What I Learned at Camp with 60 Teens

1Think campfires, loud cheers, a no-cell-phone policy, crazy costume competitions, zip-lining, Jesus songs, nick names, canoeing, under-the-sun devotionals, flashlight Marco Polo in the dark, and a mountain of food…

That kind of thing.

That’s a semi-snapshot from the last week of August when I served as the chaplain at Glen Mohr Camp, located on Echo Lake in Muskoka and operated by The Presbyterian Church in Canada.

About 60 teen campers came together with cabin counselors and resource staff in a fun, faithful environment to share and show God’s love to transform and empower lives.

And like many things when you think you’re the one who’s supposed to be teaching, you end up doing a lot of the learning.

Having a chaplain at Camp is a new thing so the role was a bit fluid. But I was supposed to lead talks or Q and A’s here and there, be the spiritual “go to” person, and offer a shepherding presence.

Oh, and I tried the Zip Line. That was 600 meters of fast, semi-terrifying fun! (Thanks Match for this 20-second slow motion video):

I survived!

But other than that, a key part of what I did was meet with young people to talk and answer questions. Here’s a sampling:

  • Have you ever doubted your faith?
  • My youth group is great.
  • How do you know the Bible isn’t just made up?
  • When I pray it feels like it’s a one-person monologue.
  • How do I know what God wants me to do?
  • I like church, sometimes.
  • How come someone I love still gets sick even though we go to church?
  • What are the differences between churches?
  • Do all non-Christians go to hell?
  • How do you keep your faith full?
  • I don’t always understand things, but God helps me be stronger.
  • When I pray I listen.

As the week progressed this became clear: The people who complain about “young people today” haven’t spent enough time with the best young people today.


If the wider church invested in the idea that organizations and people should focus on their strengths, it would be wise to concentrate energy and dollars in our camping system.

(Here I am with camp co-directors Rebecca “Palais” Jess and Chantal “Match” Jackson.)CoFunCrop

But I wasn’t the only chaplain.

While writing this, I asked a few of the others who served through the summer to give me a one-sentence summary of what they learned most.

Jen Sokolowsky, pastor at Erindale Presbyterian Church, told me this: “I learned that there is an entire world of ministry taking place that is largely unknown to the wider church. Our children, youth and young adults are engaged in the transformation business and it is evident in the way they listen and share: In the way they live, move and have their being.”

Rebekah Mitchell, Associate Minister at St. Andrew’s in Brampton, said this: “At CAIRN, I learned the true meaning of “make a joyful noise.” At camp, everything has a song and the staff constantly sing. During one meal, an entire table got up and sung through Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off.” It was funny and infectious and nobody worried about singing perfectly, they just made a joyful noise.”

Will Ingram, Senior Minister at St. Andrew’s (King Street) in Toronto, sent me these words: “I learned that there are an incredibly talented and dedicated group of young people providing excellent leadership in the camping program of the church… really gifted and dedicated counselors, LITs, resource staff and managers.”

(Here’s another fun picture of my wife Laura, our 3 kids Sarah, Benjamin and Anna and me, having fun in the Arts and Drama room.)


Laura Duggan, Associate Minister at St. Andrew’s in Newmarket, wrote: “Not having growing up as a “Camper,” I learned what an amazing community of faith Camp is — beginning, ending and pausing in the middle of each day to offer joy-filled praise sets an awe-inspiring rhythm to Camp life: there are opportunities to be grateful for God’s good gifts; to value each person’s talents; to nurture people’s worth; to share love; to stretch spirits; and to encourage wondering.”

Thanks everyone!

But what about me? Here are 4 things I learned. The teens and counselors:

4. Want to be “difference makers”

They want to contribute in significant ways to make the world a better place. This includes justice, fairer social systems, personal well-being, and environmental responsibility.

3. Pursue Authentic Community

They want connection and are willing to do the hard work of including those who don’t usually “fit in.” They have a great capacity for honesty, vulnerability and sharing when the conditions are right.

2. Love to Sing, Act and Play. A Lot.

Many of the week’s major themes were communicated through song and drama, and most loved to join in. And they had a lot of fun doing it! At some point, virtually everybody demonstrated their feelings, questions and insights through some channel of creative expression.

1. Have Serious Questions about Faith and Life and are Hungry for Serious Answers

Like many other people, teens have a hungry, healthy and intelligent desire to explore life’s massive questions. When given the right opportunity, they want to know more about God’s plan, the significance of Jesus, how to make a more positive impact, pain and suffering, the Bible, other religions, doubt, how to express themselves in a real way, and how it all relates to their day-to-day lives.

I also learned that I like coffee in Cat-In-The-Hat mugs, after-dark campfires with Iscus, and staying close to the ground.

Thinking about camp and what I’ve said in this blog: Are you prepared to engage our young people with these questions?

Okay, time to shake the sand out of my guitar, get some sleep, take a shower, and welcome the autumn leaves.


  1. Thank you Matthew I got a good chuckle as I pictured last week through reading your words. It also once again raises my spirits.
    I love to return to camp each summer to see a) what my kid(s) are up to and b) to be amazed by the staff and volunteers at Cairn that give everything of themselves to the point of collapse. It always inspires me, after a few days of rest that is!
    It was a pleasure sharing coffee with you!


    1. Hi Jersey, great to hear from you! And yes, I would agree. Your comment “to the point of collapse” is literally true. I was totally inspired by that as well. Hope to have way too much coffee with you again soon! haha


  2. When we open our hearts and minds up to these beautiful spirits and give them the space, encouragement, and loving kindness they require to flourish, we can then see how they will change the world for the betterment of all humanity. What you offer is a great service in the world! Thank-you for being the loving light you are!


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