By Dr. Terri Martinson Elton, Director of the Center for First Third Ministry at Luther Seminary
This weekend I attended the funeral for the mother of three “former students” of our youth ministry. It was an honor to be there, and it threw me back decades to the times we’d spent traveling on buses, studying Scripture and sharing life together in the various ministry activities. Years have passed, and we’ve all grown up, but seeds of faith were planted back years ago. And yesterday it was my honor to see those seeds matured, tended all these years by so many, including their mom and a larger church community.
Last week, at our First Third dialogue, we engaged in a conversation about what happens when groups of people immerse themselves in each others lives, even if for only a few short days. We wondered why is it retreats and camp experiences leave such deep marks on people’s lives? And are there things we can learn from such experiences that might help church leaders think about ministry with young people today?
Paul Hill offered 20 characteristics which make camping ministry impactful, inviting congregational leaders to ponder how these characteristics might play out within their ministries. As I listened to both Paul and the participants, I wondered if these characteristics might be clustered into three categories: environment, mission, and leadership. Let me saw a few words about environment.
Environment is obviously critical for camping and retreat ministry. One often begins by noting the “set apart” nature of such experiences, and collapses everything into this core element. Yet immersion experiences are more than mosquitoes and swimming in a lake. Being in nature did surface in our conversations, but more often the less obvious aspects of the environment were what people highlighted. “It’s a place for fun” or “I’m free to be me at camp” were heard numerous times. Hospitality is key in camping, and strangers are expected and welcomed. Much effort is even to thinking through the practices and physical environment so that participants will feel included.
And out of this hospitality comes the ability to create Christian community, and camping ministry has learned to do it very quickly. Lifting up the significance of creating a community, which lives by a shared covenant and is guided by rituals and traditions, was both noted and praised. And such rituals and traditions are living; they ebb and flow from year to year. Yet their essence stays the same. As immersion ministry is highly active, creating an environment which is very participatory. People come to retreats or camp expecting to be engaged. This participation often pushes people beyond their comfort zone, both physically and emotionally. This process is both encouraged and tended, balancing risk-taking and personal safety.
So here’s my question: Is this the environment of your congregation? If so, great! If not, could it be? Are there elements in the environment described above that your ministry might be open to exploring?
As I wondered why my connections ran so deep yesterday even with the number of years that have passed, I attributed it primarily to the immersion times we’d shared. Yes, we prayed and read Scripture together, but the soil in which those activities took place mattered. And that soil was tended by being together, in time and place.
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Terri Elton is passionate about young people and their families, and loves the church. No really! She's our Associate Professor and teaches with an eye toward developing leaders and leading change.
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