We’re coming out of the worst economic times since the Depression. The church certainly needs to hit the reset button in a lot of areas. Happily, we have the opportunity to fund ministries that share our Wesleyan heritage with young generations and new and changing populations, creating a bright future for the church we love. Camp and retreat ministries, supported in key areas, can leverage the gifts of focus and intention to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
1. Camperships: Inclusion in Action. The middle class is shrinking and the wealth gap is growing. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty more than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. To de-fund camping could make it a ministry that only serves those who can afford it, and it becomes an exclusive, elite experience.
2. Outreach: Marketing Beyond the Local Church. The Millennials are the generation least interested in the church in U.S. history. They are the next group of parents with camper-aged kids. Our traditional camper population has come out of Sunday schools and youth programs, which in many places are shrinking and disappearing, but the kids are still out there in our communities. Many non-churched families want their kids to have some spiritual roots and foundation without the perceived baggage some see in the institutional church. A well-presented Christian camp experience can meet this felt need in an attractive way, providing exposure to God’s good news and faith formation opportunities for those outside the church. We miss a big part of our call when we only market camp to children and youth who are already in church.
3. Spiritual Food for Hungry Adults. Adults are still looking for spiritual nourishment, but are less and less interested in church membership. Marketing our retreats beyond the local church into our communities is another opportunity for outreach to a generation not interested in institutions.
4. Leadership Development for Young Adults. Many of our church leaders have come out of summer camp staff experiences: Deacons, Elders, and even Bishops. How many more of our good laity are strong leaders because of volunteering and working at church camp? Underwriting young adult roles for the summer at your camps gives them a couple of weeks of solid leadership training and a summer of practical experience in mentored relationships. In some Conferences, our camping ministries have more contact with young adults than any other ministry.
5. Opportunities for Ethnic Families. The Hispanic population is the fastest-growing population in the U.S., and we’re very close to having children of color be the majority in the U.S. Offering events like confirmation retreats where parents can accompany their kids can build relationships of trust, making it easier to send their kids to camp on their own later. Non-white kids will be the future majority population in our country. As we find ways to welcome them, grow them into leadership, and let go of the reins, our denomination will have a renewed future that better reflects the changing face of our country.
Jim Parkhurst, an ordained Deacon in the UMC, serves as Director of Camp and Retreat Ministries for the Detroit Annual Conference and Vice Chair of the UMCRM Association. We’re amazed that Jim has spare time, but he sings in church and community choirs, travels internationally on adventures involving spiritual pilgrimage and/or skydiving, and eagerly consumes literature, Kentucky basketball, weather forecasts, and ice cream.