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Articulating our Theology of Outdoor Ministries

Nov 16, 2013 | The Logic of Camp

I spent the past week at an outdoor ministry conference in Lake Tahoe with a group of Presbyterian (PCCCA) and Lutheran (LOM) camp people from across the USA and Canada. Together, we talked about the changing world of outdoor ministries and ways to collaborate in the future. We worshiped together, attended workshops, and listened to some challenging words from keynoter Kelly Fryer. More than any of these formal interactions, we talked and enjoyed wonderful Christian fellowship. We talked about our ministries around the dinner table, in some hot springs, and late at night over several rounds of drinks. Camp professionals are gracious, accommodating, and collaborative people. It was a great joy to share in community and bear one another’s burdens.
What strikes me about the role of outdoor ministry professionals is how much they are forced into the minutia of their work. The reality is that many outdoor ministry sites across the country are struggling for their very survival. There was much talk (including in Fryer’s keynote) about being entrepreneurial and how camps can think outside the box in order to provide funding for their ministries. Executive directors have boards to manage, budgets to meet, and many of them are struggling to hold onto their own jobs amidst crisis. The operative word is survival.
Meanwhile, the impact of outdoor ministries is losing recognition outside the camp circles. At an outdoor ministry conference, we all agree that camp is amazing, faith-forming ministry. From the outside, however, many people question the efficacy and importance of outdoor ministry. Support is dwindling as church membership declines and cooperative organizations like denominations are forced to make difficult budgetary decisions. My own denominational body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has cut the vast majority of its support to the 132 Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM) sites. Perhaps more troubling, the National Council of Churches recently voted to stop funding their Committee on Outdoor Ministries. Congregational youth ministries continue to have national cooperation, deep theological articulation, and tremendous support, but so little of this is focused on promoting outdoor ministries.
In response, some camps are seeking to broaden their reach with token programs for which they are largely unsuited. Since creative programming is helping to slow the decline for some camps, much of what happens at an outdoor ministry conference is intentional sharing of innovative ideas that are succeeding in bringing people to camp. Again, the focus is on survival and “filling the bunks.” Of course, this is overly simplistic. Camping ministers do what they do because they believe in the power of the ministry and have witnessed that life-changing power at work in people’s lives. The problem I see is that they are forced to focus so much on survival that an overarching philosophy of camping gets pushed into the background. The result is that those not familiar with the power of camp do not hear camp philosophy and theology clearly articulated, so they are left to draw their own conclusions. The conclusion I often hear is that camp is theologically shallow or even dangerous, so camp is at best a fun experience for the church kids and at worst detrimental to their faith formation. With no books or scholarly articles on the topic and very few outdoor ministry education programs, it is no surprise that church professionals turn to the ministries that are getting some buzz, such as short-term mission trips.
My belief is that something deeply theological is happening at camp, and we need to tell that story. We need to articulate a theological framework for outdoor ministries that will help our camps refocus on the camping ministry model that is so effective for faith formation. Our theological priorities matter because they shape who we are and to whom we are oriented moving forward.
Each year, LOM has a Leadership Training Event (LTE), and one of the center pieces of the education is to have each participant develop a “philosophy of outdoor ministries” focused on articulating the philosophy and theology behind the programming. Many of LOM’s current program and executive staff members went through the LTE. When I asked individuals at the conference about their philosophy papers from the LTE, people did not remember what they wrote. Workshops at the conference were almost exclusively practical, with almost nothing focused on articulating the theology and philosophy behind outdoor ministries. Theological priorities may be operative at our camps, but they are not always articulated.
It is time to dust off those philosophy papers and get some theological and scholarly attention on the vital ministry of camp. If you have not written one, sit down and put into words the theological priorities inherent in your outdoor ministry philosophy. We know that something deeply theological is happening at camp, but outsiders do not know that. To them, it’s all just fun and games. There is a lot at stake here, much more than just the survival of our individual camps. The theological priorities of outdoor ministries have the potential to shape the theology and ministry of Christ’s church. The “fun and games” of camp turn out to be generative theological praxes that take seriously the activity of Christ in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. As practical theologians continue to make the case that religious practice is not mere application but rather the very foundation of theological understanding, they would do well to recognize Christian camping ministry as a place where the activity of practical theology is already underway. Church professionals, too, have much to learn from the theological priorities of outdoor ministry. I have articulated some of these priorities in previous blog posts and in academic circles, and I will continue to do so. I invite you to join me.


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    You do a tremendous job of articulating the value of stepping back to understand and develop our theological grounding with clarity and purpose. And our ability to do that as camp professionals most definitely affects our perceived value to the greater Church community. I've just recently finished reading a book called "Homesick and Happy", where a psychologist does a tremendous job of articulating the value of summer camp. He does not write from a Christian perspective, and in fact intentionally chooses non-faith based camps to shadow, but I think you would really appreciate the book. Even as an agnostic, the author can't help but include a couple chapters on the spiritual dimensions of camp. Much of the rest of it is also relevant to a vision of intentionality.

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    The problem with survival thinking, is that it shrinks the brain. Good call Jake to remind us to do theology…that's expansive thinking.

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    Thanks for the comments. The book "Homesick and Happy" that you mention is by psychologist Michael Thompson, who has keynoted at ACA events in the past. He is a huge camp supporter, and I have used his book in some of my writings. I think he is most helpful in talking about how camp gets kids away from their parents for a time of differentiation. From a faith perspective, this gives them a chance to "own" their faith. He gets a little too excited about the potential for sexual exploration at camp, but his book still gives a nice perspective.


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