for themselves to go serve overseas if that’s something that the Holy Spirit is working in their lives.”
Lena Plunk, national coordinator of Christian Women’s/Christian Men’s Job Corps for National Woman’s Missionary Union, has volunteered at Farmington girls camp most summers since 2003. “Meshing the camp life that I absolutely love and the ministry that I absolutely love together into one has been delightful,” she said. “This is kind of home.”
This summer, she shared with the girls about a variety of WMU-related ministries, including Christian Women’s and Christian Men’s Job Corps; Pure Water, Pure Love; and WorldCrafts.
Having the girls haul water across the campground in a five-gallon bucket and then filtering and drinking the water, Lena talked with them about girls their age in many countries who must haul water for their families every day. She said such hands-on experiences give the campers a close-up view of missions needs around the globe while offering them a glimpse of the world “outside of their typical bubble.”
Eve Goding, a junior at Mount Blue High School in Farmington, said the campers and staff quickly become like family to each other. “The staff here is amazing,” she declared. “They welcome you in with open arms and they understand what it’s like to be someone in a place that’s not super Christian.
“Faith-wise, for me, it’s helping me to grow spiritually,” Eve said. “It’s just a really good way for me to get outside of my comfort level and meet people and talk about God.”
As Farmington staffers and volunteers seek to duplicate that impact each summer among children and youth from across New England, Ann said one of their biggest prayer requests “is always that we stay faithful.”
Acknowledging that “what we see around us is only a little bit of what God is really doing,” Melissa added, “We realize that God often uses little things in little places to make a big impact” – including a small Baptist campground in rural Maine.