“Practical Theology.” Have you ever heard the term? In Seminaries and Divinity schools, it stands alongside biblical studies, church history, and “systematic theology” as one of the major areas of study. With academic emphases placed on learning the Bible (we need that Greek and Hebrew!), history, and the great theological doctrines of Christianity, practical theology has been a sort of unwanted stepchild, confined to the task of application so that the “normal people” of the church can understand the mysteries of God (which are really only learned through rigorous scholarship). After all, practices and methods aren’t “real” theology, are they? Theology is the stuff of belief and reason. After you’ve done your theological thinking, you can figure out what actions to do. In the 20th century, great thinkers like Seward Hiltner and Don Browning began changing the perception of practical theology, arguing that there are no theological theories without practice. The truth is that there is no “systematic theology” that is not shaped by our life experiences and religious practices. Still, many in the academy view practical theology with skepticism and derision. My systematic theology friends like to refer to the field as “practically theology.”
We see this bias toward orthodoxy (or “correct belief”) in our churches, as well, particularly in mainline Christian denominations such as Lutherans and Presbyterians. In fact, our churches that should be united in solidarity with the poor and showing love to a world in need are actually splintering over doctrinal issues. We disagree over how God saves people from their sins, so we split the church. We disagree over what actually happens in the Lord’s supper, so we split the church. We disagree over the interpretation of a certain Bible verse or the translation of the Lord’s Prayer, so we split the church. We focus so much on correct understanding of doctrine that we neglect the great commandment to love the neighbor and the simple yet difficult call of Jesus to “follow me.”
I think this is why so many pastors and theologians are skeptical of the benefits of outdoor ministries. What they see is “bad theology,” and that is the most dangerous thing they can imagine. What if our kids go to camp and are exposed to some “incorrect” biblical hermeneutic? What if they learn about a problematic eschatology or, worse yet, soteriology?! They don’t seem to realize that these kids do not know what those words mean, they don’t care, and most of them will never care. It’s not that theology is unimportant. Theology is very important. However, theology does not come from correct understanding of theological doctrines that we formulate into ethics and then put into practice in our lives. That is the academic track that 99.9% of our Christian young people will never journey. Theology comes from practice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his classic Discipleship, it comes from obedience to Christ’s command to “follow me.” We don’t fully understand what or who we’re following; that is part of the journey of discipleship.
The Christian camping model assumes that Christ is active in the world and looks for where the Holy Spirit is moving in and among the community of practice. There is a sort of “hyperawareness” at camp as participants notice the inbreaking of God in concrete, unexpected ways and the continued activity of Christ in the world, what practical theologian Ray Anderson terms “Christopraxis.” Life at camp is normed in a way that takes seriously the ongoing work of Christ’s ministry, as guides (or “counselors”) and campers learn together to identify God’s action in the world through the mundane and the extraordinary. For young people accustomed to compartmentalizing their experience of God at church as separate from their everyday lives, the camp experience offers a radical recentering of their lives as caught up in and dependent upon the activity of Christ. This is the work of theology. And it’s very “practical.”
As young people return from camp excited about a faith that matters and empowered to do something about it, they do not need a dose of “real” theology. They need accompaniment. They need opportunities to put their faith into action and have an impact on other people’s understandings of God and faith. This is messy work because it means that young people’s home communities must take them seriously as burgeoning theologians, and these communities must be prepared for the probability that their theological assumptions will be challenged and even changed.
The “fun and games” of camp turn out to be generative theological practices 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 their field 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. The church needs to understand this, too. Maybe this is part of what Bonhoeffer meant when he wrote about a “religionless Christianity” in his Nazi jail cell. The world does not need religious institutions arguing and divided over complex theological doctrines. The world needs Christian communities of love and action on behalf of others. The world needs communities of Christopraxis, communities modeled at Christian camps across the country and around the world.