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Lutheran Camps: A Side Door to the Church

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While many equate camp with summer fun for children and grandchildren, Don James also values an eternal benefit—the faith-building his three sons experienced at their beloved Lutheran camp.

James, of Pleasant Plains, Ill., especially appreciates the camp counselors—high school and college students—who served as Christian role models, living out their faith.

“Younger kids look up to older kids, taking seriously what the counselors say. They can see themselves being like them—but they never see themselves being like mom and dad,” said James, whose sons were regulars at Camp CILCA (Central Illinois Lutheran Camp Association), in Cantrall, Ill., and also served as camp counselors.

Now a grandfather, James is joining fellow Christians and Lutheran Church Extension Fund to strengthen the Lutheran outdoor ministry he considers as important as ever. This is an opportunity “for kids to put down their smartphones, get a little more social the old-fashioned way—face to face—and understand people’s feelings and learn about Christ.”

Bringing in kids who bring friends

As a child in the 1950s, Rev. David Bueltmann went to Camp CILCA “as soon as I was old enough”—a long-standing tradition among Lutheran families in Illinois and beyond.

CILCA was one of many outdoor ministries started across the country by the LCMS. The Walther League, Lutheran Laymen’s League and the LCMS Central Illinois District (CID) purchased CILCA’s rustic 225 acres as a place for children and adults, congregations and schools to gather in God’s creation.

“When I was a kid, everybody went to church and Sunday school somewhere,” said Bueltmann, whose ministry career includes two stints as Camp CILCA director and 17 years as CID president. “Camp was one aspect of that.”

Times have changed.

Bueltmann now sees Lutheran camps as “a hook to bring people in—to bring in kids who bring their friends” and for people of all ages “to get away from their gadgets and talk about their lives and how to survive with the Lord on their side.”

Side door to the church

It’s been said that if Sunday worship serves as the front door to the church, a Lutheran camp opens a side door.

“People come here wanting to spend time in nature, swim in the lake, hike,” said Rev. Joshua Theilen, Camp CILCA’s executive director. “We help them understand about Christ, who Jesus is and plant seeds that, hopefully, leads them to church.”

David Vandercar is executive director of Lakeview Ministries, which is based in Seymour, Ind. He sees Lutheran outdoor ministry as an evangelism tool to be used in partnership with LCMS congregations, districts and the national church body.

“We all want kids to grow up and continue in the Church,” said Vandercar. He considers the Lutheran outdoor ministry experience “one of the greatest indicators” of whether a young person remains in the LCMS or not.

He also points to Lutheran camps as fertile ground for ministry seeds that grow in campers who become pastors and other church leaders.

“I’ve had so many camp counselors who go to college to be something else but after serving at summer camp, they change majors and become Lutheran educators, pastors and directors of Christian education,” Vandercar said.

The difference camp ministry makes

Both Camp CILCA and Lakeview Ministries turned to Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) for guidance and experience on two separate capital campaigns to raise funds to strengthen their outdoor ministries and touch more lives in Christ’s name.

Goals of CILCA’s $1 million campaign include to enlarge and winterize the camp dining hall for year-round use and provide camp scholarships to children of families in need.

In June, Lakeview Ministries will launch a $2.5 million campaign to improve its three sites. Plans include: building a recreation hall at Camp Lakeview (geared to younger campers), beginning to implement strategic plans at its newest site to focus on family and adult ministry and to increase housing at Lakeview Villages.

The latter is a camp so popular with older students, a waiting list started on the first day of registration when over 1,500 campers signed up for an upcoming summer session!

A former engineer whose passion for Lutheran outdoor ministry helped spur him to take the helm at Lakeview Ministries, Vandercar wants those young people on the waiting list—and more people of all ages—to experience the difference a Lutheran outdoor ministry can make in knowing Jesus and strengthening faith.

Vandercar appreciates that like him, Tim Kurth—LCEF agency vice president who’s working with both Lakeview Ministries and Camp CILCA—is a former Lutheran camper.

Lutheran Church Extension Fund “knows why camp ministry is important,” Vandercar said.

“When we talk about raising money, it’s not to build facilities, but to build and expand those places where ministry happens.”

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