Old School vs. New School: Camp Meeting Goes Virtual
By Jeff Hayes
What happens when a 19th-century camp meeting worship tradition encounters a 21st-century pandemic? Well, it goes virtual, of course! It’s quite a transition from a leaky tent in a farmer’s field on the edge of town to grandkids helping grandparents connect tablets to Facebook by clicking icons, buttons, and typing the right URL. Ingenuity, hard work, and planning, however, can turn something old into something new.
The Church of God movement came into being just in time to catch the “camp meeting fever” sweeping across America in the 19th century. The 1801 Cane Ridge Camp Meeting in Kentucky may have been the earliest known camp meeting in America. Methodists quickly were organizing over 500 camp meetings a year by 1820. This new form of worship and revival was adopted and adapted by early Church of God pioneers. Its evangelists preached and sang the good news of Jesus in brush arbors, fields, tents and camp meetings all across the country.
Since 1954, the forty-two-acre Camp Lebanon Retreat Center has been home to the annual Southwest Ohio Ministries (SWOM) District Camp Meeting. Faced with the possibility of cancellation due to the 2020 pandemic, the District leadership team decided to go virtual. A tradition, even if virtual, was preserved for yet another generation.
“We honestly did not know what to expect,” noted Rev. Scott Planck, pastor of the Evendale Church of God in Cincinnati, Ohio. Planck, serving as the 2020 camp meeting chairman, “knew anything would be a win, since we had been wanting to get new people involved with camp meeting for some time. Something was better than zero.” Some service videos placed on the Internet have now been viewed over 700 times. Truly a win!
Planck indicated that the greatest challenge was the quick turnaround time once the decision was made to go virtual. The decision left the committee less than 30 days to make it happen. The recording process, recalls Planck, was indeed time intensive for the singers, preacher, and video editors. Video segments were created by multiple persons in separate locations. They were all then edited by camp director, Alex Svarda, and Jordan Miller. The final service video premiered live on Facebook and was later archived on YouTube.
Service lengths ranged from twenty-seven to fifty-five minutes. Videos included a nightly greeting, hymn singing by the Stamper Family, special music by Victoria Smith and the Smith Family Singers, and a multimedia enhanced sermon from Rev. Handel Smith, executive director of US and Canada Strategy for the Church of God. Smith also created “outdoor talk walks” as part of his message. These talks were a way for individuals to experience the natural beauty of coming to the camp even if it was only on a computer screen.
Planck believes that “Camp Meeting 2020 was a huge success because so many great people helped and because (they) were not afraid to try something new and different. To God be the glory,” rejoices Planck.
COVID-19 may have interrupted a face-to-face gathering at Camp Lebanon, but it couldn’t stop a creatively designed virtual camp meeting from hosting its sixty-sixth annual services. The six services remain available on the Camp Lebanon Retreat Center YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzIOY7LlmWQIK2fyJG60d6g.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Hayes has served on ministry leadership teams in Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He recently completed eighteen years of service on the ministry faculty at Warner University and provides leadership to a new ministry, the Way of Compassion. He resides in Winter Haven, Florida, with his wife Karen.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.