Since coming as the Associate Pastor of Bethany Bible Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, in 2010, I have seen first hand a unique ministry created by the vision of the senior pastor here, Greg Stiekes, and his wife Rena. Truly, the word “unique” is not used in vain in describing this week-long ministry to children ages 13 and under.
Each year, the week of Music Camp has focused on a particular region of the world or historical epoch. Since its conception in 2004, the weeks have included such themes as “Classical Composers,” “Celtic Music and Hymns of the British Isles,” “Colonial American Music,” “Reformation Germany,” the “Music of the Middle Ages,” “Ancient Israel,” and France. This year, the focus was the music of 19th and 20th century England. We called it “From the Victorians to Vaughan Williams and Beyond.”
Music Camp is a mixture of Bible doctrine, church history, hymnology, classical music appreciation and history, and music performance. It is content-driven. We brought in Dr. Scott Aniol and a talented young composer named Josh Bauder to help in teaching. We ask for a mid-ranged registration fee to help us compensate these men. They provide what is really an all-star lineup for the week.
We begin each day reviewing the previous day’s content with a quiz. This is followed by a brief lesson from the Bible. This gives way to a hymnology session and maybe the singing of a hymn or two. Then we give the children a break, which is split between some activity time outside, snacks, and some era or region-inspired crafts. When we return to teaching, we give a biography of important Bible-believing Christians from the era. This is followed by a half-hour where the children practice simple sacred music anthems. Another chunk of time is then given to classical music history and finally a brief rehearsal for choir and the “Music Camp orchestra” of some simple pieces.
This year, we began each day looking at the Bible’s teaching about the gospel, conversion, the cross, the Bible, and being active for Christ’s sake. Scott taught the hymnology session, instructing the kids on the great hymn writers during this era. He was even able to help the children understand some of the different cultural landscapes that arose out of the industrial revolution (high, folk, and mass). The bios featured George Muller, Horatius Bonar, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and William Carey (who was admittedly a little early for our period). The children learned the hymns “Holy, Holy, Holy”; “Look, Ye Saints” (Coronae); “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” (Kingsfold); “For All the Saints”; and “Abide with Me.” For our sacred music anthems, the children sang a simplified version of Rutter’s The Lord Bless You and Keep You, a simplified transcription of Howard Goodall’s The Lord is My Shepherd, and a setting of “Jesus Shall Reign” to Hubert Parry’s great tune “Jerusalem.” The orchestra played simplified versions of Holst’s hymn from “Jupiter” (The Planets) and Elgar’s trio from the first Pomp and Circumstance march. This was all sung for the children’s parents at a special Friday night program, punctuated by congregational singing, an adult ensemble (who sang Stainer’s “God so Loved the World”) and a piano solo of Elgar from Josh Bauder.
If someone were to ask me what the “down-sides” of music camp are, I’d answer that it demands of us a tremendous amount of work. We not only need to plan several months in advance, but the material we present does not come prepackaged. The music often needs to be rewritten for children. We have to research the era, select good hymns, and focus on what we’re going to be teaching. Promotional materials must be created “in-house.” Without the help of talented people within our congregation, as well as Scott and Josh, we could not pull it off. Music Camp is relatively expensive as well, especially given the costs of personnel and travel. As with any large organizational undertaking, the church must support this work and put their labor behind it, but we have always had numerous members here at Bethany roll up their sleeves and jump in wherever needed in remarkable ways. Perhaps another downside is that it is focused more on “edification” of Christian children rather than “evangelism” per se. Yet, even there, we clearly presented the gospel often. We also provide scholarships for children interested in attending whose parents cannot afford it.
Yet, despite the negatives, the positives are rich and rewarding. I love having my children involved with a “VBS” (if you want to call it that) that emphasizes instruction and content. I also believe strongly that it is not only important that we struggle to preserve conservative worship, but that we let our children see its beauty as well. Music Camp helps us do this. Last week, one mother relayed to me that her daughter said that the music of Music Camp was “so beautiful” that it nearly brought tears to her eyes. It is gratifying to see children happily singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” or “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” or “Jesus Shall Reign.” And, although the kids are kids and they sometimes lost attention, Scott, Josh, and the other teachers were usually able to keep their attention despite the demanding material. All teachers struggle to remember the children’s frame, and teach accordingly. We also try to keep things varied between the teaching, music, and other activities.
Over the near decade that this ministry has been taking place, word has spread. This year, we had families drive nearly an hour each day to bring their children. Families of area churches, who are with us concerned about the increasing rareness of the great hymns in public worship, thanked me often at the conclusion of the week, urging us to continue this unique ministry. God has richly blessed our labor of love for Jesus’ sake (1 Cor 15:58). We pray that he has been glorified and will continue to be through this endeavor we call “Music Camp.”