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Outdoor ministry is a lot more than just s'mores and Kum Ba Yah!

Lutheran camps have expanded their roles tremendously since the “old days”

Fifth-grader Andrew wasn’t fitting in during the first week of Bible camp. This could have resulted in some lonely free time for the youngster, but he and his counselor devised a plan: odd jobs for Andrew. Soon many of the counseling staff caught on and found additional jobs for him. One of them was to craft a sign that was posted under a tree near the chapel for the rest of the summer. The painted message was: “Danger — Army Worm Tree.”
Sometimes love takes surprising forms. For Andrew, love took the shape of odd jobs and army worms.
Stories like Andrew’s abound at Bible camp. What makes outdoor ministry so special? It provides places where Christian friendships are formed and where kids experience the love and friendship of Jesus Christ through the people they meet. Children find the words and music to share their heartfelt love for God. The songs they learn by heart help them remember Bible verses and the teachings of Jesus.
Children and youth hear college-age counselors talk about Jesus and his importance in their life. These college-age mentors help kids feel comfortable sharing what they believe. Teen-age campers learn they have a voice with which to say no to peer pressures and the temptations they face. Kids learn healthy lifestyles and positive choices can be “cool.”
Consider this: in a single week of Bible camp a child spends 80 hours worshipping, praying, reading his or her Bible and having fun in the name of Jesus. Maybe that’s why a majority of seminarians and pastors credit an outdoor ministry experience as pivotal in their faith walk. Outdoor ministry opens an avenue of service in the church to young adults.
As an extension of the congregation, outdoor ministry increases a congregation’s capacity for ministry by extending the congregation’s staff, space and facilities. It has been suggested that a congregation’s youth and family ministry could be built around a partnership with Bible camp. Young families can spend time at camp where parents enjoy program opportunities with other adults while their children enjoy their own fun activities. Age-appropriate summer programs help staff pass on the faith to children from early elementary through high school age. Year-round retreat possibilities abound for middle and high school age youth as well as adults of all ages. Outdoor ministry can “come to church” by bringing summer day camp and programmed retreats to a congregation’s site.
The people with whom I have the pleasure to work are some of the most creative people on the planet: outdoor ministry professionals! Over the years I’ve been amazed and inspired by the folks who operate Lutheran Bible camps both locally and across the country. They provide places, spaces and programs where people of all ages gather, and powerful things happen. Communities are formed, God’s love is shared, surprising things happen and lives are changed.
Creative programming is the result of each camp’s desire to reach more and more people. Here are examples from programs in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
* Luther Crest Bible Camp offers a women’s retreat called “God Spa.”
* Upper Missouri Ministries offers a retreat titled “Helicopter Parents” for empty-nesters.
* Pathways Outdoor Mini-stries is organizing Katrina Action Recovery Team Trips to the Gulf Coast area.
* Metigoshe Ministries runs a summer program called Voyageur Partners that invites youth to assist counselors in working with adults with developmental and physical disabilities.
* Camp Omega’s Environ-mental Learning Program for 5th-6th graders helps campers become creation stewards.
* Chi Rho Center provides educational outreach to economically disadvantaged children.
* Camp of the Cross hosts Ageless Iron, a retreat where machinery enthusiasts haul to camp a tractor or whatever they’re working on, show-and-tell, and come together around God’s Word.
* Camp Amnicon leads an Environmental Service Trip on the Superior Hiking Trail where young people gain new appreciation for wilderness spaces while working on trail projects.
* And, coinciding with this summer’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Atlantic Mountain Ranch will mark the inaugural week of Lutherans in Leather.
Outdoor ministry is more than Kum Ba Yah and s’mores! Bible camps invite people of all ages to experiences that are changing lives, supporting congregational life and developing leaders for the church.
Pass it on!
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Buuck is coordinator of the ELCA’s Region 3 Camping Network. Her office is in St. Paul, Minnesota. Significant input was provided by the Rev. Brenda Legred, a staff pastor at Servant of Christ Lutheran Church, Champlin, Minnesota.