The Value of Having a Cry Night at Camp

I Used to be Really Frustrated by Cry Night:

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a winter camp. Unbeknownst to me, there was a fixed spiritual rhythm to their retreat.  Over this three-night winter camp hovered the expectation of increased spiritual depth, culminating with some sort of significant moment or opportunity for response. I found out about this rhythm solely by accident.

I wanted to have an opportunity for response every time we were together. I wanted each session to carry its own weight and expectation for response. I crafted each session with very unique tactile ways to respond to what the Holy Spirit was doing. And I don’t mean to boast, but these were some of the most creative and brilliant sessions I had ever put together.

On Sunday morning the counselors had had enough. They could no longer hold in their frustration and confusion. In our morning counselor meeting I was finally confronted with this hidden expectation. “Our kids are really confused because you keep asking them to respond at the end of every session. Normally, Cry Night happens on Sunday night, and our kids are really concerned about what is going to happen tonight.”

At first this statement really caught me off guard. “Cry Night” was no longer a programatic inside joke of camp counselors, but part of the story for the actual students. Because these students expected to become Christians and respond to the Holy Spirit at a specific time and place they were unable to fully embrace other things God might have had for them.

Maybe Cry Night Isn’t That Bad:

As the speaker I was pretty frustrated with the camp and with the leaders for not helping their students process this change in spiritual rhythm. But now that I have some years away from this experience and my pride and ego have recovered from not being as warmly received as I thought I should have been, I see a silver lining from this experience.

These students, for better or for worse, counted on Sunday night of winter camp being the time of God showing up and rocking their world. This night had become legendary, and the expectation was that this winter camp would be the same, God was going to show up, and show up big–on Sunday night.

What a gift it is to be a part of a ministry that has set watermarks where students expect that God will show up. While many of us wouldn’t say out loud that we intentionally plan for cry nights, the truth is we work really hard to establish rhythms in our ministry where our students begin to count on God showing up.

In my youth ministry calendar, our winter camp is where we expect God to show up and rock our kids’ world. We also expect that on our mission trips to Mexico and Guatemala that God will show up in a big way. We have a summer conference that involves our entire denomination, and we expect God to show up in a special way there.

Each of these events have become legendary within our own ministry. Every time we have a Youth Sunday at church or a student baptism, it is a certainty that one of these events will get mentioned as the place where the student gave their lives to Jesus or made a significant commitment regarding their faith. And as we’ve retold the stories, the expectations have continued to grow. Now it’s in the DNA of our group to expect that God will show up at these specific events, so we actually pray harder and with more expectancy. Sure enough, we then see God show up in even bigger ways.

Being Expectant is the Key:

Ask and it will be given. Seek and you will find, Knock and the door will be opened. Expectation seems to be the beginning of this exciting adventure of faith with God. Without expectation we are nothing more than people passing on a religious family tradition.

When I am expectant in my walk with God my eyes begin to scan the landscape for hints and traces of the Holy Spirit. As I lean in and strain my eyes even more, I am blown away at how present God is and has been. My faith expands, and I actually become more open to what God might have for me in my own life. By being expectant I ask, seek, and knock, counting on a response from God, and sure enough, there always is.

The growing edge for me, and for our ministry as we get ready to launch our Fall schedule, is to approach every youth group, every event and every conversation like it was Sunday night at winter camp, or Thursday night on our mission trip. I am counting on God showing up this year and grabbing hold of our students in a new and fresh way. I don’t necessarily think that every encounter will result in crying, but I am counting on every encounter being a place where God shows up and students have an opportunity to respond.

May we be reminded this year that we serve a living God who longs to meet, redeem, transform, empower, and send each one of our students. And may we craft our ministry in such a way we expect our students to experience this reality every time we are together, not just on Cry Night!