NASHVILLE (BP) – Like other student ministers, Dylan Bone jumped on Zoom last year when the COVID-19 pandemic all but shut down in-person events. And although teenagers at Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, where he serves, eagerly joined the online format, he found that the initial zeal just as quickly dissipated.
It was a common story among his peers, he said. Being together in a digital format is one thing, but it’s not the same as being together.
“While you’re thankful for those tools like Zoom, there’s something special about seeing each other face-to-face in the same room,” Bone said.
When Falls Creek Conference Center canceled all camps in 2020 due to the pandemic, that forced churches like Quail Springs to find alternatives, if any, for a summer gathering. With safety protocols in place, Quail Springs instead hosted a weeklong conference, with students going home each night. No, it wasn’t the original plan, but it was something. And students noticed.
“They thanked us for having it, even if it wasn’t what they were used to at Falls Creek,” Bone said. “It was just good for them to get out of the house and be with their friends. Learning about Christ in a personal setting made a huge difference.”
The same lockdown designed to stem the tide against COVID also brought isolation. A year later, student leaders are witnessing a Gospel response they attribute to God first, but also a newfound appreciation of believers gathering together.
Shane Pruitt has preached to more than 14,000 students this summer as the national Next Gen director for the North American Mission Board. In an interview, he kept going back to a single word to describe his observations among students.
“Expectancy,” he said. “I kept seeing that again and again, not just from students but leaders. They’re all excited to be together again and while some churches held their own camps and gatherings last summer, it’s different this year. Camps came back and there’s an excitement I haven’t seen before.”
At a typical camp, he pointed out, there is kind of a rhythm where introductions take place the first night and then students settle in for the week. They enjoy worship, breakout sessions and the like, then have a serious “meet the Lord” event, usually on the last night.
That’s not meant as a cynical assessment, but to acknowledge the pace at which students may approach God during the week. But this summer, Pruitt said, it has seemed students were ready to meet with the Lord almost immediately.
“At every single camp I spoke, students were at the altar on the first night,” he said. “There have been massive responses to God’s call not only for salvation, but to pursue a calling in His service and for baptism.”
Falls Creek, which runs through the property of the conference center bearing its name, has been the site of numerous baptisms throughout the summer, Pruitt added. The conference center in south central Oklahoma averages 4,000 campers per week.
Kevin Flattman, student pastor at Cypress Baptist Church in Benton, La., echoed Pruitt’s observations.
“There’s a great hunger to be together, and also a great need to deal with the Lord,” Flattman said. “What I mean by that is there are places and times in our life where we look forward to meeting with God. When those don’t happen, like camp, you miss out on those milestones.
“I’ve talked to guys all over the country who say students are responding on the first or second night of camp. They say the Holy Spirit’s presence is palpable and there’s a great hunger among students to meet with the Lord.”
While there is much to celebrate to being together in-person, COVID-19 remains a factor. A surge in cases at summer camps of all types has been attributed to the spread of the highly-contagious Delta variant and too many unvaccinated people. According to the American Camp Association, approximately 26 million campers join those ranks each summer. In 2020, 19.5 million of them were unable to do so.
The difference between this summer and 2020 is that instead of talks of another lockdown, necessary adjustments come for navigating life during COVID.
Concerns remain among student ministry and camp leaders, but the protocols have changed to reflect an overall drop in hospitalizations compared to a year ago. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there were 61,717 hospitalizations in the United States on July 12, 2020. A year later, that figure was 20,858. An expected pent-up demand for camps in 2021 may not be a contributor either, as an ACA poll  revealed lower enrollment for overnight camps, though day camp enrollment was higher.
At its conference last summer, Quail Springs Baptist mandated two seats between students during the service, encouraged masks, held activities outside and put breakout sessions in rooms large enough for social distancing, among other steps. This year camp participants were required to sign a form stating they had not tested positive for COVID-19 nor were they exposed. Other groups have mimicked steps taken by Lifeway’s Fuge camps, which provided updates  alongside a set of guidelines.
Those steps are, at least for the moment, part of the camp experience. But leaders say they’re bearable if that’s what it takes to ditch Zoom and get back to a fellowship more reflective of Hebrews 10:25. Bone, Quail Springs’ student pastor, pointed to one instance where being together became the witness opportunity for the Gospel among a group of friends.
“One of our students is a natural leader, but that hadn’t taken root with him,” Bone said. “At camp this summer he was saved on the first night. His friends around him saw a change and were saved as well.”
His story wasn’t the only one in the youth group, which recorded 25 salvations this summer; 20 baptisms have already taken place.
“It’s different when you’re together,” Bone added. “You can feel it and see it. Something clicks.”