For those of us serving in the Prague City Team Camps Group, camp is more than a ministry: it’s a season of the year. There is no summer or spring, winter or fall—there is just camp season, before camp season and after camp season. And the same way that the holiday season creeps up in America, when you are surprised to see Christmas decor on sale in August, camp season is always around the corner.
In the frigid, dark months of January and February, we begin to conjure up plans with our Czech and U.S. partners to create English camps that will have maximum impact for the Kingdom of God in the gorgeous Krkonoše and Orlické mountains in northeastern Czech Republic. Before we know it, we are in the throes of the full camp experience, swept into all its chaos and beauty.
It was Czech English camps that drew me to missions in the first place. I served with a short-term team from my home church for consecutive teen English camps in 2011 and 2012. I felt, for the first time in my life, I was doing what I was created to do.
In 2013, I came as short-term staff to the Czech mission field for English-based student ministry. I arrived with all the youthful, naïve enthusiasm you could imagine, unaware of the depth of understanding this kind of ministry requires. God continues to reveal His faithful intentions for the Czech people and myself as I spend more and more time here.
As our English camp ministry developed, we formed the Camps Group which I’ve been leading for the past two years. We have a simple vision: support local Czech churches to connect with their communities through offering a quality experience of learning and practicing speaking English at a week-long camp. We coordinate bringing U.S. partners to serve, prepare English curriculum and support other functions at the camps with our Czech partners.
Though much of it is ordinary, expected work, what God does at these camps is anything but ordinary.
Laying the groundwork
We plan fairly ordinary camps, the kind that happen in the thousands around the world every summer. But every year, I’ve been blown away by all the spiritual heavy-lifting that happens. I find myself wondering, How does this happen every time?
The Czech culture is a camp culture: children are sent away to camps as soon as they are deemed ready to survive a week without their parents, and then just never stop going. Survival camps, sports camps, arts camps, English camps—it’s typical for our students to attend our camp as one of three to four other camps they’ll attend that summer.
Czechs have summer camps in their blood. Camp is where kids develop skills, stay connected with friends and get out of the city into the fresh air. Czechs largely show up already conditioned to know what to expect and ready to engage, which is a huge benefit for us. Practicing English with native speakers is massively appealing, and that is precisely what we offer at our English camps.
Something special about the combination of Americans and Czechs ministering together is the way the cultural differences really complement each other. Americans are very effective at initiating relationships where Czechs are hesitant to engage, and the Czechs help create a strong sense of inclusive community.
It’s a new culture of its own, and one incredibly powerful for the work of evangelism.
It’s important to understand something, though: Almost no one in the Czech Republic believes in anything. Less than one-percent are evangelical Christians while nearly 80% claim no religion at all.
For centuries, the Czech people were under the rule of the Hapsburgs (Austrian-Hungarian empire), Nazism and Soviet-based communism, but they’ve been able to preserve their own sense of Czech culture when other powerful nations tried to change it. Under communist oppression, Czechs experienced a steep decline in religious affiliation. Their ideological aversion (my own term) is a survival mechanism; they simply have almost no exposure to spiritual ideas and they can be reluctant to being asked to consider them. Their perception of and reaction to evangelism efforts makes ministry incredibly difficult. We rarely experience the joy of Czechs choosing to follow Christ in our ministries.
Flipping the script
Except when that ministry is camp. In that wondrous setting of deep, safe relationships, the spiritual hunger in Czechs is uncovered. Questions, personal theories and criticisms about faith and God emerge in unfiltered streams of thought—it doesn’t take long for robust, heartfelt conversations to emerge.
When we first met Veronika, she ardently professed a disbelief in God. After a few years of annually attending camp, she told stories about how she suspected “Mr. Coincidence” as an active force in her life. Recently, she updated his name to “Mr. God,” and we believe it will only be a matter of time until she finally calls him “My Savior.”
Our English camp offers Czechs the opportunity to be around many native English speakers to practice communicating—but there is another benefit. As one student, Tom, said to me at the end of his first English camp:
“Hey, it’s crazy. I have met so many Christians at this camp. I can’t believe it. I’ve never been in a place with so many of them. I think there at least 6 of them here.”
Tom became friends with most of them, including myself, and I mentored him over the last eight years. He was eventually baptized, became a member of our church and now serves as a leader at two of our English camps.
The power of English camps doesn’t just lie in helping Czechs begin to have spiritual conversations and come into relationship with their Creator—it invites them into connection with the local church body.
Martin attended camps for a few years as a young teenager, quietly soaking in the environment, though he spent most of his life being the class-clown in an attempt to earn acceptance amongst his peers. In one English class at camp, they had an assignment to draw and describe their homes. Martin drew a church, complete with steeple and cross, despite having never attended church in his life. The teacher inquired more about his picture and he explained that his home was with God’s people, and the church is where those people are.
The teacher astutely noticed that Martin had drawn the front door of the church open, and he explained he left it open because he wanted his classmates to know that everyone is invited to be with God’s people.
Martin has grown into a mature follower of Christ over the years. He recently completed his studies to become an oncologist because, he says, he wants to be in a position to minister to people that need it most.
A canon of divine interactions
Our teen English camp is the most spiritually intensive of all our camps, and the progression of discipleship and leadership development is truly staggering. When I first came in 2011, all the leaders were missionaries or adults from the church. Most of the students that attended were unbelievers. Now the church youth group, who grew up attending camps and other ministries, take on most of the responsibilities leading the camp with the pastor’s oversight. The camp has also doubled in size.
We estimate about one-third of the campers are unbelievers, one-third are spiritually curious and one-third are committed Christians. This mixture of students is a powerful combination for generating meaningful spiritual conversations; students even form their own impromptu sub-ministries within the camp.
Agi, who was abandoned by her parents and found refuge in the church youth group, identifies with the LGBTQ+ community. While she wouldn’t call herself a fully-committed believer yet, she still meets with groups of campers who feel inclined to the LGBTQ+ community and shares how her relationship with Jesus ultimately guides her life.
Anyone with a half-open heart has a hard time resisting the overall sense of love and acceptance that the teen camp community offers. Amy came for the first time at the insistence of her parents to learn English. She hated it. Her English-speaking ability was low, the camp was more active than she appreciated and she didn’t know anyone except her friend Ester.
Early in the camp, we got reports of sullen looks and passive-aggressive behavior between her and other students. She resisted joining group activities and often disappeared. Camp leadership made this a priority to deal with—by offering Christ-like love and acceptance.
Amy was prayed for, pursued and by the end of the camp we all met a different Amy: a smile frequently crossed her face and you could hear her laughter clear across camp. At a post-camp activity, she shared how upon her return from camp she was spending time with her boyfriend; after a few moments he stopped her and said, “Hey, just wait a minute—what happened to you? You are so…different now.”
Teen camp has its own canon of miracles and divine interactions. Verča came to camp via an invitation from a friend and quickly discerned that she was in a different kind of place. At first, she felt out of place among what felt like such a strong presence of Christians. She realized they considered her one of their own, not separate from them. She was surprised that talking about God was not only appealing to her, it came naturally to her. At the end of camp, she was already excited to come back the next year.
The second year, she brought her younger sister and she knew what to expect. Her heart was open and primed to engage in spiritual conversations and learning. Like many of our students, there are no other Christ-followers in her family, so her questions were many and substantial. She began sharing the gift of her lovely singing voice in our evening program, embracing the role of leading others in song and contributing to the camp experience.
Near the end of camp, Pastor Pavel (our Czech partner who led this camp) issued a challenge to the students: with everyone’s eyes closed, he asked for those who wanted to know God more to raise their hands so Pavel could pray for them. Verča wanted to raise her hand but felt afraid. Suddenly, she had a vision of everyone’s hands at camp being raised in response.
Verča rushed out of the room, and long into the night she shared, cried and prayed with camp leaders and friends as they all tried to grasp what God had given to Verča in that moment. In any case, she understood this: God was pursuing her, and she intended to respond.
I agreed to start a Bible study with her and a friend. We met weekly throughout the year and it was a joy to lead her through Scripture and see her learn that God uses His Word to speak. She was thrilled. By the fourth day of her third camp, she had invited nearly half of the campers to the Bible study. We had to make room for about 15 students in our home.
Though it moved online during the pandemic, it offered students a place with a sense of community where they could continue to grow in their knowledge of God.
English camp ministry is a place where someone can get a taste of God’s Kingdom on earth. Come believing anything or nothing at all. Come hard-hearted or open of heart. Come engage from the beginning or take years to immerse yourself in the community. Simply invite people to experience the Body of Christ, a setting where selfless, Christ-honoring love and acceptance is pursued above all else, and let them respond to the Holy Spirit prodding inside them.
People responding to the Spirit is certainly not always the case. Many campers return for years and years because they love the environment, but are resolved not to change their beliefs. We can only continue to pray and invite them to be with us, with the assurance that there is nothing more we can do. They have tasted and seen. The rest is between the Lord and them.
Something immensely transformational for me, personally, has been the metrics the Czech leaders use to measure the success of the camps which has surely been part of the reason for their impact. Missing were the questions I was accustomed to: How many commitments to Christ were there? How many Bibles did we give out? How many people want to come to church with us? Instead, the Czech leaders modelled for us something different from analyzing these indicators of success, asking questions that attest to the work of the Spirit: Did everyone feel accepted and connected to the community? Whose hearts opened at camp? How can we continue to stay connected with them throughout the year? Where did we see God at camp?
I have grown to instill this kind of evaluation into my own walk with Christ. To ask myself, am I living invitationally like Jesus? Am I attentive to seeing what is occurring in other people’s hearts? What is God calling me to do in my relationship with others? Where is God in what I am seeing right now?
The strange thing about asking deeper questions is that you start finding deeper answers. No, English camps are not converting students to Christ in droves. We still have a lot of Bibles to give away and seats we could fill in local Czech churches.
But maybe I’m seeing greater things: a community of believers and unbelievers that deeply trusts each other and gets stronger every year. The faith of Christians uniquely sharpened because of the challenges of their unbelieving friends. Church communities prioritizing missional living in their community because of how camp culture spreads through the whole church body.
I’m starting to watch the Church consider nonbelievers as gifts to their community.
I don’t know what the future holds for our English camps ministry. But I am sure of this—the ingredients will be the same: believers gathering together, committed to loving those who do not yet believe and sharing with them the wonders of knowing and following Christ. And letting God do the rest.
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