It was halftime, and we were behind. It was my junior year on the high school football team, and we had to win in order to make the playoffs. We could not seem to get our offense going, and our team’s offensive coordinator stood before our sweaty, exhausted team. He had designed a new play special for this game, and we had run it twice during the first half. We lost yardage both times. He methodically drew the play again on the chalkboard, indicating the blocking assignments. The offensive and defensive players were represented with a series of X’s and O’s. He took a step back from the perfectly designed play, a mixture of disbelief and frustration on his face, as he said, “I don’t understand how that’s not a touchdown every time.” My friend and teammate snorted under his breath, “That’s because those X’s don’t move, coach.”
I have met some ministry colleagues that think along the lines of my high school football coach. If we do this and this and this, then we will automatically get our desired outcome. This desired outcome is often an emotional conversion experience or a lifelong disciple of Jesus. Camping ministry is certainly not immune to this formulaic thinking. In fact, camp might be more susceptible than other ministries. There is a certain rhythm to the camp week that often leads toward a crescendo on the last evening. Directors market their camps by promising life-changing adventures or mountaintop experiences. Some evangelical camps keep track of how many young people accept Christ during their camp experiences.
Stop. Camp is not a magic formula. It is not a fool-proof play that guarantees a touchdown every time.
My high school football coach failed to grasp the fundamental truth that the other team’s defenders are not X’s on a chalkboard. They are people. They move. They do things that we cannot anticipate. Besides, there is no play that can be expected to score a touchdown every single time. The goal of a single play is not to score a touchdown but rather to make forward progress.
Young people who come to camp are not X’s and O’s, either. They are people. They are unique individuals who come from a diversity of backgrounds and family situations. We cannot sketch out some plan for how we are going to change people’s lives. Doing so is to deny the God-given uniqueness of each precious individual and to deny the unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit.
It is time to move away from ministry formulas and recognize that our ministries with young people are part of a much larger ecology of faith formation. We are part of a team that includes pastors, caring members of congregations, parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, and even eccentric football coaches. Camps are special and important ministries. But they are not responsible for changing lives. God does that. Sometimes, God uses the special environment of camp. Sometimes, not so much.
Our emerging findings from the Effective Camp ResearchProject indicate that there is a unique ministry model present in the camp environment. This model consists of 5 fundamental characteristics: intentional relationships, participatory learning, emotional/physical safety, difference from the home environment, and faith interwoven throughout the experience. These characteristics make camp a unique model of ministry that the church desperately needs. But our research demonstrates that this model does not cause change. We do not score a touchdown every time. Why? We are working with real people, and each individual experiences the camp model differently. It is certainly true that many participants have significant or even life-changing experiences. We should celebrate these instances and continue telling the stories. The camp model provides space for these experiences to happen, but changing lives is not our goal.
This begs the question, WHAT IS THE GOAL OF CAMPING MINISTRY? I suggest we return to the 5 fundamental characteristics to answer that question.
The goal of camp is to facilitate relational encounter.
The goal of camp is to provide safe space.
The goal of camp is to engage in participatory activities.
The goal of camp is to encourage experiences that are different from home.
The goal of camp is to live a life caught up with and dependent on faith in God.

When we consider these 5 characteristics as goals, we get closer to understanding our role as camping ministers. We are here to minister to real people in unique spaces. This ministry seeks nothing else than true relationship – with the self, with the other person at camp, and with Jesus Christ.

Learn more about the project at effective camp.com!