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A Theological Playground

May 10, 2016 | Camp Research, Scholarly Publications, Theology and Culture

Christian Summer Camp in Theological Perspective

A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Luther Seminary

Christian camping ministry is a vibrant and well-established form of ministry in the church, but it has received shockingly little scholarly attention. Supporters and detractors alike rely on anecdotal evidence to support their claims. Many in the academic community have dismissed camp as theologically shallow or mere fun and games, while others have praised it as a form of ministry proven to facilitate life-changing experiences. Much of the confusion comes from conflating very different models of camping ministry, though most is the result of a simple dearth of scholarly research.

This project takes a close look at the rich history of Christian camping ministry in America and its treatment in the scholarly literature. This examination reveals some of the sources of the stereotypes and guides the project toward a deep empirical approach that goes beyond anecdotes. Voices from philosophy, psychology, interpersonal neurobiology, and theology guide the discussion and focus attention on the human subjects who are united in community at camp. Participants come to the camp environment from different contextual realities, and their bodily wisdom (habitus) must be taken into account as they make meaning from their encounters at camp. Through the project, the reality of God’s ongoing activity in the world is taken seriously and explored, specifically through person-to-person interaction and the praxis of ministry.

This project includes the most extensive study to date of Christian camping ministry, and it focuses specifically on Mainline Protestant camping with strong ties to iii congregational ministries. The camp experience does not function on its own but rather as part of a complex web of meaning making in the life of each individual participant. The ambitious empirical approach takes a broad look at Christian camping ministry with a survey of more than three hundred camps. These data are used to consider the pedagogical and theological priorities of camping ministry alongside those of other educational ministries in the church, specifically confirmation ministry. Four site visits at camps in different denominations add depth to the rich quantitative data and help provide a working model to understand the camp experience. The camp participants themselves are given the opportunity to characterize their experiences.

The project defines Christian camp as a set apart space that facilitates relational encounter between the self, the other, and God. Camps are considered places of ministry and deep theological reflection. They are characterized as theological playgrounds, where participants are free to explore their beliefs in the safety of a nurturing Christian community and are awakened to a hyper-awareness of God’s activity in the world. The experience itself does not function in a single way but rather differently for each unique individual. There is strong evidence, however, that the encounters common at camp often precipitate measurable and lasting change in the lives of participants. The greatest overall impact is in facilitating ongoing connection to Christian community, including congregational ministries. A model for understanding transformation through the camp experience is proposed, along with pragmatic steps for future research and for improving camping ministries.


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