As a cabin leader, when was the last time your campers were on the edge of their seats as you led them in cabin devotions? Did they groan when you got to the end and say, “Please, just a little more!” Have you ever overheard them talk together about your devo’s as if they were discussing a movie they just watched together? If so, well done! You can stop reading this article.
If you are like the rest of us, our best cabin devotions hardly had that effect. Not many cabin leaders look forward to the time of day when we try to communicate the one most important message to campers as they swing from the rafters and hit one another with pillows. Perhaps we should consider a new and ancient method: read a story aloud to your campers.
A Google search on the benefits of reading aloud to middle-school children generates dozens of articles from educators and parents. For middle-school children, reading has only recently moved from a social to an individual exercise. They may have gained much by launching into their personal literary pursuits, but consider all they have lost (and likely really miss):
Reading aloud builds connections. There is something irreplaceable about the bond that is formed when an adult reads a story to a child. Even listening to an audiobook together doesn’t produce the same feeling of closeness and shared experience.
Reading aloud creates a safe space. When you are listening to a story being read, there is nothing to do but respond. No need to impress, no online image to maintain, no competition. Just enjoyment and wonder and suspense. It’s cozy and comfortable, and you can’t wait for the next time.
Reading aloud cultivates engagement. Watching a video is easy. Even reading to yourself requires little focus. Being read to engages our minds in so many ways—listening, processing, imagining. There is also the opportunity to pause where you want, to ask a question or make a comment.
Reading aloud stimulates anticipation. “Should we stop right there?” you ask, as the protagonist hears something big moving toward them in the dark woods. “Noooo!!” is the collective response. “What happens next” becomes deliciously enticing when read aloud.
Reading aloud forms lasting memories. Especially for older kids who are usually expected to read for themselves, there are few opportunities to have someone read to them. Like receiving a hand-written letter in the mail, they will not forget it very soon.
Reading aloud generates conversation. Because it is a shared experience, a story read aloud lends itself to discussion. It raises questions, and you find out that others are asking the same thing. You talk together about how you responded and what it all means.
A story read aloud can provide all the requirements of a solid cabin devotional, and can do it better. Stories were the method of choice in Jesus’ teaching, the whole point being to provoke the listeners to explore, to ask the right questions and to seek the truth.
Here are some tips on reading aloud to campers:
Get them comfortably gathered together. Don’t attempt to read to campers who are in their own bunks. They will not love you for it when they miss half the story. Get them all on your bunk, around a table or on a blanket on the floor.
Ask God to speak through the story. Whether you make prayer part of the experience or simply lift up a “Nehemiah Prayer” (Nehemiah 2:4), ask God to do what only he can do.
Enthusiasm is more important than skill. Do you think you’re a lousy reader? No problem, as long as you read with gusto. Laugh at your mistakes. Get excited as you read; get tense, get sad, get mad.
Practice makes perfect. Reading aloud is a performance. Practice ahead of time and expect to improve as you gain experience. With that in mind…
Don’t ask the campers to do the reading. This can stigmatize some campers and will likely take away from rather than add to the experience.
Vary your reading style. Respond to the story. Speed up. Slow down. Speak loudly. Speak softly. You don’t have to give the characters different voices unless you (and your campers) enjoy it.
Don’t be afraid to stop for discussion or to answer questions. You might even have a mid-point question in mind, like about what they think will happen next or what they would have done if they were the character.
Watch for and adjust to their response. Kids can look bored or restless and still be listening. Some kids will do better with something to do with their hands, like drawing what they are hearing or hugging a stuffie. Don’t read longer than they want to listen. Ask if you should stop.
Find the best times to pull out the book. Reading aloud is worth the investment of time, so figure out the best times. Just before sleep is a given (for more than one reason!). How about as campers are waking up? Or after a meal? Does your camp have a quiet time after lunch? What about when campers are in a circle on the field, munching chips and candy bars?
Leave room for anticipation. If the story is exciting enough, campers will never want you to stop. And they might pester you to read more. Anticipation is gold in your pocket. Spend it wisely, and not all in one place.
Convinced? Not until you try it! Choose a book. Practice on your roommate. Think about how each chapter might lead to a discussion about God and his word. Tuck the book (or two) in your bag when you go to camp this summer. And wonder why you never did it before.
A Few Examples:
Camp Liverwurst and the Search for Bigfoot, by Jim Badke (yep, this is the commercial)
Camp Liverwurst is like no place on earth. Imagine Noah as your cabin leader, Miriam and David as worship leaders and Queen Esther running the games! This middle-school novel combines an intriguing story with rich biblical content. Included are questions and activities to prompt Bible discussions about faith in Jesus, overcoming fear and what it means to love God with all our heart.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
Though it would be difficult to read any one of the seven books to campers in the span of a week, some sections are pure gold and can stand on their own. Aslan’s death and resurrection in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Edmond’s transformation from a dragon to a boy again in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy following the lion through the woods when no one else will in Prince Caspian. All are rich descriptions of God and his people.
Straight from the Bible, these stories may be above most kids’ reading level, but reading aloud can make them accessible. Have you read recently the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Daniel 3)? Its constant repetition is hilarious—and the lessons significant. Try out some of the accounts of Esther, Jonah, Daniel, Noah, David, Ruth in the Old Testament, and Jesus and the Apostles in the New.
Winnie-The-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne
Most kids have never heard the original stories, only the Disney aberrations. Not overtly spiritual, perhaps, but these stories are rich with relationship, problem-solving and simplicity. You just need to do the work of helping campers see God in a story where he is not mentioned (which, by the way, you would also need to do with the book of Esther).
The Ember Series by S.D. Smith
I'm just getting started with this fantasy series by a Christian author whose first book, The Green Ember, was for a time the best-selling audiobook in the world. "Heather and Picket are extraordinary rabbits with ordinary lives until calamitous events overtake them, spilling into a cauldron of misadventures."
Practically anything by Dick King-Smith
You know him best for the movie Babe, about the gallant pig. Other favorites include Three Terrible Trins and The Water Horse. Again, you will need to be creative in forming discussions around these, as the characters are not always (okay, are usually not) well-behaved. But they do tend to learn from their mistakes.
Focus on the Family Kids Novels
If you want to stick to books that are overtly Christian, Focus on the Family has dozens: Adventures in Odyssey, Last Chance Detectives and many more.