The tide is turning for scholarship in Christian camping ministry! The primary aim of my scholarly studies is to contribute to a fresh wave of scholarship in this field, and two upcoming studies promise to be game-changing. I hope they will set the stage for decades of study and attention on Christian camping, like those currently enjoyed in the field of youth ministry. One of these studies seeks to construct a grounded theory of camping ministry by focusing on a small number of Lutheran camps in Wisconsin. This important study, currently in the granting phase, will open new insights on the nature and significance of Christian camping ministry, and it is designed to be a watershed for future mixed-method studies aimed at isolating camping ministry’s best practices. The second study is much broader in scope and specific in focus. It focuses on confirmation ministry, and it is addressed more fully below.
A Dearth of Research
Christian camping ministry is an incredibly understudied field. This is particularly shocking considering recent developments in scholarship and American culture that I will briefly describe in three points. First, the past 50 years have witnessed a tremendous growth in the field of practical theology as an independent discipline. This growing field of scholarship places an emphasis on Christian practice and individual context contributing to theological development. As places that emphasize putting faith into action in all aspects of daily life, Christian camps serve as valuable modules of theological development that can inform the field of practical theology. Second, the past 30 years have witnessed significant changes in the field of youth ministry as a specialized form of ministry that receives increasing scholarly attention, professional respect, and tremendous resources. It is peculiar that this growing scholarly field neglects the study of camping ministry to such a great extent, since camp brings together children’s ministry, family ministry, adolescent ministry, emerging adult ministry, and many other specialized ministries that are direct offshoots of youth ministry. Third, there are broad cultural concerns related to care of the environment and the health of young people that provide opportunities for increased attention on camping ministry. Global climate change is a growing concern that can be directly addressed by increasing awareness of environmental stewardship and love of creation fostered by simple familiarity with the outdoors, both of which camping ministry provides. The active, highly relational environment of camp also can address physical health concerns relating to overly sedentary children and psychological health concerns about children who spend more time interacting with electronics than other people. Despite this highly favorable environment for scholarly study of Christian camping ministry, precious little has been done.
The American Camp Association (ACA) has worked hard over the past decade to fill the dearth of scholarship in youth camping, and their researchers have produced multiple studies of great significance, most notably the 2005 Directions study. ACA represents many types of camps across the country, less than a quarter of which are Christian organizations. While the research has tremendous value for Christian camping ministry, it does not address some core questions of concern for practical theologians and the Church (e.g. discipleship and Christian education).
The Confirmation Project
A major catalyst for camp’s inclusion in the confirmation study was a similar European study on confirmation ministry. The European study, headed by practical theologian Friedrich Schweitzer, includes data from seven countries. A significant finding of the study is that confirmation training conducted primarily in a camp form shows statistically higher gains in religiosity than other modes of instruction. The data is particularly striking in Sweden and Finland, where the majority of confirmation instruction takes place at camp. This revelatory study, along with powerful camp experiences that shaped the lives of members of the American research team, led to an understanding that camp deserves an important role in a study focused on confirmation ministry.
The study is known as the Confirmation Project, and according to the website it “seeks to learn the extent to which confirmation and equivalent practices in five Protestant denominations in North America are effective for strengthening discipleship in youth.” It is generously funded by Lily Endowment, Inc. and directed by widely-respected practical theologian Richard Osmer (Princeton Theological Seminary) and Katherine Douglass. The five participating denominations include the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The study features a nationwide two-phase quantitative survey that will reach thousands of youth, parents, and ministry professionals. In addition, the study boasts a rigorous qualitative portion that seeks in-depth portraits of specific congregations and camps. The exciting news for the field of Christian camping ministry is that camp is an important and integral part of this study, essentially making this the first major scholarly study to investigate camp’s role in Christian formation, taking into account a partnership with homes and congregations.
The camp-specific portion of this study begins this fall with a survey of camps in the five denominations. It is important that all camps (nearly 500) affiliated with these denominations participate in the survey (which can be filled out by a director-level staff member in 15 minutes). This survey will provide a census of camps in the five denominations, and it will offer important information about the common priorities, various theological convictions, and great diversity of programming among the many camps. Using this data, camps from each denomination will be purposefully selected (to get a variety of sizes, program types, and geographical locations) to be included in a qualitative study of confirmation camp programs in the summer of 2015. This camp study is embedded in the larger Confirmation Project, which will also survey confirmands in congregations. The surveys of confirmands and ministers in congregations will include multiple questions about camp. These data will give the most comprehensive picture to date of the nature and significance of Christian camping ministry to the work of the Church.
You can see that the stage is set to deepen and broaden the conversation about the significance of Christian camping ministry. Those of you in participating denominations can help ensure that your congregations and camps are included in this exciting research!