Unprecedented—who’s heard that word before?

New Zealand Baptist Easter Camps have weathered nation-stopping storms and terrorist attacks, have been postponed, police protected and shortened—but never cancelled. Ever since the first Baptist Girls’ Easter Camp held at Steyne Avenue, Plimmerton, in 1917, Easter Camp has been an important event in our collective Baptist event calendar. 

Until this year. As a result of a global coronavirus pandemic, and a level four alert to “go hard and go early” to stop the spread of COVID-19, for the first time in over 100 years, Easter camps were cancelled… sort of. But through incredible collaboration and creativity, Easter Camp directors passionately pivoting to a new way of providing camp, and youth pastors and young people willing to engage with Easter Camp and each other in a brand new way, Easter camp didn’t only happen, it did so with style, authenticity and passion to retell and re-engage with the Easter story of Jesus from everyone’s own living room.

Why are Easter Camps so important?

While it would have been easy to simply cancel and wait for next year’s camp, it was immensely important for our Easter Camps to still go ahead. 

Every youth pastor knows that the young people they take to Easter Camp gain something much more valuable than fun memories and stories of late night experiences with God. Instead, teens return from camp with a desire to be in Christian community, a hunger to learn more about Jesus, and the assurance that faith makes a difference in their lives.

Numerous studies about the effectiveness of Christian camps have found that a teen’s value of belonging to a church both increased and persisted after attending camp, along with knowing they could turn to Christian friends or adults at church in times of need. Campers also participated more frequently in devotional practices including Bible study, prayer, church attendance and conversations with their family about faith. Even more amazingly, those who attended Christian camps as teenagers were significantly more likely in their young adult years to participate in group Bible studies and university religious groups, and to attend church, than those who never attended summer camp.

Which is why Johanna Vannathy, Central Easter Camp director, has no hesitation in answering why she worked so hard to create an online and live ‘watch party’ in partnership with Southern Easter Camp.  

“The night our Prime Minister made the level four lockdown announcement was the same day we had a pre-camp meeting in Wellington. We talked about the idea of online Easter Camp. Then we took a step back to consider our mission. We knew we still needed to achieve our mission for Easter Camp—connect young people to God and each other through the Easter message. So we decided to give people as much of an Easter Camp experience online as possible.”

Easter Camp online

Blue Bradley, Northern Easter Camp director, had already put a lot of work into this year’s camp. But because this year’s Northern Camp was going to present speakers in a way very different from other years, providing a ‘live’ online camp wasn’t possible. So he dug into the archives of past Easter Camp messages, well aware that most teens would never had heard these outstanding messages before. So Northern provided a camp with a diverse range of speakers for each night and morning of a ‘normal’ Easter Camp weekend. 

Conversely, Central Easter Camp combined with Southern Easter Camp for a live Easter Camp experience. Speakers from both camps pre‑recorded and shared talks from their homes, amazing animation created to retell the Easter story was created, and MCs knitted all the elements from both camps together seamlessly. 

And even though it was online, all camps upheld and celebrated their Easter Camp traditions. The ‘toastie shack’ became a toastie-making cooking show; dance parties and themed nights still happened as young people dressed up and set up tents in their back yards and living rooms; and young people got together as youth groups in Zoom chat rooms to dance, worship and watch highlight reels of this and past years’ camps. Midday seminars and workshops were also offered.

And while teens did feel the loss of not being at camp this Easter, online Easter Camp also provided some positive surprises. Many youth pastors found that they had some of the most meaningful discussions with their young people during small group discussions than they’d had for a long time. Something about the online format made it easier for teens to talk. Adults who had not been to camps in 10 years watched and reconnected with their old youth pastors. And for the first time ever, parents even got to ‘go to camp’ and get a sense of what their own kids experience (all without the cold nights and long lines for hot chips and coffee). 

How youth ministries engaged

Jess Lovatt, youth pastor at Mt Albert Baptist Church, put together a full Easter weekend programme. She organised watch parties of the morning and evening Easter Camp sessions, which were followed by Zoom small groups with the teens’ leaders. They also ran their own Zoom seminars every day, including a Holy Spirit seminar, which was a real highlight for a number of the teens. The youth group live-streamed together every day, which included telling the Easter story, fun challenges and online interaction. They even did a Zoom 80s dance party and a Kahoot quiz night in the evenings. 

Jess states, “We had great engagement from the teens. Many of them expressed how thankful they were that there was still something for them to engage in during Easter.” 

Jasmine, a new member of Mt Albert’s youth group, found online Easter Camp a great way to meet and connect with people. 

“I definitely got to know people in my small group. We had really good conversations about the seminars we watched. It was a highlight. So was the Zoom 80s dance party. I was definitely sceptical about it. Were people going to dance in front of their laptops or something? And people did! It was a really good time.”  

Jess says, “It was amazing to hear from a number of the teens how God had moved in their life and how much they had learnt that weekend despite not being able to physically go to Easter Camp. We saw young people receiving and sharing words from God and prayers being answered. We also had a number of teens recommit their life to Christ over the weekend.”

Jess offered an observation that sums up the importance of why the work to provide online Easter Camps was so important: “Because God is not limited to our limitations and because he still wanted to move in our teenagers’ lives, [he showed] that while we were distant from each other, God is not distant from us. Therefore I saw [online Easter Camp] as a huge opportunity to help our teenagers engage in the Easter story in a new way.”

Contributor: Brian Krum, National Team Leader, Baptist Youth Ministries

Note: Many of our Easter Camps went into debt as a result of cancelling camp. If you would like to support your regional camp, contact your association and ask how you can help.

For research on the importance of Christian camps, see The Journal of Youth Development’s article “The Fundamental Characteristics and Unique Outcomes of Christian Summer Camp Experiences” by Jacob Sorenson.