By Joy Allmond
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s safe to say Jamie Dew’s road to seminary presidency involved some unexpected twists and turns.
He was arrested twice during his junior year in high school, then moved to Raleigh, N.C., to live with his dad until he graduated. The current New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary leader said that soon after the move, “the Lord started a process that lasted over eight months to humble me, break me down and simultaneously bring Christians into my life.”
Dew’s newfound friends invited him to church. They also encouraged him to attend Lifeway’s FUGE youth camp in Panama City, Fla., in June of 1995.
“I was very apprehensive about going, but they [the church] loved me well,” he said. “I felt welcomed.”
The first night of FUGE camp, he said, was mostly a time of corporate worship through singing—along with some orientation. But the next night a young man shared his testimony—a story which sounded all too familiar to Dew.
“His life before Christ looked just like mine up to that point,” said Dew. “Then, Pastor Pike [his first name] preached the gospel. On this night I heard the gospel in such a way that I really heard it. I gave my life to Christ. I knew I was called to serve Him—I just wasn’t quite sure how.”
Dew is only one of more than 3 million campers over the past 40 years who have come through LifeWay’s multiple brands of camps, including CentriKid, FUGE and Student Life.
FUGE, Lifeway’s longest-standing line of camps, began in 1979 with only two locations and 7,500 campers. Much has changed over the past 40 years: Lifeway has added several additional camps, where tens of thousands of kids and students attend each year at dozens of locations around the U.S.
In 2019 more than 100,000 children and students participated in multiple Lifeway camps across the nation.
With that evolution has come countless changes in method, said Joe Hicks, FUGE camps director.
“Lights, sound and overall production have made huge strides,” said Hicks. “We used to just have a guy on a guitar with a mic leading worship, and now we have bands at all locations.
“All of these changes are great, but a staffer helping a camper personally understand who Christ is and how He wants to have a relationship with them is what we have always emphasized as being the most important part of our programming.”
In 2007, Mary Wiley, marketing director for B&H Publishing Group, worked her first summer with CentriKid camps.
“Camp ministry became a goal of mine when I attended FUGE camps as a middle schooler, and camps has proven to be a major catalyst for growth and development in my life,” said Wiley, author of Everyday Theology, a new Bible study from Lifeway.
Wiley recalled a pivotal moment during her first week as a camp staffer.
“I saw eyes light up and hearts understand for the first time what Jesus had done for them,” she said. “I also saw one child in tears as I discussed ‘asking Jesus into your heart.’ I quickly learned that words and clarity matter, while also getting to proclaim good news to this little boy.
“He surrendered to Christ that night, and a flame was lit under me to share the gospel clearly.”
For Wiley, a member of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tenn., one summer of serving with Lifeway camps turned into six. She said her favorite ministry moments and leadership learning happened through those experiences.
“I owe the majority of my development to camps, and as I lead a team I return to the principles taught in the hard knocks of long, hot days on a college campus leading kids or staff to give their all for the purpose of seeing others know Him,” she said.
Chad Keck, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Kettering in Dayton, Ohio, tells a similar story.
His foray into camp life began at CentriFuge in 1988 as a 7th grader.
“That was the first of 19 summers I attended FUGE camps as either a camper, staffer, youth pastor, camp pastor or chaperone,” said Keck.
“And I never attended one single week where the Lord did not move in my life in one way or another.”
Keck went on to explain that the summers he worked at Lifeway camps as a staffer had more impact on the way he leads his church than any other place he has worked or served.
“I learned the importance of building relationships with people, how to counsel someone making a decision for Christ and how the little details of ministry really matter,” he said.
“I learned ministry is exhausting, painful, glorious and exciting all at the same time. It was during those summers on staff that God really drew my heart and life to serving the local church.”
Dew said that while millions have been engaged with the gospel and life-giving relationships at Lifeway camps over the past 40 years, there is still work to be done—lives to see changed through those camps that have a legacy of raising up denominational leaders.
“Camps are important because they take kids and students outside of their normal patterns and rhythms where they live on devices and run in circles that may not influence them in a positive way,” he said.
“Kids and students have a better chance of being impacted for eternity when they are put in a camp environment where they can consider the things of Christ. They’re more inclined to listen and truly hear the gospel—like I did.”
Joy Allmond is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.