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What is Camp? Part V: Small Group Ministry

May 5, 2015 | Camp Research

Christian camping is about ministry. Camps are places with intentional goals and desired outcomes, but it is important to recognize that ministry itself is the primary goal. Theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God.”[1] He contrasts this with a beautiful and challenging vision of costly grace, which is marked by the call to follow Jesus. Camps are more concerned about ministering to the person than about conveying theological ideas. This important aspect of camp gets obscured from the view of visitors who see the silly skits and ridiculous games without seeing the small group discussions or the late-night cabin devotions. From a distance, camp seems gimmicky and raucous. Close up, it is revealed to be intentional and personal. Camping ministry leaders focus on meeting individuals where they are and accompanying them in their faith journeys. They deemphasize theological concepts and doctrines that are conveyed in didactic form.
The fall 2014 camp survey of 332 Mainline Protestant camps sheds light on the ministry priorities of

Christian camping. 90% of camps in the survey indicate that “individual faith formation” is “very” or “extremely important” to the camp philosophy, compared with only 38% indicating the same for “theological instruction” and 50% for “learning faith language and practices.” In a similar respect, 76% “moderately agree” or “strongly agree” with the statement, “Our camp exists to lead young people to Christ,” while only 64% indicate the same for, “It is important for our staff and campers to understand the theology and practices of our faith tradition.”

It is interesting to note that theology itself is not deemphasized as much as the “theological instruction.” Nearly 2/3 find it important for staff and campers to understand specific theology and practices, but it appears that this understanding is not conveyed in ways that the respondents consider “instruction.”
It is not that the “faith formation” at camp is devoid of theological content, though this is the dismissive argument that some church officials level at camping ministry. 91% of camps use a set Bible study curriculum for their small group Bible studies, which 90% of camps have at least daily. Substantive theological and biblical content is present at camp. But camping ministers are less concerned with theological ideas and more concerned with ministering to the individuals in their care. This is why the survey questions about formal instruction get far less agreement among camp professionals than an item like “Faith formation/practices should be incorporated into all aspects of camp life,” with which 92% of camps “moderately agree” or “strongly agree.” Faith is a way of life at camp, not a set of precepts to be memorized.
This overarching philosophy of camping ministry is lived out in the small group emphasis of camp. Camp is not a convention. Camp does not operate on an assembly-line mentality. Camp is personal. Camp is participatory. Camp does not focus on correcting faulty theology in order to memorize universal truths. Camp takes doubts and questions seriously, allowing space for individuals to wrestle with faith questions together.
When camp directors were asked about the importance of the large group and small group components of their ministry, the numbers were not even close. Only 16% “moderately agree” or “strongly agree” with, “The most important part of our camp day is large group games/activities.” In contrast, 79% “moderately agree” or “strongly agree” with, “The most important part of our camp day is the small group experience.”
The camp community centers on the unit group (or “cabin group”), which is generally a single-gendered group of 6-10 youth campers with 1-2 college-age summer staff members. These small groups sleep together, eat together, and do many (if not all) of their camp activities together. The unit group is the center of “fellowship/community building” at camp, which 99% of camp directors indicate is “very important” or “extremely important” (second in importance only to “participant safety”). These groups develop a high level of trust through shared activities and conversations over the course of a week or more (94% of camps have group building or challenge course activities weekly or more). This trust facilitates intimate conversations and honest faith discussions. The ultimate goal of this small group community is not dramatic conversion or indoctrination. The goal is fellowship. It is community for the sake of community. The goal is that all are welcome and included, especially those who have been excluded or devalued in other settings. In short, the goal is ministry.
Andrew Root argues, “Youth ministry has no task of locking young people down into some idea of faith. Rather, youth ministry seeks only to open free spaces where young people are affirmed and loved as persons, and through person-to-person encounter are asked to listen for the call of the living Christ.”[2]
Root then goes on to caution us that camp is too often held up as an ideal community that does not deal with the messiness of life but rather serves as a retreat from it. There are some important cautions in Root’s argument, but there are also some very real encounters in camp communities that defy casual dismissal. Camp as an idealmust be rejected, just as faith as an ideamust be rejected.
The camp model is easy to critique from a distance. But on the ground, in the cabins, real ministry is happening. It is face-to-face. It is messy. And Christ is present there.






[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 43.
[2]Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 181.


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