Christian camping ministry in the Mainline Protestant tradition is often broken down along denominational lines. We have Lutheran camps, Methodist camps, and so forth. These distinctions are not always helpful because camps have varying programmatic goals and ministry priorities. The camp director survey conducted as part of the Confirmation Project in fall 2014 reveals another way to think about the differences among our camps and conference centers.
One thing that is abundantly clear from the camp research that we have gathered thus far is that camps and retreat centers are effective catalysts for faith formation. Contrary to many anecdotal accounts, it is becoming clear that the residential camp experience has lasting effects on participants, and one of the clearest lasting effects is that camp participants tend to be more engaged in Christian community. This includes church attendance! They actually leave camp with a stronger desire to engage in congregational ministries. This highlights the importance of strong partnerships between camps and congregations.
A small portion of Mainline camps have a weak emphasis on faith formation in comparison to other camps, but these only account for about 7% of the total. The remaining 93% have a moderately strong or very strong emphasis on faith formation and Christian education that permeates all of their programs. The interesting and perhaps concerning reality is that not all of these camps have maintained strong ties to congregational ministries. Just as there is variation in the degree that camps emphasize faith, there is also variation in how strongly they identify with their denominational traditions and seek connection to congregations. Using both of these measurements reveals four types of Mainline Protestant camps:
1. Camps with a weak connection to congregations/denominations and a low faith emphasis. Only 7% of camps fall into this category. They look very different from other Mainline camps and probably resemble secular camps to a large degree. They still may have worship, prayers, and even Bible study, though much less frequently than other camps. Faith practices are compartmentalized from other aspects of camp life.
2. Camps with a moderate connection to congregations/denominations and a moderate faith emphasis. 22% of camps fall into this category. These camps do not show particularly strong connection to other ministries or particularly strong faith emphasis. Faith teachings and Christian practices are part of the camp program, but they are not given noticeably more emphasis than other aspects. Religion or, more often, “spirituality” is seen as an important piece of camp life, but it does not necessarily permeate all aspects of the program.
3. Camps with a weak connection to congregations/denominations and a high faith emphasis. 29% of camps fall into this category. These camps are committed to faith formation, and Christianity permeates all aspects of camp programs. However, they deemphasize theological teachings specific to their denomination, and they have generally weak connections to congregational ministries. Camp directors are unlikely to have formal theological instruction, and clergy involvement is likely very low. The large number of camps fitting into this category is alarming because the camp experience does not stand alone as a singular life event. This category is a sign that the partnership between camps and congregations is weakening.
4. Camps with a strong connection to congregations/denominations and a high faith emphasis. 42% of camps fall into this category. These camps exhibit high clergy involvement and strong connection to congregations in terms of philosophy and program. They appear to be strong partners in ministry with congregations and denominational leaders. They tend to emphasize Christian education and specific theological teachings/practices more so than the other camps. These camps most closely resemble the historical priorities of Christian camping ministry in the Protestant tradition. They see themselves as part of a larger ecology of faith formation, and they intentionally try to strengthen partnerships with other ministries.
The Christian camp, conference, or retreat experience does not stand on its own! It is necessarily part of a much larger ecology of faith formation. Denominational differences among camps are not always helpful distinctions. A type 3 Lutheran camp may not look Lutheran at all, though it may share many of the ministry priorities of a type 3 Episcopal camp. Understanding where our camps fall in terms of these 4 categories can help us understand their strengths and weaknesses. It can also help us make distinctions when we are talking about Christian camping ministry. Some clergy members, theologians, or parents level critiques at camping ministry as a whole because they are lumping all camps together. People base their assumptions on their experiences. There are clergy members who do not want to support camp and retreat ministries because they have experienced mostly type 1 or type 3 camps. We can tell a more complete story of Christian camping ministry. We can also seek greater connections between camps and congregations. I firmly believe that these connections are vital to the future of both camps and congregations, and I would love to see many more of our camps shift to the Type 4 piece of the pie.
Where does your camp fit into the mix?