Connect Ministries helping churches across southeast with camps, coaching


WATKINSVILLE, Ga. — “We were just laymen helping to start a church in Franklin, Tenn., when Gabe Norris and I realized just how hard it is for the church in America to meet new people,” said Ken “KT” Thomas, president and co-founder of Connect Ministries.

After having this realization, Thomas and Norris soon quit their jobs at Lifeway Christian Resources and started Connect Ministries, a nonprofit organization based in Watkinsville that helps church members meet new people in their surrounding communities and share the gospel with them.  

In 2006 the two men were running a children’s camp and serving at the church plant in Franklin when they noticed this characteristic of the American church, according to a blog written by Lindsey Lowrance, marketing communications and public relations apprentice for Connect Ministries. Lowrance said the founders felt such a burden for the number of unchurched families that were unreached and asked themselves, “How can we help our church get outside its walls and meet people who are indifferent to the Church and have no connection to Christ?”

Lowrance said it was when Thomas and Norris started a three-on-three basketball tournament that they realized they could reach cities by learning to speak the language of the unchurched people. 

“Through remarkable outreach events like races, basketball tournaments and day camps, Connect Camps discovered four key ingredients for local churches to effectively meet new people,” Lowrance writes in the blog. Those ingredients include providing remarkable experiences, building life-giving relationships, executing a clear plan and enjoying deep friendship with God.  

Their organization does this form of outreach by hosting and planning summer camps for churches that ask them to come and help. The churches contact Connect Ministries after hearing about them from other churches or from conferences, Lowrance said.  

“We take care of all the details — Christ-centered content, quality equipment, relevant activities and a remarkable staff of vetted, energetic college students who love the Lord — so that the church can focus on building relationships with campers and their families,” Lowrance said.

“We are hosted by a local church, and the success of the camps is in the participation of that church, and the volunteers from the church play vital roles in the week of the camp,” said Thomas.

Theresa Mayo, director of children and family ministry at Gilliam Springs Baptist Church in Arab, Ala., said they had just built a gym, and she began to feel a pull to use their facilities not only for their church but also to reach other children in the community. 

“We needed a program that we could host but outsource most of the planning.  That is tricky, as we always expect excellence in programming and leadership with the utmost safety for our kids and an adherence to God’s Word as we see it as Southern Baptists. Connect Camps was able to meet that very big and important list of necessary expectations,” she said.  

Willowbrook Church in Huntsville, Ala., is another church that utilized this ministry.

“The vision for the camp is what made me want to do it,” said Whitney Reeves, director of children’s ministry at Willowbrook. “Connecting our church with families in our community is my passion, and Connect Ministries plays a huge part in helping to make that happen.” 

She went on to say that camp is a large part of her ministry to children, and the idea that the kids can have a remarkable camp experience without having to leave town was very appealing.  Reeves also said that parents are more willing to allow their children to attend a day camp rather than sending them to an overnight camp.

Annette Whitton, director of children’s ministries at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Enterprise, Ala., was interested in hosting the camp with Connect Ministries for similar reasons.

“Several years ago I met Gabe Norris. His passion for reaching families was amazing then and still is. Connect Camps starts with children finishing kindergarten to students finishing eighth grade. After COVID-19, some parents were a little nervous about their children going away to camp. This is right at home. I think parents were more comfortable with this.”

Whitton said she likes the camp because it brings church volunteers out who work together with the camp workers, and the church volunteers begin to build relationships with the families that have never come to church. 

“We are not trying to get you to come to Hillcrest (Baptist), but we are just trying to share the gospel,” she said. “Some people are scared of the big church, and we want them to know that they can fit in where God wants them to fit in.” 

Whitton is passionate about reaching people in their community, and she said the camps are another way for them to reach out and try to find those unchurched families and find where they can plug in and participate in church and serve.

Lowrance said they make it possible for the churches they work with to be free to begin building relationships with their surrounding communities that will be there long after the camp is finished. However, she said, “We are not the heroes of what we do in these camps.” 

Whitton told Jennifer Foster, minister of family discipleship and administration at Heritage Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., about the camps, and Foster invited Norris to speak with their pastor and staff. 

“Connect Camps impacted our entire church, not just our children’s ministry. We build partners with the business community to raise money for camp scholarships. One of those business leaders and her family visited our church, joined our church and now lead in ministries in our church,” Foster said. “Our entire church is more missionally focused because of Connect Camps.”

Thomas said the ministry has aided churches in meeting more than 500,000 people, and more than 13,000 have accepted Christ. And those are just the ones they know have made decisions.

While the organization is nonprofit and mostly operates from donations made by people or groups that want to support the ministry, the campers do have to pay camp fees in order to attend.  

Whitton said the cost is $242 for each camper to attend, and that is a lot of money for the children and their families.

“We have had clubs and businesses donate money to offset the cost for each child. One goal we set was to fully scholarship two children from each of our elementary schools,” she said. “We have one individual from our church who helps to make that happen each year. I am amazed each year by the people in our church who give to the scholarship fund.”

The organization does rely on individual donations, Thomas said, but while a portion of what Connect Ministries takes in is from the camper fees, the remaining part comes from fundraising and donations.

While the camps only last a week at a time, Lowrance said they take a whole year to plan the camp, starting from the time the church actually signs up for the camp.

Through the year of planning and preparations, the host church is part of every step Connect Ministries takes. Lowrance said this summer they will have 48 church partners that host camps. She said they have camps from Florida to Missouri, from Texas to North Carolina, and in Kentucky.

Connect Ministries is not all about Connect Camps, however.

They also launched an area of ministry called Connect Coaching. Lowrance said it is a tool to help senior pastors and ministry leaders develop a clear plan for their churches to meet new people and help those people establish relationships with Jesus.

Connect Coaching includes resources to assess and identify a church’s weaknesses and strengths to create a personalized ministry growth plan. The churches interested in the coaching take an assessment and are evaluated to better know what plans the church already has and what they want to do. Lowrance said that it is an online tool, but the churches have the option of inviting Thomas and Norris to come and coach in person as well.  

“One hundred percent of the people the church doesn’t meet don’t hear the gospel,” Thomas said.

In other words, if the church doesn’t reach out, the unchurched have no reason to really want to know what it is about, he said. Seventeen years ago Thomas was hit with the realization that he wanted to help the church in America bring more people to the Lord and to His church. He said it has been a venture that has far exceeded his expectations, only because they stay laser focused on the mission, and they are winning people for the Lord even if only 20%–30% of the campers are unchurched at a specific camp.

However, he said, even if the whole camp is made up of unchurched people at a certain location, and only one person makes a decision to trust Christ, then that camp was a complete success. Winning one person or 100 over to the Lord is a win no matter how you look at it, and this organization in Watkinsville seems to be doing that left and right.


This story first appeared in The Baptist Paper.