What Camps Can Learn From McDonald’s
When it comes to statistics about the church, numbers rarely surprise me anymore. Instead, data that firms like the Barna Group and the Pew Research Center pull together usually end up verifying the symptoms I see and experience. Are you feeling this in your ministry setting, too?
So when the Pew Research Group published a report from a study about religious affiliations of the U.S. population, sadly I was unsurprised. Just as I hear about the struggles of other Christian camps and experience them in my own ministry, the gasping canary in the coal mine was confirmed: more and more, the people we want to serve are choosing to be unaffiliated from the church.
While mainline Protestant affiliation dropped 3.4% to only 14.7% of those surveyed between 2007 and 2014, the choice of being unaffiliated to any religion climbed by 6.7% to 22.8%. Almost a quarter of people surveyed have chosen (or not chosen?) to remain unaffiliated from an organized religion.
As I tried to apply this information to the work we do in United Methodist Camp & Retreat Ministries, oddly my mind turned to a very different place: McDonald’s. No, it wasn’t lunchtime. In fact, even if it was, I likely wouldn’t think of McDonald’s as a primary lunch option any more. And that is a problem McDonald’s has been facing for the last several years.
A long time ago, back when I was a kid, McDonald’s was a major part of the American experience. The idea of convenient fast food that would bring families together seemed great. As a kid, I went to numerous birthday parties at McDonald’s, where the orange punch flowed freely as we ate our cheeseburgers and watched as the birthday boy/girl unwrapped presents right in the McDonald’s restaurant.
Today? Today I barely even call McDonald’s a restaurant. Their food has quickly become viewed as inedible, thanks to documentaries like Super Size Me. And competition from “healthier” options like Subway and Chipotle have hurt McDonalds’ profits as well as their long-term image.
In an effort to rebrand themselves a few years ago, McDonald’s took to social media very actively to try to recapture their audience. Believing that their core products were still viable and wanted, they did their best to rekindle the memories so many people had about their business. They reached out to the mom-bloggers with hopes that McDonald’s could return as an instinct destination for the always-busy families of America. And for a while, it worked. As is often the case, marketing can be the gasoline that, when poured on a fire, burns brightly–for a while. The problem with marketing, though, is that it doesn’t really change your product. It just draws attention.
When McDonalds’ profits again fell sharply at the end of 2012, the writing was on the wall. Things had to actually change. Real, tangible change; not just a new social media campaign or catchy jingle this time. In recent weeks, McDonald’s has announced a few big changes that seek to address the issues in new ways. They are starting to offer their highly popular breakfast menu all day long. To be more health friendly, they have dropped seven sandwiches from their menu. And there is talk of trying to include more organic-sourced ingredients to soften their highly-processed image.
It seems that after some major hiccups, McDonald’s is finally learning what they need to do to be successful. They aren’t burying their head in the sand and continuing with the same unsuccessful tactics. They aren’t leaning just on marketing to draw people in. And they aren’t abandoning their core of being a hamburger fast-food restaurant. They are listening to their customers and doing their best to meet their changing needs.
I think the church, and, more specifically, the camp and retreat centers, find themselves in a very similar situation. For decades, the ways that the traditional church and the camps operated were successful. Every year we got camp ready, we mailed our catalogs out to the churches, and when June came, the kids showed up. Camp was the first thing on the summer calendar for families. It was the golden era of church camp.
As time has passed though, things have changed. The churches have thinned out, just as the numbers from the Pew Research Group have confirmed for us. And as the churches have thinned, so has our direct pool of campers. The catalogs that were once sent to full churches now are reaching far fewer full pews. In some cases they are reaching churches that are more concerned about their own survival than how to get some kids to camp this summer.
And how have camps responded? Well, if workshop attendance at the National Camp & Retreat Leaders’ Gathering is any indication, many camps are following the same early path that McDonald’s did. Believing that we still have a great experience that is time-tested and has worked for decades, we pursue a big push on marketing. Assuming that if people just knew we existed, surely they would show up. And just like they did for McDonald’s, those numbers likely would go up– for a while.
When we try to present the same camping experience to a different group of people, we should not be surprised when the results are not the same. A growing unaffiliated population does not see the same inherent value in a Christian camp experience that a Christian-affiliated person would. So as the population has changed, perhaps it is time for camp to find a way to change as well?
Before you stop reading, please hear me out. McDonald’s didn’t stop its core business, and I’m not saying camps or the church should, either. We are still about the holy work of sharing the grace and love of Jesus Christ. But how do we do that good work for someone who is unaffiliated and in most cases uninterested in the church? What are the things on our “menu” that we need to consider changing?
For many camps trying to change, this has meant upgrades in facilities to try to make them more comfortable. The modern interpretation of the word “camping” often means an adventure in nature during the day, but a soft pillow to sleep on once the sun goes down. Improved beds, separate rooms for adults, more bathrooms, more privacy, and added air conditioning are all part of an attempt to change the perception of the word “camping” for this generation.
Another area that camps shouldn’t necessarily need to change, but which could benefit from new emphasis, is being a safe place. The post-9/11 family has much higher anxiety about safety than it ever did. If you can provide a setting that is not only safe, but also feels safe in the way a neighborhood did several decades ago, families will return year-after-year for peace of mind.
Programmatically, to reach the unaffiliated we may need to consider giving more choice and different ways to experience faith. More work should probably go into experiential learning activities that engage more learning styles than simply reading through a Bible study as a group.
When it comes to worship, we need to think about who we are hoping to reach, and how we are representing the church they actively choose to not be a part of. To the advantage of camp, our worship is often very different than the traditional church setting. A simple guitar sing-a-long around a campfire is a unique experience and hopefully one that allows new bonds to be formed in worship. Rather than just another sermon, scripture can be tied into a message about the day spent together as a community at camp, building on shared and relatable experience.
We likely haven’t seen the end of the decline of the numbers representing mainline Christianity. It would be easy to view that as discouraging news, but I try to view it as opportunity instead. When Jesus started His ministry, it turns out there weren’t a lot of Christians either. More than marketing, more than facilities or programming, it was His message of love and grace that began to grow the church as we know it today. And if we can get only one thing right, that message of love and grace will continue to draw people of all affiliations (or non-affiliations) to the work we are a part of.
Nick Coenen is the Site Director at Pine Lake United Methodist Camp in Westfield, WI. He has been in ministry at Pine Lake for 9 years and lives on site with his wife Jamie their four kids. If he could be any animal in the world, Nick would be a pileated woodpecker.