M28Camps: Taking up the Call



By Susan O’Keefe –

Christian discipleship means different things to different people. For a couple from Oxford, Mississippi, the call to disciple included a packing list of camp T-shirts, sound equipment, stage lighting, and name tags. The map to discipleship led them to the mountains of North Carolina to begin a youth conference.

Allyson and Eddie Willis launched M28Camps a couple of years ago. With experience as a retreat worship leader throughout the Southeast, Eddie had watched youth conference trends ebb and flow. Music styles progressed. Programming intensified. Speakers added a few more bells and whistles.

With an ever-energetic desire to serve, Eddie’s wife, Allyson, jumped on board as Eddie began sharing his ideas of a new United Methodist youth conference. He envisioned a fresh choice.

“I imagined an event crafted and designed for sustainable spiritual growth. It would stay the course in message and content. The bar would be set high. Events would be enjoyable, yet challenging in teaching,” Eddie said.

While there are certainly organizations with excellent summer programming, camping, and conferences, there are still scores of United Methodist church vans readily pulling in to the parking lots of other denominational conferences. Eddie wondered if it was possible for the UM Church to provide more events meeting the specific needs of students as well as the criteria of youth ministers.

Cautiously excited about the idea, Eddie asked other youth ministers for input. Did they share his sentiment? A clear resounding “yes” emerged from all directions! Youth workers wanted a deeper, more relevant experience in summer youth conferences. They yearned for their adult volunteers to have a place to grow spiritually. They were elated to hear of his desire for deep scriptural teaching within their United Methodist tradition.

As conversations continued, God repeatedly gave Eddie the idea of gathering youth and youth leaders for a tailored event. He prayed and pondered the subject matter, focusing on today’s needs in the lives of students and families. As he prayed for direction and guidance, he knew something was on the horizon.

In time, God firmly planted the idea in Eddie’s mind. Launch a series of summer youth conferences based on Matthew 28:19–20, the Great Commission. This idea served as the spark to ignite M28Camps.

From there, the first event quickly ensued. Because the initial target population was aimed at the Southeastern United States, Lake Junaluska in North Carolina was chosen as the first summer’s conference location.

Jack Ewing, executive director of Lake Junaluska, expressed an interest in “partnering events.” Ewing wanted events that would provide programming at the lake’s conference center. The hub for United Methodism was the perfect fit. “It really gave groups a beautiful setting for their afternoon free time to enjoy the mountains plus the speakers and workshops we would provide,” Allyson said.

The Rev. Eddie Willis leads worship. Photo courtesy of M28Camps.

The Rev. Eddie Willis leads worship. Photo courtesy of M28Camps.

The inaugural M28Camp went beyond Eddie and Allyson’s expectations. God’s hand seemed to be right on top of the mountains that housed M28. The event had proved to meet such an essential need in the hearts of participants. Feedback showed the flocks were hungry and thirsty. By the time the second conference was held in the same location, the registration numbers had doubled.

Training and teaching during morning and evening worship times at the 2014 event were the Rev. Patrick Quinn of Frazer UM Church in Montgomery, as well as the Rev. Lisa Yebuah of Edenton Street UM Church in Raleigh. Their sharing of the Word of God in a Wesleyan manner brought the stories in scripture alive.

“M28 is an answer to an eight-year prayer that Eddie and I have had for the youth in our Methodist churches,” Quinn said. “I look forward to what God will do in the years to come as M28 boldly proclaims the Great Commission as not merely evangelism, but more so a model for discipleship.”

Intentionality for spiritual growth is woven into every aspect of the M28 tapestry. The desire for youth and youth leaders to have the opportunity to grow in discipleship runs deep. Quinn, passionate himself about discipleship, agreed that students and adults needed an additional time beyond the main group sessions to talk about Bible passages presented, a time where they could digest the message, and see how it applied to them personally. Thus, evening discipleship groups (D-Groups) were formed and hold a high priority at the conference.

Photo courtesy of M28 Camps.

Photo courtesy of M28 Camps.

Choosing to live each day the way Christ lived is an essential step on the path of discipleship. Obeying Christ’s teachings brings believers to a deeper understanding of Peter’s writing when he says that Christ followers should “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”

To encourage and equip conference attendees, the discipleship discipline was explored from various angles. College student volunteers join the M28 staff for each event as D-Group leaders. This allows adult leaders to attend their own group led by one of the speakers for the event. Workshops geared toward spiritual growth were also available.

Many of the adult leaders are parents who came as chaperones to the event. Providing a place for them to be served deepens the effect that discipleship will have when they return home to their families. Feedback confirmed that this allotted time provided much needed wisdom, prayer, reflection, and rejuvenation for tired bodies and souls.

One mother said her family, including two teen-aged daughters, was fortunate to travel around Europe, standing only inches from the Queen of England, bask in the sun at the beach, and enjoy an incredible summer. Yet at the end of it all, one daughter bestowed the accolade of “Best Part of the Summer” to M28!

“That made my heart do flips,” said parent volunteer Mikki Ogletree. “As a mother and youth worker, being able to attend this camp with my kids and their friends was wonderful. I loved the built-in free time that allowed kids and adults to bond. The setting was such that we could let the kids wander around the lake and not have to worry about them.”

While kids kayaked or hiked, adults were free to join them or indulge in a relaxing nap. Parent volunteers say they never once heard a student utter those dreaded words, “I’m bored.” Perhaps less is more.

“This was the holiest youth event that I have experienced,” stated Bishop William T. McAlilly of the Memphis and Tennessee United Methodist Conferences. He spoke of the recipe of music, teaching, youth leader involvement, and location that culminated into a great avenue for young people and adults alike to understand Christ in a deeper manner.

“Prayer is the foundation that fuels the whole event,” said Allyson, Eddie’s wife, and M28 partner. The speakers and teachers are seeking the Lord on their subject matter. “Everything from scheduling to housing particulars are bathed in prayer before the Lord,” she continued.

Each D-Group leader receives their list of students in advance. They’re encouraged to immediately begin praying for what the Lord has planned. Even at the event’s conclusion, prayers continued for each participant, and that God would use the impact of M28 to deepen discipleship commitments.

The Rev. Lisa Yebuah teaches during M28. Photo courtesy of M28Camps.

The Rev. Lisa Yebuah teaches during M28. Photo courtesy of M28Camps.

Based on the message of Matthew 28:19-20 and the call to make disciples of all nations, students and leaders are challenged to learn on a more personal level the definition of discipleship. What does it mean to be a sincere disciple of Christ, and how is it possible to help others become disciples? That is the simple gospel presented at M28. Research shows there is a desperate craving for the gospel message. M28 desires to deliver.

Parents say the life changing results of M28 could only be a God-thing. “The power of the Holy Spirit enriched every talk, saturated every worship service, and was just awe-inspiring,” complimented Ogletree. “There is something about the intimacy of relationships that abounds here and makes all the difference.”

And that’s just what M28 desires to do, make a difference. M28 wants to teach and equip youth, youth leaders, and parents to become disciples. “We live in a world driven by media and technology and the distractions youth face today are surmounting. But one thing stands sure as Hebrews 13:8 reminds us, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” Eddie said.

Christians serve a mighty God who does not call us to compete, just to repeat his truth and promises. Claim Hebrews 13:7 and “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.”

One M28 fan said he is confident that organizers are following the lead of the Holy Spirit and called the camp a greenhouse of sorts “in order to grow the seeds already planted throughout our ministry. For the past two years our kids have been challenged and grown with two of them making professions of faith and being baptized.”

Photo courtesy of M28 Camps.

Photo courtesy of M28 Camps.

Philip Prince, youth pastor of First UM Church in Carthage, Mississippi, says M28 has created quite a buzz. “I appreciate M28 taking time to focus on us as youth leaders,” Prince said. “I wasn’t pressured to lead a group but instead I was plugged in with other youth leaders in order to discuss ideas, passions, struggles, and goals. I leave M28 on fire instead of worn out.”

And that fire will grow if fed. Organizers and supporters are eager to fan the flame as M28 grows under God’s direction. And to think, it all started with an idea, a thought, a spark.

Susan O’Keefe is a freelance writer from Augusta, Georgia specializing in human interest stories. She is passionate about Christ, her family, and healthy living.

Rev. Eddie and Allyson Willis live in Mississippi, where Eddie is the Wesley Foundation director at the University of Mississippi and Allyson teaches their four children, writes, and serves in campus ministry in their local church.


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