If you aren’t one already, imagine you’re a seventh-grade boy. Who do you think is cool? Who do you want to be like?
The twelfth-grade guys in youth group at Faith Bible Church remember being there. They remember the seniors they wanted to hang out with and imitate. They remember how much it meant when those cool guys engaged with them and befriended them.
Now Ben Hippauf, Daniel Watts, Sam Kushnerchuk, and Will Peterson are those guys. They know that whether they’re trying to or not, they’re influencing the younger ones in youth group. So, leading into winter youth camp in February, they wanted to make an effort to befriend the younger boys and help them know Jesus.
Camp turned out to be the perfect place for that. Those seniors came away with stronger relationships, new discipleship opportunities, and indelible memories.
First, getting away to camp provided Ben, Daniel, and Sam, who had already bonded strongly by being in the same small group for many years, a chance to build their friendships with Will and with Josh Gilchrist. Josh is the only junior boy in youth group and thus has been grafted into the seniors’ group for pretty much everything.
The complete change of environment and the nonexistent cellphone reception at UGM Camp created a situation where campers could focus on strengthening friendships.
Sharing a cabin was part of that. Sam says, “In a way it kind of forces you [to be friends], and that’s such a cool part of it. I'm glad it kind of forces you, because I just get so much closer with the guys.”
This year, with camp coinciding with the Presidents Day holiday, they had not two but three nights in the cabin with their youth leaders, Campbell Dougherty and Brad Bothun. Taking several days far away from the familiar – and “stuck” together – was a perfect opportunity for real fellowship as old and new friends.
“It's almost like a step away from reality,” Will says. “You're hanging out with just great Christian guys and girls that you don't get to have at public school. So it's really, really nice to just step away from that ‘normal’ reality and kind of just be surrounded by Christians and the Lord. And so it facilitates a really, really good environment for just growing in Christ and growing in relationships.”
“It’s super sweet to be able to have [leaders’] input and them being able to direct the conversation and ask deep questions that make you think.”
Ben appreciated the discussion in their group after the sermons. “You can hear different people's perspectives on it. Because everybody writes stuff down differently, they process things in their brain differently, or they catch things that you didn't catch before. … Especially being able to listen to Brad and Campbell, because they understand a lot more than we do, and it’s super sweet to be able to have their input and them being able to direct the conversation and ask deep questions that make you think.”
The seniors want to help do the same thing for boys who are a few years younger.
Sam remembers his freshman year meeting weekly with a group of older students. “A lot of those people that I looked up to are still really close friends that I try to keep in touch with. … [Their] taking me in was definitely what projected my spiritual walk.”
With Youth Pastor Ian Rush’s help, the seniors announced they’d be meeting at 8:00 am each morning at camp, to discuss the sermons by visiting speaker Corey Millican, read God’s Word and pray together. All the boys were welcome to join them.
Daniel was surprised at the response. “There were maybe 15 guys. There were a lot of guys. I didn't think that it would be that many.”
“Almost everybody at the camp was all seeking to glorify God and you’re all there for the same reason...Going back to public schools, you are able to notice a huge difference.”
They talked about what they were learning from Corey’s talks. They read from the Bible, one day reading through the whole book of Titus. After reading and discussing together, the older guys paired up with younger ones to pray together. Sharing that time was something they’ll remember and build upon even as they return to “normal reality.”
“Almost everybody at the camp was all seeking to glorify God and you're all there for the same reason,” Daniel says. “Going back to public schools, you are able to notice a huge difference.”
Returning to their schools the next day certainly was a jolt. Even with all the time together at camp, they were all happy to be back together with the youth group two days later.
It would be remiss to talk about youth camp without referencing the immense amounts of fun that are had. A prime example would be the way the senior boys pulled out a win over a stunning performance by the tenth- to twelfth-grade girls in the traditional Saturday night camp lip sync battle.
Their group didn’t have a great track record in previous competitions. “Everybody got a participation award except for us one year,” Ben says.
“So this year we chose ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ by One Direction,” Sam says. “We did black jeans, white T-shirts.”
The guys choreographed and practiced over two hours of their free time the day of the battle. But they weren’t confident when they saw how well the girls did with music from The Greatest Showman. They were so excited when they were presented with the Jason Roberts Trophy that they managed to break the fragile, 3D-printed bust almost immediately. Fortunately, Josh had his travel tube of Flex Glue.
“So now I get to defend the title next year,” he jokes. “That's the fun part about joining the seniors: I kind of felt like that one really good player who joins a really good team and it wins the Super Bowl.”
These are all memories the boys will never forget. And for now, the good news is that graduation won’t take any of them away from their church family and the relationships they’ve cultivated. They’re planning to go to local colleges so they can continue to get involved in college ministry and disciple the younger guys they’ve been getting to know.
Several of them plan to continue helping with UGM Camp during the summers and reaching out to unchurched kids there. They’ve helped with it before and been struck by the difference they see in the kids from a week spent at camp.
They know God uses camp to start things that last a lot longer.
Ben says, “It's a great way to make memories and bond with each other, like in your small groups, it's just a great way to get more connected if you're feeling disconnected. Or just give into the lives that you are going to be around for the next couple of years.”