This past week I had my first camp experience as a pastor—attending camp with our three confirmands at Camp Carol Joy Holling in Ashland, Nebraska. Camp Carol Joy (CCJH) is part of Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (NLOM). The tradition of this congregation is that confirmands (generally) attend camp between their seventh and eighth grade years as part of their on-going education. While most of our youth only go to camp this one time, there are some who attend it beyond just this single occurrence. Those who attend camp regularly (and their parents) affirm what many statistics show: attending camp has significant benefits with regard to youths’ faith formation, and those who go to camp are more prone to remain a part of the church than those who do not. This is not to say that sending one’s kids to camp will automatically guarantee they will stick with the church the rest of their lives. Yet, the value of youth attending camp is immense. As our congregation begins imagining how we can, together, begin a ministry of raising funds so as to assist families in sending more children to camp—both those within and beyond this church—I would like to lift up some of the many benefits of going to camp.
First and foremost, camp helps youth to learn about their faith in a variety of exciting means beyond the norm of Sunday morning/Wednesday evening classroom settings. This is not to say that our traditional forms of Christian education are defunct, but camp offers additional forms of learning for youth that are not always readily available or easily accomplished in the parish. For instance, I watched as our youth this week participated in multiple forms of team building. The church is a community of faith—serving as an image that we are not Christians in isolation, but together, always caring for and lifting one another up along the way. In their team building activities, our youth learned through physical (sometimes strenuous) cooperative games that we are called to care for those who struggle the most, that if we do not work together as a unified body we fail to get anything accomplished, and (ultimately) how God is always faithful to us even when we are not.
Despite being outside and away from a physical church building, youth still very much hear (again) the faith stories of their Christian heritage while at camp. Camp Carol Joy Holling was very good this past week about making sure to constantly incorporate Scripture in the various activities throughout every day. The youth not only read through parts of the Bible with me during our study time each day, but they also were inundated with biblical stories through means of catchy camp songs (a few which are still bouncing around in my head), table grace before each meal, co-op lessons, group tasks (such as carrying a giant cross, as a group, from one place to another as a physical sign of Jesus bearing the cross for the whole world), and service projects. Hearing the kids make the connections, themselves, between certain songs and stories reinforces the point that the Bible can be taught in many different ways, and once it is learned it remains deeply rooted within a person.
For many youth, camp is the first (and sometimes only) time/place they will have an opportunity to do something they otherwise would never experience. There truly is a world of possibilities for youth when they attend camp—giving them a freedom to experiment with and experience things such as canoeing, high ropes course, zip lining, praying in public (as crazy as that might sound), horseback riding, taking a nature hike, socializing with others their age (which is really huge), etc. In and through these various activities, youth begin to learn confidence (a skill that must be acquired over time), independence, and interdependence (a valuable skill that helps in how a kid interacts with others). As they share their faith with others their age, youth also begin forming their identity—who am I, whose am I—and their voice—how do I share what I believe in a way that is meaningful while also respectful of others’ differences in faith. These, and other, basic life skills we often overlook are built and nurtured in the environment of camp—educating youth not just for life in the church, but also life throughout the world.
Finally—and in some ways, most importantly—youth build new relationships and nurture existing ones with friends and fellow congregants of their age while at camp. The relational connections formed during camp are (in my opinion) the most important piece of education in camp ministry, and perhaps in confirmation in general. A kid can learn the Bible and Catechism, each from cover to cover; however, if they do not form relationships with others in their faith tradition they have no one to share such information with in their journey of faith. The trust we build with one another—the trust we long for our children to build with others in the church—mirrors the trust (faith) we have in the One who came into the world, lived among God’s people, cared for the lowly and sick, was crucified on a cross, and rose from the grave, giving us new life to be lived in and through him. Relationships are critical to our life of faith. They, in many ways, determine our joining a faith community, and our staying with it through the difficult times. The relationships youth build with one another at camp are also enriched as they see others (counselors and staff) model lives of faith in prayer, song, and compassion. In witnessing these things in others, kids mimic it in their own personal relationships—learning how to build trust, care for those in need, and let Christ be the bond the binds us together. We are called, as Christians, to be in relationship with others. At camp, youth learn and participate in this call firsthand.
Camp is a ministry that teaches youth (and adults alike) many things that help shape them as individuals and people of faith. If your children’s education and faith formation is important to you (as I know it is), why not share the gift that is camp ministry with them so that they may experience God’s good creation in a new way, feel the love of Christ through others their age, and flourish in the vibrant workings of the Holy Spirit. If you, or someone you know, have participated in camp ministry, and you want to share how it has shaped your faith—please do. If you, or someone you know, are interested in attending camp—please let me know so we can help make it happen. Camp ministry has helped inform my faith and encouraged me to support this vital ministry in the lives and formation of our youth. There is much value in going to camp—may the Spirit move you to consider participating in it, and perhaps supporting its ongoing work.