By Dave Jarvis
Outdoor Ministries have their origin in Jesus’ time. If you think about it, Jesus did much of his ministry outside, hiking up mountains, walking down roads, and gathering with people at the waterfront. Jesus found the out-of-doors to be the perfect place to connect people with God. So, it is easy to see why camping ministry has become such an integral part of the faith development of so many people. At camp, we are away from normal routines and normal surroundings, and we have time to reflect on our lives, our faith, and what it means to follow Jesus.
We were created by God to be in community and outdoor ministries exemplify the importance of living faith with each other. The power of the camp community is that campers live faith twenty-four hours a day. Campers experience faith as a way of life. They are surrounded by excellent Christian role models for whom Christ is central. And the living witness of summer staff opens the door for conversation of how faith becomes integral to life, not only at camp but once they return home.
When we move out of the pandemic, one of the greatest needs for our kids and youth is to be out of their homes, unplugged, and immersed in God’s creation. They need to run. They need to laugh, and they need the physical presence of other people. Virtual camping ministry has been invaluable during the pandemic and now it is time to step back into the experience of connecting with each other and with God outside in God’s wonder-filled world.
I currently serve as the Executive Director of Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp in Colorado. I have had the opportunity over and over again to observe the transformational power of outdoor ministries, not only for campers, but also for staff. Outdoor Ministries are so effective because they create a safe space where people have the unique opportunity to step out of their comfort zones to try something new and at the same time, have freedom to explore and grow in their faith.
Programs in outdoor ministries provide a lot of “activities”—games, rituals, campfires, Bible study, worship, crafts, canoeing, hiking, wilderness exploration, and more. These activities meet a profound spiritual need of children, youth and families—the need for connection with self, others, creation, and God.
Connection with Self: At camp, people have moments to discover their gifts, and to develop a new understanding of themselves and their own faith. They slow down enough to hear the still small voice of God calling them. They experience God through creation, and they begin to understand themselves as unique, loved children of God.
Connection with Others: People discover new ways to communicate with each other and with God. They worship outside together at sunrise or under the stars, fully immersed in the beauty of creation. They work, play, struggle, pray, and celebrate with other campers, counselors, and staff. Everyone at camp gains a new appreciation of those around them, and they grow to rely on one another, offering and accepting one another’s gifts.
Connection with Creation: Camp provides opportunities to literally be in the wilderness, away from all the trappings of life, and to live with just the essentials. We understand that creation is a precious gift from God and we teach “leave no trace” philosophies to ensure the continued viability of creation. We are surrounded by the tremendous beauty of God’s work, and we gain a new perspective on the power of the Creator.
Connection with God: Ultimately, creation allows us to reconnect with God. At camp, children, youth, and families experience the awe and wonder of flowers, birds, oceans, rivers, mountains, trees, wild animals, new friends, and all things created by God and declared to be good. Everyone experiences the unbounded love and grace that we receive through Jesus Christ. In the enormity of all creation, we know deep inside that we are beloved and precious.
As these connections are made, campers and staff alike find themselves transformed in the way they view themselves, others, and the world. They know in their bones that they are loved and called by God. They leave camp renewed and inspired, ready to go out and share themselves with the world.
About the Author
Dave Jarvis has been the Executive Director of Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp for the last 33 years and brings more than 40 years of experience as administrative and program staff at outdoor ministry sites throughout the Midwest, Texas, and Colorado. He wrote his master’s thesis on the programmatic style used at Rainbow Trail.