More Than a Statistic
The summer of 1965 broke hot and humid in northern Illinois. And when a six-foot, 200- and-something-pound 15-year-old nicknamed Moose showed up at Camp Hickory for a term as a junior counselor to 9- and 10-year-olds, he was ready for some fun.
Moose was from the suburbs, a baseball player just off a championship season. As one of four sons, he expected to identify with his young charges and teach them a thing or two about sports, maybe even about God. The Baptist General Conference camp in Round Lake, Illinois, was all wood cabins and meeting houses with slapping screen doors, but there was also a ball diamond, volleyball and badminton nets, horseshoe pits, tetherball poles, hiking trails, and a pool.
Air conditioning didn't exist at Camp Hickory, but following an afternoon sweating through his clothes in the sun, Moose and other staff cohorts would sneak into the walk-in cooler behind the dining hall. The blast of frigid air was nearly intoxicating, making the re-emergence to humid reality all that more shocking.
Moose served under an elderly counselor named Joe Pierce, who had been part of a rival gang to Al Capone in the 1930s before coming to Christ. Old Joe and his stories made an idyllic week all that more magical. Days and nights were spent at dining hall meals, the flagpole, handicraft sessions, sports, evening meetings, devotions, and bedtime chats. Moose regaled his junior boys with stories of the Rapture and what might happen if it occurred during rush hour.
He was one of those teenagers who had never been in trouble. Raised in a devout Christian home, Moose had become a believer as a young child and enjoyed everything about Sunday school and church. Looking forward to his junior year in a sprawling public high school, Moose was laid back about his faith, telling himself he didn't want to push his beliefs on anyone.
But at Camp Hickory, leading a camper to Christ was a thrill. No one looked at you sideways if you read Scripture aloud or led in prayer.
The highlight of the week came when Moose heard a local church softball team, Cumberland Baptist, was coming to play the staff. He knew this team. His own Elk Grove Baptist church team had played them and lost soundly. They were led by a superstar player named Johnny Ankerberg, a collegian who was also a young preacher and nephew of camp directors Dan and Joyce Ankerberg. He was a friend of Moose's friends, and Moose was proud to know him.
That afternoon, the young staff had one of those games and upset the experienced, much better Cumberland team, Moose scoring the winning run in the bottom of the last inning. But better than that, Johnny Ankerberg himself congratulated him and asked - in front of people - what he should speak on that night in the service.
He's asking me? Moose thought. Well, of course. I've been here all week. I ought to know.
Moose had heard Ankerberg speak before and knew he was powerful and incisive. "Well," he said, "there are a lot of phonies here. Maybe something on really being what you say you are all the time."
Everyone got cleaned up, enjoyed a noisy dinner in the mess hall, then settled in for the evening service. There were skits and music, and finally it was time for John Ankerberg to speak. Moose sat with old Joe Pierce and their cabin-full of boys, waiting to counsel any who wanted to receive Christ or rededicate their lives.
Ankerberg jumped right into his topic, goading, challenging, questioning the crowd. Are you really a Christian, or are you just playing at it? Do you paste a smile on your face and sit still in church but sneak around doing bad things with your friends at school and on the weekends?
Not me, Moose thought. I know better. No smoking or drinking or vandalism. I don't even swear.
Moose noticed that other staff seemed self-conscious. Some of the campers squirmed. Good. Johnny's getting to 'em, just like I hoped.
But then Ankerberg shifted gears. Maybe you're not doing anything wrong, he suggested. Maybe you think you're okay with the Lord.
Right, Moose thought. Now you're talking. Preach it, John.
But suddenly it seemed as if there were no others in the room but Moose and John. As the big teenager sat staring at the preacher, John began to hit home. Do your friends even know you're a believer? Or are you a secret service Christian, saving your piety for Sundays and home? Will your friends risk hell because you've never even told them about Jesus?
Moose's pulse raced. Was he one of the phonies he himself had referred to? This was getting way too personal. John began a litany of the dangers of keeping quiet about one's faith, how the world and friends and influences could rob you of your first love of Christ. How people you care about could be lost forever because you were afraid of offending them. How does he know?
"Who will stem the tide of invisible Christians?" John thundered, and suddenly Moose knew personally what the old term meant, falling under conviction. He shuddered, his heart galloping. "After what Jesus did for you on the cross, can you not suffer a little embarrassment for Him? I'm looking for young people who will say, 'I will stand for Christ by God's grace, even if I have to stand alone!'"
God was working on Moose. How he wanted to take that stand! If God would give him the courage and the power, he could do it!
John finally asked for people to stand if they were ready to make that commitment, and Moose leaped to his feet. He was near tears, ready to burst.
"A counselor is already standing," John said, "ready to pray with you about this."
Oh, no! He was referring to Moose! How could he counsel anyone while under conviction himself, eager to get right with God, desperate to seek forgiveness for having been a secret Christian?
But a 9-year-old boy was delivered to him. Moose talked with him, prayed with him, and then found everyone else occupied. He could hold it in no longer. He ran from the screened-in assembly hall, out into the darkness past the Fellowship Hall, into the parking lot where he found a friend's car. Finding it unlocked, he jumped in and lay across the front seat, sobbing and crying out to God for forgiveness.
"I will share my faith! I will tell others about You! I don't care what they think about me or even if they ever agree. I want to be the kind of believer You want me to be."
When Moose finally left that car, he sensed God's forgiveness and even felt his first infusion of courage. He sought out friends and told them boldly of his new resolve.
The rest of the week was different, at least inwardly. There was still the fun and the sports and the sweat and the cooler. But the meetings and the private times with campers took on a new urgency and import. This would not be one of those annual rededications that didn't "take." Moose felt like a new person.
At the end of the summer, just before school began, Moose talked John Ankerberg into coming to his home to share the same message with his youth group and guests. Moose's own older brother Jeff had the same response, and when they went back to Forest View High School as a junior and a senior, things had changed.
Moose carried his Bible atop his books, feeling conspicuous and frankly scared. But the conversations sparked by friends' questions resulted in several them becoming believers. His and Jeff's new commitment to sharing their faith coincided with the start of a Youth for Christ Campus Life group, which started small and quickly grew to more than 200 students.
Moose was also a writer, covering sports for local newspapers and his school paper. He began making plans to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago two years later to get a year of Bible training before pursuing a career in newspapering. The following summer he returned to Camp Hickory as assistant sports director.
Being there week after week for camps for all ages made 1966 the ultimate summer. Moose heard different speakers on different topics every week and formed strong friendships with the staff. He got in trouble for ordering pencils stamped with: "Camp Hickory, where Christ is 1st and mosquitoes are second." He grew close to Dan and Joyce Ankerberg and their son, now a California pastor.
One night while racing around in the dark, playing Capture the Flag with other staffers, Moose came upon the director's cabin and noticed the light on and shade open. He crept close and peeked in, only to find Dan and Joyce kneeling on the wood floor in prayer. Even in private, they lived their faith. Concern for souls was at the core of their beings.
Late in the summer Dan Ankerberg was speaking at teen camp when Moose had yet another encounter with God. Dan explained that while all Christians should be fulltime Christians, regardless their occupations, some are called to fulltime Christian work. This time God seemed to sneak up on Moose. Rather than being under conviction, he was simply overwhelmed with the feeling that he should commit himself to fulltime Christian work.
When Dan asked for those who felt the call to stand and come forward, Moose went. He thought he was giving up his writing career, probably obligated now to become a pastor or missionary - neither of which he felt drawn to or prepared for. He had to learn that when God calls a person to something, He will equip him and often has already given him a bent in a certain area.
Just five years later, when Moose was newly married and working as a sportswriter and photographer for a local newspaper, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a window. There he was, in suit and tie, all grown up, married and working. And he was reminded of that call. It was time to follow through on it.
He called various Christian organizations, looking for work in writing, editing, publishing. Moose was hired at Scripture Press where he became editor of a high school Sunday school paper. From there he went on to become editor of a Christian radio and TV guide, then became managing editor of Moody Magazine in Chicago. He eventually became publisher at Moody Press and finally vice president for publishing.
In the meantime, on the side, he wrote more than 150 books over several decades, including many about professional athletes.
It's been said that big doors turn on small hinges. Moose traces his life's work and ministry back to two consecutive summers at Camp Hickory where God spoke to him through His servants. Statistics show that more than a quarter million campers have become believers at Christian camps over the years. And more than 600,000 Christian leaders trace their choice of profession to decisions made at camp.
But these are more than statistics. Each represents someone who was once a malleable, impressionable kid who was open to the Spirit on a hot summer night, perhaps unlike he or she had ever been before or would be again. Countless camp workers and volunteers never know whom they might be impacting or what might become of the camper or young staffer who is listening.
Moose is more than a statistic. I ought to know. Moose was my nickname.
Jerry B. Jenkins is the author of more than 150 books, including the bestselling Left Behind series of novels. He assisted with Billy Graham's memoirs and also wrote biographies of Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Meadowlark Lemon, Orel Hershiser, Nolan Ryan, and many others. He and his wife live in Colorado Springs and have three grown sons. He owns Jenkins Entertainment, a film company in Los Angeles, and the Christian Writers Guild (www.ChristianWritersGuild.com), which exists to train writers.
"This article, first published in the September/October 2003 issue of Christian Camp & Conference Journal, is used with permission. © 2003 Christian Camping International/USA."