Christian outdoor ministry is an incredibly understudied field. As scholarly attention increases in the fields of youth ministry and emerging adult ministry, camp is conspicuously absent from nearly every study. Evidence for camp’s effectiveness is left largely to anecdotal accounts that seem convincing to those of us who have had wonderful camp experiences but leave others in doubt. Camp is often viewed as mere fun and games, an experience that at best is theologically shallow and at worst detrimental to young people’s conceptions of God and themselves. As one colleague put it, “Camp is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Increased scholarship on the new life stage of “emerging adulthood,” combined with growing recognition of the tremendous changes taking place in Christianity, signal that the time is ripe for a fresh scholarly look at the camp experience. Whether there is a “great emergence”(1) or some new great awakening,(2) the tremendous cultural changes of the past century have coincided with the advent of the life stages of adolescence and emerging adulthood. Christian camps have emerged amidst these changes, in many ways responding to them, and they offer a fascinating intersection of the adolescent world, emerging adult world, and innovative ideas in Christianity that make them theological laboratories for the church of the 21st century.
While scholars are sounding alarm bells because of the rise of the “nones,” a growing demographic claiming no religious affiliation, thriving Christian communities of emerging adults are springing up every summer at camps across the country. A close analysis of the priorities of the camp experience alongside the factors that influence faith formation in emerging adults demonstrates why camp staff communities are such vibrant expressions of the church and offers valuable insights into ministry with youth and emerging adults.
As emerging adults get more and more scholarly attention, each study confirms that they are the least religious segment of society, which is one of the reasons that the Christian summer staff community is so unique. While many studies seem content to use words such as “lost” to describe the emerging adult demographic,(3) a new Canadian study prefers a more graphic characterization of their faith as “hemorrhaging.”(4) The wonderful thing about having so much attention on the attrition of emerging adult religiosity is that there are loads of data indicating how to engage them in faith practices. Moving from one graphic metaphor to another, researchers are identifying how to move from hemorrhaging faith to “sticky faith.”(5)
Of the many factors important for forming and sustaining faith in the emerging adult years, three rise to the top in every major study. First and foremost is the importance of relationships in forming and sustaining faith. The research shows that faith simply does not exist without community support, no matter how much toner is burned over the concepts of “individual spirituality” and “spiritual but not religious.” Second is a genuine internalization of the faith, which includes identity formation and differentiation. Third is an incorporation of faith practices into everyday life.
For those of us with experiences in Christian camping, these three essential aspects sound remarkably similar to the Christian camp experience. For those who are less familiar with camp and may think that “camp theology” is an oxymoron, consider these three aspects of emerging adult religiosity alongside what some call “the essential trinity of camping”:
1) community living (think intentional Christian relationships)
2) away from home (think opportunities for internalization of faith)
3) in an outdoor recreational environment (think incorporation of faith practices into everyday life)
With the incorporation of daily faith practices and intentional Christian reflection, the Christian camp experience becomes an ideal laboratory for emerging adult faith formation. For scholars and church leaders, it is time to take a closer look at the role of Christian outdoor ministries in faith formation.
1. Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008).
2. Diana Butler-Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).
3. David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011). Christian Smith, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford, 2011).
4. James Penner, Rachael Harder, Erika Anderson, Bruno Desorcy, and Rick Hiemstra, Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church (EFC Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable, 2013).
5. Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in your Kids (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).