Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on rethinkingyouthministry.com and is reprinted here with permission.
by Brian Kirk
I’m off to church camp in a few days. So as my staff and I put the finishing touches on our planning for the week, I thought I’d pass on a few nuggets of wisdom for any of my fellow church camp leaders who are interested in doing things that will ruin the experience for kids. Just follow these simple steps, and I will absolutely guarantee that your students have a lousy time.

1) Play games the first day that force physical interaction.

Nothing will ensure that your shy teens and introverts have a terrible start to camp like making them participate in community builders the first day that force them to do things like getting tied into a human knot with a bunch of strangers or build a human pyramid. Those “repeat everyone’s name in order” games are pretty intimidating, too. Interaction is important, of course, but we blow it when we force it or introduce too much too fast.

2) Do skits/pranks where someone is the butt of the joke.

Don’t you just love those camp skits where some unsuspecting teen gets a bucket of water dumped on his head (or down his pants) or a whipped cream pie pushed in her face? Don’t you just love those pranks where the new kid gets his clothes thrown on the roof of the cabin and shampoo in her sleeping bag? Well, many people don’t. Even if the “victim” laughs and plays along, s/he may quietly resent being ridiculed for everyone else’s amusement.

3) Sing songs to which only alumni campers know the words.

How much fun is it going to camps where there are those clever gimmick songs (“Star-Trekkin!”) that only the teens who have been coming to that camp for three years know the words! Enjoy the hilarity as everyone else has to awkwardly stand around and just listen or else prove they are “one of the group” by anxiously memorizing the words by the end of the week! This approach only serves to alienate new members of the camp community and sends a loud message: “You don’t belong…yet.”

4) Perpetuate inside jokes and “remember when” stories from camps past.

Nothing is funnier than the counselors reminding everyone about “that wacky thing Phil did in the girl’s cabin last year” or “the talent show skit that got Cindy into trouble with the staff,” even though none of the younger campers have any idea what everyone is laughing at! This a great way to send the message: “We of the inner circle have a history together. You gotta earn your way into the inner circle here by putting in your time.”

5) Encourage talent show acts that promote stereotypes and prejudices.

What’s a talent show without ethnic stereotypes (the napping Mexican in a sombrero, the “swami” with his head wrapped in a towel speaking gibberish). Is there some unwritten law that there must be camp talent show acts where guys dress in drag? Ever stop to consider that for some teens, cross-dressing may be a reality in the life of a parent, relative, or friend…or may even be part of their developing gender identity?

6) Make a big deal about “purpling!”

You know how it goes: boys are “blue” and girls are “pink,” and if they get too close (e.g. amorous hugging, kissing, girls in the boys cabin and vice versa) they make “purple!” Talking about this a lot, particularly making a joke out of it, helps sends a silent message that we all know that everyone at camp is really fixated on hooking up and finding a date for the Friday night dance. Not only does this sort of thing alienate the youth who are not sexually mature; it also sends confusing and often alienating signals to youth at camp who are not heterosexual or who are not certain of their sexual identity yet. Do you announce rules against “no double blues,” “no double pinks,” etc.?

7) Program every minute of the week.

Youth live over-programmed lives. Why shouldn’t camp be the same way? Maybe because one of the ways to make camp unique and special is to provide space for youth to be quiet, to hang out, to just “be” for awhile without any more stimuli than the feel of the breeze and the sounds of bees buzzing.