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STORIES FROM SACRED PLAYGROUNDS

There are four key ministry spaces that are particularly important for faith formation and call to ministry.

I focus a lot of my writing on camping ministries. I do this because camping ministry has gotten surprisingly little scholarly attention over the years. This is in spite of its incredibly consistent track record in forming faith, alongside other crucial outcomes. However, camp is only effective as part of a larger ecology of faith formation that includes the home, congregation, and other key spaces. Now we have more clarity on some of these other spaces.

The Camp and Church Leadership Project focuses on the summer camp staff experience. Specifically, our team has been investigating the camp staff experience’s role in faith formation and developing leaders for the church. But it was clear that we had to consider the staff experience alongside a host of other ministries. This led to our enormous survey of Lutheran (ELCA) clergy members in fall 2020. We heard from over 3,000 pastors and deacons. Of all the ministry spaces we examined, four rose to the top as particularly important for faith formation and call to ministry among our respondents.

These big 4 ministries include Sunday school, camp, the national youth convention, and campus ministry.

Sunday School

This was my biggest surprise from the study (more about that here). I assumed that Sunday school would be a common experience, but I did not think that ministry leaders would regard their Sunday school experiences as more important for their call to ministry than mission trips, youth group attendance, and even camp. But they did. Of the 94% of ELCA clergy who attended Sunday school monthly or more, an astounding three-quarters of them (73%) viewed these childhood experiences as very or extremely important to their faith formation. Over half (54%) said the same about their call to ministry. This made Sunday school the most consistently important ministry for rostered leaders of all the ones included in the survey. Astounding!

There has been talk of decline and exhaustion. Families are busy. Finding volunteers is hard. Is it all worth it? YES! We can talk about models, methods, and even what we call our children’s ministries, but it is clear that Sunday school is worth saving.

Sunday school (at least for pre-K and elementary children) often serves as the primer for faith language and introduction to a caring faith community. Involvement leads to ongoing faith engagement and experiences.

Camp

Those who know my work have heard me talk ad nauseum about the benefits of camping ministries and how we can incorporate them more deeply into partnerships with congregations and homes. It was not surprising that camp emerged as one of the big 4 ministries in this project. Almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents had been to camp as a child, and 40% served on Christian summer camp staff. Of these camp participants, half (49%) agreed that their camp experiences were instrumental in their call to ministry. As much as I have emphasized the importance of summer camp attendance, the experience of working on summer staff is clearly more consistently impactful. In fact, 91% of respondents who worked on camp staff agreed it had a significant impact on their lives, and three-quarters said it was very or extremely important to their faith formation (78%) and call to ministry (74%).

If Sunday school is a primer to faith language and introduction to the faith community, camp is the faith language immersion experience that leads to fluency. It can serve as a continuation of faith learning begun in the congregation or home and, in other cases, an entry point for faith engagement.

National Youth Convention

In the ELCA, the national youth convention is simply called The Gathering, and I have written about its significance elsewhere. I attended this triannual event in high school, alongside 37,000 other Lutheran youth. I also had the privilege of leading a youth group to one earlier in my ministry. Leadership recently canceled the 2022 Gathering, and I lament that here. Denominations have been holding large youth conventions since the late 19th century. In fact, they arose alongside camping ministries, and pretty much every denominational body has one. This experience emerged as one of the big 4 because of its impact on call to ministry. Those who attended the Gathering were ordained at a significantly younger age compared with those who did not attend. This effect was independent of a host of other factors we measured in the survey.

My hunch is that it has to do with the expansive perspective of the church that a large convention provides. Something like the ELCA Gathering shows a young person the breadth of the church’s ministries. There is, of course, the sheer numbers of participants. There is also a vision of the priorities of the church and its collaborative ministries. Together, we address world hunger, the needs of refugees, advocacy work, and a host of other things.

If Sunday school provides faith language and camp serves as an immersion experience, a youth convention can clarify identity. This is what the church is about. I am willing to be involved with this or even give my life for it.

Campus Ministry

Like the national youth conventions, campus ministries emerged among the big 4 because of their influence in directing leaders to ministry at a younger age. Just to offer perspective, consider the following. If a responding clergy member had any ONE of the following experiences: attended camp 4+ times, served on summer camp staff, attended the ELCA Gathering, attended an ELCA college/university, OR attended college campus ministry monthly or more, the average age they were ordained was 29. If they had none of these experiences, the average age they were ordained was 41. Whoa. I was able to study Lutheran campus ministry in depth several years ago. You can find a summary of the findings here and a more comprehensive look here. Campus ministry offers an expansively welcoming environment that is intentional about including young people in leadership and reaching out in love to the community.

If Sunday school provides faith language, camp provides faith immersion, and the youth convention provides faith identity, campus ministry provides faith continuity and assurance. Emerging adulthood is a challenging and volatile time of life. Campus ministry can provide stability and the assurance that the church is there in the midst of doubt, identity crises, and life transition. While it oftentimes serves as a place of faith continuity, picking up from previous faith experiences in childhood and adolescence, it also serves for many as an entry point into a life of faith.

Like Sunday school, the Gathering, and even camp, to some extent, campus ministry is in peril. These four ministries are foundational to faith formation and are essential to developing leaders in the church. However, they often get short shrift in terms of priorities and financial resources. It is time to reimagine these as the big 4 pillars of ministry that support what we know to be the most important space of faith formation: the home.

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