Camping ministry is gaining the attention of the international scholarly community. This attention was precipitated in large part by the collaborative work of a team studying confirmation work in Europe. The first phase of the study (2007-2008) examined survey data from seven countries and found that programs conducted primarily in the camp form showed significantly higher increases in multiple measures of faith formation and Christian education. These results were particularly noticeable in Finland and Sweden. A follow-up study is currently underway in nine European countries, and it will be interesting to see how camp is included.
The Confirmation Project is the American counterpart to the European study, and researchers were invited to a conference in Finland in June 2014 to hear about the most recent findings. As a tremendous bonus, the American team was invited to participate in and observe a Finnish confirmation camp program in action. This experience turned into a fruitful research venture, and a new article appearing in the current issue of the Journal of Youth and Theology gives a more complete account than this post. You can access the full article by clicking the link in the sidebar.
Kayaking on the Lake in Finland
The camp experience in Finland is remarkably similar to Christian summer camp in the United States. Young people are away from home for a week, stay together in gendered housing, and participate in a variety of activities in an outdoor, recreational setting. The camp day is structured in a way that facilitates the rhythm of daily Christian living: devotionals, grace before meals (often sung), worship, Bible study, and recreational fellowship. The camp we visited was about an hour north of the capital city of Helsinki, and it offered a beautiful setting featuring a small lake, forested hillsides, and large open playing fields. It looked and felt like we could have been anywhere in the upper Midwest.
Confirmation training in Finland takes place almost entirely in the camp form. A remarkable 88 percent of young Finns get confirmed in the Evangelicl Lutheran Church in Finland (ELCF), and almost all of them (over 90 percent) receive confirmation training at camp. The percentage of Finns attending confirmation camp is actually higherthan the percentage belonging to the Lutheran church! This demonstrates that there is tremendous social motivation to attend camp. Almost everybody does it, so there is a strong sense that camp is part of the Finnish experience of growing up. Young people also attend camp because they often receive lavish gifts for being confirmed, and many of them recognize the value of belonging to the church. They have to be confirmed in order to have a church wedding, funeral, have their children baptized, and serve as a godparent. One of the reasons for confirmation instruction is to gain access to the benefits that the church provides to its members.
Bible Scavenger Hunt!
Here is where things get interesting. Religion in Finland is very different from religion in the United States. The ELCF is a national church, so it is tax-funded. People have to belong in order to get certain benefits, so more than 80 percent of Finns are members of the ELCF. But hardly any of them are active. Less than 2 percent of the Finnish population is in church on a given Sunday, and barely half attend even once a year. Not a single one of the confirmation campers said they were planning on attending church after they were confirmed. In fact, the idea was laughable to them. “Church is full of old people and women with babies,” one boy explained. Others made it clear that conservative voices have strong influence in the church, meaning liturgical change is stymied, especially when it comes to music. There are also strong voices opposed to same-sex marriage, something that the progressive Finnish society has long embraced. One priest at confirmation camp admitted that it feels like “the church from the last century.”
Church appears to function in Finland as a sort of spiritual storehouse. There may be some useful things inside, but there is really no need to go in unless you need something. It is enough to know that the church is there in case of a life crisis and to fulfill the services of birth celebrations (baptisms), marriages, and funerals. Confirmation training largely serves to provide access to this storehouse. It also serves to prop up the institution and maintain the status quo, since just enough confirmands continue with their faith training to fill the seminaries.
The fascinating thing is that the camp experience in Finland shows tremendous potential for faith formation and spiritual transformation. The young people are actively engaged in faith practices and worship experiences, and they are thinking through their own beliefs in the context of intentional Christian community. Data from the European study demonstrate that the Finnish camp participants show a significant increase in faith measurements, and a long-term study shows that much of this growth lasts years after the camp experience. It appears that the camp participants are not only given the keys to the spiritual storehousebut also the keys to transform the church in Finland.
2 YCVs Present a Skit to the Confirmands
The young confirmands may follow the rest of Finnish society in disengagement from church, but they show a strong desire to continue experiencing the power of Christian community. The national church has responded with its exemplary Young Confirmed Volunteer (YCV) program, which brings the recently confirmed young people back to camp to help lead the experience for the next group. This serves as an additional camp experience for the YCVs, and it also serves to engage them in church-related activities throughout the year. The YCVs plan and lead many of the camp activities, including the small group sessions, interactive games, and worship experiences. Six or seven YCVs are present at each confirmation camp, and the program is so popular that most only get to help lead one session. Fully a third of all confirmands continue on as YCVs.
The confirmands leave camp with a stronger faith and interest in participating in vibrant Christian community, but it is evident that they are being prepared for a church that simply does not exist in Finland. The church itself needs to change if it seeks to be something more than a broken down storehouse, and church officials clearly recognize this reality. They are fueling the engines of change through their exemplary and innovative confirmation camp program.
The United States is a vastly different religious climate than Finland, but there are growing concerns of people disengaging from church and joining the swelling ranks of the unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”). This is especially true in Mainline Protestantism. Confirmation instruction in the USA is often limited to little more than a period of class sessions aimed at teaching religious content. Students often receive the content and then disengage from church, though many adults still value the tradition of confirmation. There are lessons to be learned from the Finnish context about using a traditional structure like confirmation in an innovative way. The camp form, in particular, is a promising method for innovative confirmation instruction in the USA, a country with a rich history of camping ministry. The religious climate in the USA may be vastly different from the spiritual storehouse of Finland, but there is great need for innovation and revitalization, and our Finnish brothers and sisters offer great wisdom.
It is time to take camping ministry seriously as a valuable model for Christian education and faith formation.