Outdoor Ministries in an Era of the Declining Church

Honestly, I could probably write a book about this topic, but it would only be valuable for a moment in the history of things. Perhaps this will be Part 1 of a series of blogs on the topic.

As the American mainline churches continue their decline in attendance, it bears the questions, "How does this impact Outdoor Ministries and Camp experiences for youth and adults?" and "What is the impact of declining finances and numbers of people in churches on their denominational camp and retreat properties?"

I had a rich conversation with Tim Hughes this morning. Tim is recently retired from being the longterm Executive Director of Silver Lakes Camp & Conference Center in Connecticut, a property owned and affiliated with the Connecticut United Church of Christ. He and I spoke of: the shrinking number of campers because the church membership is in such rapid decrease; the importance of getting people outside into nature for a residential experience; the impact of a welcoming camp community and the ways it encourages youth to be more fully themselves; leadership development that unfolds naturally in the camp setting; the life long effects of faith formation experiences when you’re young.

Wow. The conversation was like a mini-summit. Inspiring and motivating.

The underlying issue is apparent: financial and human resources are diminishing in the mainline church. Fewer and fewer people are regular church-goers. And with the lack of people comes lack of financial support for camp programs, lack of hands-on volunteers, and lack of kids to attend. The same is true for middle judicatory staff, like denominational regions and conferences. They also are having to downsize their expenses and staffing models due to dwindling resources.

We notice that some young adults who attended camp 10 or 20 years ago, and are now having families of their own, are sending their kids to the same church camp they grew up in, even though they themselves are not active in a church. Therein is the impact of camp…non-church-going parents are recognizing the positive impact church camp had on their own lives and want that same experience for their kids. Still, this is a small group relatively speaking.

The Effective Camp Research Project is an interesting read. Sponsored in part by the Siebert Lutheran Foundation, the project identifies five positive impacts that camp has on a young person. For us long-time camp people, these will come as no surprise. Yet, it does give current camp programmers something substantial to identify and bolster in their camp mission, purpose, curriculum, and activities. 

In a time of the church’s waning, how can we continue to provide positive life-changing church camp experiences to youth and adults alike who are in need of authentic, non-virtual community, restorative practices, faith formation that sustains and empowers, and physical presence in a natural setting?

I’m not finished ruminating on the topic…and would love to hear your feedback and ideas. Feel free to email me at tinasueheck@uccr.org.

~ Tina Heck