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From Ministry Bastions to Ports of Entry

Aug 24, 2017 | Rethinking Church

Why is there a disconnect between ministries of the Church? It sometimes seems as if the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. Ministries that are natural partners do not support or mutually reinforce one another. I often cannot figure out if this is the result of animosity between ministry groups, simple ignorance, or complacency.

It is easiest to tell when there is open animosity. I have heard Lutheran camping professionals grumble about their denomination’s tri-annual national youth gathering, which takes place during the busy summer camp season. I have heard pastors dismiss camping ministry as theologically shallow or mere fun and games. During my time as a youth minister and camp minister, I had many people ask if I wanted to be a “real pastor” someday. I have heard ministry colleagues dismiss college campus ministry as a waste of money.

This animosity and, frankly, bearing false witness towards ministry colleagues needs to stop.

We are creating ministry bastions when we should be creating ports of entry. We are closing our borders to one another rather than providing open access. We are letting the paths between ministries fall into disrepair when we should be turning them into superhighways.

The people of God can see what we are doing, and they want no part of it, so many are walking away from our fortified enclaves. They can see that they are welcome in some places that are defined as Church but not in others. They can see that we do not approve of some of the ministries that have been most meaningful in their lives. They can teach us a lot, if we bother to listen.

The extent of the disconnect became clear while I was working on a project examining the effective practices of Lutheran Campus Ministry at large universities across the country. (Learn more about the project here.) We are getting ready to launch a major survey of students who are active in these ministries, and I was tasked with testing the survey instrument. The problem with a study like this is finding a group of people identical to the group you are trying to study. In this case, it meant finding some religiously active Lutheran college students. Those of you involved in congregational ministry know that this is a notoriously irreligious demographic.

Thankfully, I knew of the perfect place to find these people: summer camp. I travelled to two Lutheran camps and tested the survey with a small group of seven staff members at each camp. As expected, they offered excellent feedback on the survey questions. But I also discovered something that caught me off-guard. I assumed that these committed Lutheran young adults were likely to be involved in campus ministries during the school year. But this was not the case.

In fact, only one of the 14 camp staff members was part of a Lutheran Campus Ministry. It could be a statistical fluke. After all, 14 people is not a very large sample size.

But I had to know more. It turns out that almost half of the remaining staff members were not all that interested in church life outside of camp. Some of them occasionally attended church services, but their religious experiences throughout their lives were largely limited to camp experiences. They were summer campers for years, and now they served on summer staff. Camp was a bastion for them, not a port of entry.

The other half of the participants was not engaged in campus ministry because they were unaware of its existence. They were on campuses with active Lutheran Campus Ministries. I have personally met some of their campus ministers. When I gently told these students that they did, indeed, have a campus ministry at their school, they expressed shock and dismay. These are religiously active Lutheran young adults. Their faith life is not confined to the camp experience like the other half of the group. One young woman even had a parent serving on staff of the judicatory body (synod) that supported the campus ministry at her university. And she was unaware of its existence!

Maybe this was a statistical anomaly, but I suspect that the experiences of these young people are reflective of their peer group.

I find myself wanting to blame someone for this disconnect among ministries that are such natural partners. Camps need to do better at connecting their young adult staff members to other ministries. Do not accept that it is possible for faith to be present only in the camp setting. Your role in the Church is to connect, enliven, and empower. The camp experience only works in connection with other ministry settings, especially the home and the congregation. In the case of young adult staff members, this connection also includes campus ministries.

Campus ministries need to do better at getting the word out. If anywhere close to half of Christian summer staff members are not aware of the existence of a campus ministry at their university, we have a huge communication problem. These are young people looking for ways to be involved in ministry, and they have been trained as leaders in the camp setting. Find them. Connect with them. Nurture their faith. Our camps will be stronger. Our campus ministries will be stronger. Our church will be stronger.

Learn from your colleagues. None of us has the right to be elitist. Congregational ministers, camping ministers, campus minsters, and everyone else can learn from each other. Find ways to partner. Recognize each other’s strengths. Seek to build each other up. When we do this, we make the Gospel more accessible, the Church more complete, and disciples more willing to engage in ministry together.

1 Comment

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    Jake, I always appreciate the articles you have authored on young adult ministry, that I find on Facebook.
    I’m teaching at the bilingual high school in Bratislava that is part of ELCA Global Mission, Central Europe Teachers. It seems to me that there is a strong connection between congregation based youth groups, camp staff, faith based school organization and seminarians. It appears to me that there is this great connection and they all know what the other partners are doing. Again thanks for sharing your findings


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