Steadfast at Camp

A recent edition of Rock Center with Brian Williams featured hilarious selections from the book, “P.S. I Hate It Here!: Kids’ Letters from Camp” by Diane Falanga. In this book, kids are brutally honest about their summer camp experience. You may read excerpts here.

Similarly, the sainted Gerhard Forde once wrote of his childhood experience at Bible Camp, “I recall vividly once in my young life going to a Bible Camp with its campfire meetings at which there were all sorts of ‘goings-on’ which were strange to the son of an Old Synod parish- emotional songs which I had never heard, testimonies, tears, and what not. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t believe it! I never went back.” (Gerhard O. Forde, “The Old Synod: A Search for Objectivity,” Striving for ministry: Centennial Essays Interpreting the Heritage of Luther Theological Seminary, Augsburg, 1977)

Forde’s experience sounds more like a scene out of the documentary Jesus Camp than confessional Lutheranism. Is it possible to have a fun, outdoorsy, exciting Bible camp while maintaining our confessional Lutheran moorings?

For twelve years, I have been blessed as a pastor to teach and preach at Camp Indianhead MN (ELS). Sure the name is not politically correct, but somehow Native American Head sounds even worse! At this camp, the kids enjoy all kinds of summer camp activities- swimming, sports, canoeing, evening campfires etc. But, by God’s grace, we’ve been able to maintain a distinctive confessional Lutheran flavor. How?

  1. At campfires, we let the silly songs be silly songs and Christian songs be hymns. Crazy campfire songs about cannibals, ostriches, and dead worms are followed by learning a solid Lutheran hymn. Counselors and/or pastors lead the children in memorizing several verses during the week of hymns such as “God’s Own Child I’ll Gladly Say It, I Am Baptized Into Christ” and “Salvation Unto Us is Come”.
  2. Bible studies are based on the parts of Luther’s Small Catechism. Bible studies for youth are far too often centered on teaching only morality and focused on behavior rather than inculcating trust in God’s grace in Christ. There is plenty of material in the Small Catechism- the six chief parts, the Table of Duties, etc., that can be expanded upon in an engaging way, with a law and gospel focus.
  3. Our daily chapel services are liturgical and hymn based. Psalms are sung responsively with a choir and hymns are sung which teach of Christ. As my 10-year-old son has said during our chapel services, our hymns are not “baptisty.”
  4. Pastors lead evening devotions in each cabin, which usually include Luther’s evening prayer, Scripture reading, law and gospel application, and answering questions.

By offering these examples, my intent is not to brag or to say that our camp has cornered the market on a confessional camp experience. Instead, I offer these thoughts as an encouragement to others and seeking other’s input and ideas. We can offer our Lutheran youth a high quality camp without checking our confessionalism at the door.


Steadfast at Camp — 10 Comments

  1. Iowa District East Camp (Io-Dis-E-Ca) is another shining example of what it means to be a confessional Lutheran camp- letting play be play and worship be worship. Lutheran parents can trust that what their children learn at camp does not undermine what they are teaching them at home. And every year, there are children there who hear the Gospel for the first time at camp- thanks be to God!

  2. I was a camper and a counselor at Camp Indian Head, and it was great. I made some friends there that are now life-long friends. I also learned some very good Lutheran theology and hymns there. Pastor Stafford, you may not remember. But when I first came to camp (I was 12 years old) we sang some pretty crumby songs at the camp fire (The “Arky Arky… Huh!!!” song and this one:, but those songs quickly faded away, thank goodness. I mean, the second one has some good theology, but it’s too poppy. Although, I have to say that I still sometimes use the word hunky-dory to describe my day… only if I am having a really good day. I enjoyed having you as a pastor at camp, Pastor Stafford!

    I was also a camp counselor at Io-Dis-E-Ca. That was good as well. It is so important to keep the distinction clear between fun songs and devotional songs. We don’t need to Christianize all of God’s gifts. God gives us fun. Let’s enjoy it. But as one of my friends from camp Io-Dis-E-Ca said, “Carving a cross on an apple won’t make it any better.” Let worship be worship and fun be fun.

    Also, not to obscure your points here, but didn’t Forde deny the vicarious atonement?

  3. After reading this column, I just HAD to go check – and yes indeed, Camp Killarney (WELS & ELS) in the Irish Hills of SE Michigan is still around. My older brother and I had happy summers there and our Mom probably still has some crafty items we made (nearly 50 years ago!)

  4. I would not say that Io-Dis-E-Ca is a model camp or one that should get praise. It has been out of money several times recently and they just had to let the pastor go that was serving the camp. It is now not run by a pastor.

  5. @Rob #4

    Things are looking much better for Io-Dis-E-Ca than they were just a few years ago- camper attendance was up 40% this summer compared to two years ago. But even if they were in the red, that wouldn’t mean that they weren’t still praiseworthy in terms of providing good Lutheran worship and catechesis, which is what this article was about.

    And you’re right that it’s now run by a dedicated and well-catechized layman, with volunteer pastors every week during the summer. I don’t see why this is a problem, to be honest- one doesn’t need an M.Div. to run a camp. (Isn’t part of the whole idea behind BJS supposed to be about the need for well-catechized laymen, anyway?)

  6. @Rob #4

    I am interested to hear your take on why Io-Dis-E-Ca is not a model camp. Your insinuation about it’s current financial situation and financial direction is wrong.

  7. It is true that Camp Io-Dis-E-Ca does not have a pastor as the executive director. However, may I point out that the president of the board of trustees is a confessional Lutheran pastor; I too, am a pastor and I am a member of the board of trustees, and have served on the Program Committee for three years now. We have direct involvement in the theology and practice of the camp. As Zant mentioned, it has a pastor leading camp devotions every week, interacting with campers, and a seminary student leading the camp Bible studies every summer.

    It was because of pressure by the District board of directors that we had to “balance the budget” and thus let go of a very dedicated and confessional Lutheran pastor as the exec. director. We were all saddened by this. However, I would question anyone who thinks the Church is better served by having ordained pastors in a camp office, or at the altar and in a pulpit.

    Rob, I would be interested to know where you’re getting your info from. If you have sincere questions, I would suggest calling me, or one of the other board members, or Daniel Sanchez, the executive director. I would be more than happy to speak about how the camp has been doing.

    All the best,
    Rev. Paul L. Beisel

  8. Interesting, Sean. I am glad to hear that Old Camp Indianhead is still operated by the ELS. It was there when I was a kid and I will be 70 years old next month. I think that VBS and Bible camps are an important part of the proclamation work of the church.

    The ELS also ran a camp down at Lake Shetek in the SW part of the state. I wonder if anyone remembers that place.

    I thought that your Forde comment was appropriate to your point. I thought that it was humorous that one of the enforcers of doctrine wanted to take you to task. What is it with these guys, anyway?

    Norman Teigen, Layman
    Evangelical Lutheran Synod

  9. I grew up going to camp Io-Dis-E-Ca. I sent my boys there for a few summers as well. As an IDE member my personal opinion is that it was a much better camp back in the day before every camp song was dissected for docturnal purity and the before meal prayer was sung to the tune of Johnny Appleseed not read from a huge scroll. I’m not sure if they still do this but the last time my youngest son went they had this “scroll ” that they unrolled so the kids could all recite this prayer together. There was a meal prayer and then also the Lords Prayer. Good prayer for sure but the kids where just looking around just trying getting through it so they could eat. I still in my head 25ish years later hear that song prayer in my head. I hate that it seems everything in the IDE has to be so difficult :/ The camp director back than was Paul G. He was great.

  10. Camp Lor-Ray is another (maybe the first?) ELS Camp. We’ve been trying to do similar things. Though, for years there was a streak of the same “campy” things you refer to. We’re still working some things out:

    1. We aren’t quite to the point of having a regular chapel service yet, as most of our staff aren’t used to doing one. Though we have been trying to move in that direction. Reaction from many seems to be along the lines of “why do we need a chapel service….this is camp….it should be different than church” Tips on encouraging a more liturgical worship would be appreciated. But I know, it will just take time.

    2. Our new songbook has copied the ELH Offices of Prime and Compline, along with more confessional hymns. I have been trying to teach “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It” for two years with little success. (Its a difficult song for the majority of our WELS campers/staff I think. We are in need of a few Bethany students to come help lead, such as Camp Indianhead has) Eventually I want to be able to chant the Lord’s Prayer too… 🙂
    I’m trying hard to also get donations from churches to be able to buy ELH Hymnals. Any chapel service we do have is lead from a worship pamphlet published in the 70s…

    3. Our themes for awhile were semi-vague and a bit shallow, even overemphasizing evangelism. But our themes for the past three years have been purposefully and confessionally Lutheran:

    2010 – “Rooted” (Focusing on John 17:17 – Thy Word is Truth, and pitting it against the postmodern worldview)
    2011 – “Radiant” (Using Ephesians 5:8 to focus on Justification and Vocation)
    2012 – “I Have Seen Thy Salvation” (Showing how our salvation is brought to us in visible, tangible means….not by subjective feelings or experiences. That is what is so often wrong with Bible Camps, is that they become about “finding God in nature” and “feeling closer to God.” I couldn’t think of a better topic to cover at camp)
    Our next three years will each focus on one person of the Trinity, culminating with the Holy Spirit for our 50th anniversary.

    4. Pastors/Male Teachers/Seminarians lead all Bible Studies and Devotions.

    5. We’ve started up a Teen Retreat and a 2-day KinderCamp. The KinderCamp is great to bring together young children and their parents. Parents get their own Bible Study twice, and then join their children for one.
    At the Teen retreat this year we visited the local ELS Church and were able to have a special communion service.

    Being confessional at Camp is possible, but there are indeed challenges!

    ps. I love hearing and seeing what Camp Indianhead does. It’s very encouraging to see.


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