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Entering God’s Presence Through the Outdoors

Image: Arthur Poulin

For a long time, the path to church camp wound its way through church sanctuaries and basement Sunday school classrooms, but in recent years, more and more young camp attendees are finding their way to church through camp instead of the other way around.

Outdoor church camps have operated for decades as both fun zones and intentional spiritual retreats for youth whose day-to-day lives are often inundated by activity. Weeks at camp are a vacation for both kids and parents alike.

In recent years, camps across the nation have noticed a new trend. Rev. Mary Nelson, the Transitional Conference Minister for the Missouri Mid-South Conference of the United Church of Christ, noted the importance of outdoor ministries for the wellbeing of the church, especially for leadership development. “It used to be that church was a pipeline to camp, but what we’re seeing today is that camp is a pipeline to bring people back to church.”

The same can be said at Camp Bethany in Lakeville, Ohio, a small church camp for the North Central region of the Brethren Church. The camp has seen significant growth the last few summers, welcoming record numbers of youth in 2023. Some of these attendees were invited to camp by their friends and aren’t connected themselves to a local church.

From the Presbyterian Church’s sports-oriented Summer’s Best Two Weeks in Pennsylvania to A Rocha USA’s Wild Wonder Camp Curriculum that can be purchased and taught in any setting, churches and organizations are seeing more and more youth drawn to the outdoors and to God through camp.

But the outdoors aren’t just a place to experience awe and wonder for youth; nature can be a pathway back to God for adults.

The Outdoor Appeal for Spiritual Revival

Despite how connected our society is today via Zoom, social media, cell phones, and email, Americans report being lonelier than ever. Gallup reported that loneliness is the highest among young adults under the age of 30 (24% report experiencing high levels of daily loneliness), and some surveys say that about 60% of people feel lonely on a regular basis.

Alarmingly, “Gallup research estimates that over 300 million people globally don’t have a single friend, and one in five don’t have friends or family that they can count on when needed.”

Outdoor experiences like the summer youth camps above might be one way the church can care for the lonely and unhappy.

It’s well documented that spending time outdoors is good for mental health, but time spent in creation is also an opportunity to connect with something greater than ourselves, which ultimately turns our eyes toward the maker of heaven and earth. 

Most of us just don’t do this on a regular basis anymore. We live away from the natural world. We spend most of our time inside. We find ways to distract our hearts and minds that keep us from going deep into ourselves and into other relationships.

But when we can pair outdoor and spiritual experiences together, we’re able to care for the whole person—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Invite People into the Chapel of Creation

Perhaps it’s time to take church into the wilderness, to invite our lonely and disconnected neighbors to walk with us in creation. Here are some ideas for how we can create outdoor ministry opportunities in our churches and in our day-to-day lives:

  • Take walks. Plan with a friend, family member, or neighbor to walk a local park, or sign up for a hiking challenge in your area. Set a goal to hike every park in your county. Bring your children into the woods, deserts, mountains, valleys, rivers, and prairies where they can show you the world through their eyes.
  • Pray outdoors. Find a bench and a group of people to pray with in creation, away from the distractions of cell phones and other electronics.
  • Hold communion in the wilderness. Take the elements of your communion into the wild places God created and break bread together.
  • Plan monthly spiritual hikes. Choose one day each month for others to join you on a hike with the Holy Spirit. Begin your time in prayer over the hike, invite the Holy Spirit to open your eyes and ears to the wonder of God’s creation, and enjoy the time with one another as you experience a small sliver of the universe together.
  • Take a weekend retreat. Visit a local monastery, plan a tent camping trip with other families, make a day trip to a national park, or choose some other outdoor destination with the intention to leave your cell phones off and spend time with God, observing the natural world, meditating on Scripture, praying together, and connecting with each other.
  • Start a community garden or pollinator garden at your church. Give yourself and others the pleasure and delight of participating in the act of sowing, growing, and harvesting fruits and vegetables.
  • Rest from social media one day a week. Take a break from electronic distractions one day a week, and reallocate that time to an outdoor activity, ideally with a friend or neighbor.
  • Care for creation. Connect your love of the outdoors with compassionate action in your community. Find a cause that needs attention—trash pickup, recycling efforts, stream cleanup, trail maintenance, and so on—and invite others to participate in caring for the Earth God gave us.
  • Make your time in nature intentional. Every space can be sacred if we give our hearts and minds over to it, but that can take some practice. Before you get frustrated, pause, offer your thoughts over to God and confess your desire to seek peace, take a couple of deep breaths, and then look around for a couple of minutes, closely observing the plants, insects, and animals you might not have noticed before. Watch how they move and have their being—they are not preoccupied with a million other tasks. They are valued and have worth simply because God created them. And so do you. Rest in the wonder of that truth—I am loved by God, and I get to participate in this creation—and then begin your walk in the frame of mind that the Holy Spirit is with you, present with you in this moment, revealing to you God’s unconditional love for you in everything he has made.

Perhaps through these outdoor experiences we will find the people of God more connected to one another and more in love with God, which can only lead to a brighter, more beautiful world.

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