There was nothing quite like the excited feeling I felt in the few days leading up to going to youth camp. A whole seven days away with my friends which included a lot of fun, very little sleep but a guarantee that I’d encounter God in a new way. I went to youth camps as a teenager and loved them, never imagining that God would one day call me to run one myself. As an adult overseeing a youth camp for a group of churches across London, I still had that excited anticipation each year of encountering God in a new way, spending quality time with friends but also now seeing young people encounter God in brand new ways.
In the Old Testament, God clearly outlines for his people all the festivals they are to annually participate in. Leviticus 23:2 says: “These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.” These festivals were times that families gathered, and during the festivals they took time to remember what God had done for them and also to sacrifice to him. In many ways, these festivals remind me of the value of summer festivals in youth ministry, as they are a time for young people to recentre their lives and recommit themselves to following Jesus, a time for fun and friendship and a time to be inspired to live for Jesus during the rest of the year.
Why are summer festivals of so much value?
“Young people love going with their local youth group and being part of something bigger, joining with 1,000s of other teenagers to worship, hear from the Bible, pray together and have a lot of fun.” - Susie Aldridge, Lead pastor of Dreaming the Impossible
Living in an east London context, life could often be rough for many of the young people we took away on camp each year, but this space away from home gave young people a much-needed break which was filled with memories of fun and relationships built. The festivals God introduced for his people in the Old Testament involved food, family and celebration. Families would have enjoyed each other’s company and memories would have been made. This is the same when it comes to summer festivals – they are a space away from the busyness of life and often the difficulties of life where young people have the opportunity for real enjoyment.
“We want to see Satellites summer event as a catalyst for deep discipleship in the local church.” - Martin Saunders, Director of innovation and deputy CEO for Youthscape
There is something powerful about the level of discipleship that takes place at a summer festival between youth leaders and young people. Between three and seven days of intentional time, being able to encourage the young people in your care to follow Jesus. I loved moments where I would sit with a small group of young people and help them understand how to read the Bible and then catch up with them the following day to see how their time with God went.
On an average week of youth ministry, we generally probably catch up over these things once a week at most and so being able to intentionally do this for a few days in a row is such a great opportunity. For many young people who do not get this level of discipleship at home, summer festivals are vital as a catalyst for growth in their lives. Summer camps have often been harshly criticised in this area, suggesting that they don’t give young people a realistic view of life – they still have to go home and face the reality of their day-to-day struggles. This may be true, but I still believe this intense discipleship can set them up with fresh ways to continue in their relationship with God.
“Again and again, we have found Limitless Festival to be a transformative space for young people. The stories of healing and restoration, of young people being filled with the Spirit – often for the first time – of hearing from God in life-shaping ways, and best of all, of first-time commitments to Jesus, convince me that this is a precious and critical environment for the faith formation of young people.” - Tim Alford, National director for Limitless
The festivals in the Old Testament were all about the people of God centring their attention around God by bringing sacrifices to him. They were times to remember the goodness of God in their lives. There is nothing quite like seeing young people encounter Jesus in a fresh way at a summer festival. I will never forget a moment at the youth camp I ran where everything had come to an end at the close of a meeting, but a group of young girls continued worshipping in a circle for hours because they just could not bring themselves to move away from the presence of Jesus that they were encountering. Something was happening in their spirits which I am sure they will never forget as long as they live!
Summer festivals give space for focused encounters with Jesus that weekly events do not do. I know personally God spoke to me in such profound ways as a teenager that set me up for my future and many of these happened within a summer festival context. Of course, God is not limited to the summer or to these festivals but there is something special about us setting aside time away from the noise of life to focus our attention on what God might want to say to us. Somehow it allows our ears to be opened that bit more to hear and encounter him.
“Wildfires changed my relationship with Jesus in so many amazing ways! Each year I would leave feeling refreshed and ready to share my faith with my other friends around me.” - Megan, attendee at Wildfires
The most regular of the festivals in the Old Testament was the weekly Sabbath. This was a time of rest, away from work for the people of God. In many ways this ‘day of rest’ set them up for the rest of their week which would have been full of hard work. Summer festivals are similar in giving young people a space away from their normal lives to inspire them and to launch them into the rest of the year.
Although you probably cannot create the summer festival vibe every week for young people, the yearly event can be a real time of acceleration for them, helping them prepare for going back to school. It is an opportunity for young people to be reminded that they are not alone in their Christian faith, but that there are hundreds and thousands of other Jesus followers on the same path as them. Summer festivals can be a key time to inspire them to go back into their worlds and live bravely and confidently for Jesus, sharing what he has done in them with their friends and family.
There are summer festivals that run all over the country – ones that attract hundreds of young people and others that host thousands. All of them are vital in the development and spiritual growth of young people. Any young person or maybe ‘older person’ who attended a youth festival can remember back to a time where they encountered Jesus either for the first time or in a brand-new way during a summer.
I know for me, this is my story. As a shy, timid young 13-year-old, I encountered Jesus at a summer camp and felt him call me to serve him. It was in these spaces that I also formed strong friendships that are still in my life today. It was at a summer camp that a youth leader helped me work through all that God was saying to me. It was at a summer camp that I gained courage from God to walk back into my school and live for him. Summer festivals are so valuable and vital in the calendar of a youth leader. Although for many of us these past two years may have put summer camps on pause, my hope is that youth groups would get back up and ensure that this coming year is filled with planning, ready for what God may do in the life of young people at next year’s summer festival!
A friend of mine said this about his summer camp which I think sums up summer festivals well:
“Thrive Summer Camp has been running for six years now and for me as a youth pastor, it is nothing short of invaluable. Taking young people out of their normal environment and placing them in a space where they can meet friends, make memories and encounter Jesus is truly life transforming.” Nathan Jordan, lead for Thrive Summer Camp.
For nearly two decades, Hannah has served in the local church in various roles including as youth pastor and more recently as an executive pastor. Hannah now serves churches across the country with her ministry, Echo, helping Empower people, Coach and mentor leaders, bring Health to churches and partner to bring Organisational clarity