Preaching Good SOIL

By Jim Vitale and Chad Hershberger

Colossians 1:15-29.

Another camping season is approaching fast and we wanted to take some time to share with you the four key values that make Camp Mount Luther so special. At camp, we’re all about planting children of God in good SOIL. SOIL is an acronym for spiritual formation, outdoor adventure, intentional community, and leadership development (it’s also the name of our blog!).

As we explored these values, we realized that they’re all, in one way or another, a form of preaching.

Preaching is all over Camp Mount Luther, though it doesn’t always look like what what happens in the pulpit on Sunday morning. Sure, camp chaplains share a message on Sunday and as well as Thursday nights when we gather for all-camp worship. But counselors also share messages about God’s love during our First Light morning devotions, after lunch and dinner in a more interactive setting, and at night during cabin group worship services. The good news of Jesus is preached in many ways, every day at camp!

And that’s how it should be. Not just because we’re a church camp, but because that’s the way faith is born. Some Christian traditions believe faith is a choice or a feeling. But Martin Luther believed that our faith is born when one person preaches the gospel to another. We have to hear the good news to believe the good news. Someone once said that faith is caught, not taught. It’s as if the Holy Spirit floats out of the preacher’s mouth, into our ears, and down into our hearts, giving us the gift of faith. So of course, it’s super important that we offer our campers as much good preaching as possible.

Sermons also come from unlikely places in camp, not just chaplains or counselors. Often on summer nights you can hear music playing in our field. More likely you can hear crickets chirping and leaves rustling in the summer breeze. You might see campers laying in the field, participating in field worship. Usually, we read scripture, play soft music, and a take time for meditation. And then we sit and enjoy creation, listening for God.

I (Jim) remember once when I was a camper, I went through a crisis of faith where it seemed nearly impossible for me to believe in God. I had a lot of anxiety about that. And then, one night at camp, I looked out at the stars and down into the valley below me, and I was overcome with this reassurance that God not only exists but, even more mysterious, actually cares about me. Then and there nature preached to me the good news of God.

Our reading from Colossians says that the word is to be preached to every creature under heaven. Sometimes we assume that Jesus only came to save humanity; but again and again the scriptures say that Jesus has come to redeem pantas, which means “all things.” St. Francis of Assisi took this to heart. He believed that preaching to creation was a two-way street. He not only received the good news of the gospel from creation, as so many of us have at camp, he also preached the good news back to creation: to birds, wolves, trees. Perhaps we should send our chaplains out into the woods to preach to the trees, rocks, squirrels, and camels!

The word is preached at camp not just in human words or the metaphorical words of nature, but in actions, too. We once had a longtime camper who was neurodivergent. He wanted to try out camp, so he signed up. He came to camp, loved it, and returned for many years. The kids in his cabin group treated him like one of them and of course helping him out when he needed it. No one judged him or made fun of him. That sort of inclusion and compassion doesn’t always happen at school, but it happens at camp!

We also once had a little girl who was differently abled and couldn’t walk very well. But she wanted a camp experience and came to Camp Mount Luther. She had to take things slow, but her counselor and fellow campers helped her out, giving her plenty of piggyback rides. She always had a smile on her face. She loved camp, and everyone loved her just for who she was.

When he wasn’t off preaching to the birds, St. Francis spent his time building a highly successful monastic order of preachers. He famously told his fellow monks: “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” Likewise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that we only really experience Jesus by ministering to others. So to be a Christian is to encounter God most in our service to others, not just through the ways in which we bless the ones we serve, but also in the ways that they bless us. Through action, the good news of Jesus is preached to everyone involved.

Finally, the good news of Jesus is preached also in the lives that are transformed at camp. There was once a boy who was always getting in trouble at school. He even got thrown out of his church’s Sunday School class. But one summer he decided to come to camp and everything changed for him. The camper looked up to his camp counselor so much that he wanted to be just like him, even cutting his hair to resemble his counselor’s. He was allowed to return to Sunday School and for the next several years had perfect attendance. Through the camper’s encounter with his counselor, God changed him for the better.

We also had another boy who lost his mother to cancer. A month later, he came to camp. He had a rough first night and he wanted to go home, so he did. But Chad urged him, after a day or so, to bring his brother with him and stay for the rest of the week. So he did. He stayed through the end of the week and camp helped him take steps toward learning to live with the grief of his mom’s passing. He is now an adult and is a church musician, serving as a leader in a local congregation and at the synod level.

You see, at Camp we’re not interested in altar calls (there’s no such thing as a Lutheran altar call anyway). We don’t want fleeting commitments—we want to grow lifelong followers of Jesus. The good news of Jesus changes us. Luther believed that the word puts to death the Old Adam and Eve within us and raises a new person before God. We want campers to go home resurrected. At camp, we preach the good news not so that we can raise a new generation of people to sit in pews, but so that we can grow the God-given gifts in each camper for the sake of God’s ministry to the world. The campers that come to Camp Mount Luther leave not as “the leaders of tomorrow” but as “the leaders of today”! —all through the Holy Spirit’s work in preaching!

That’s how our four key values—spiritual formation, outdoor adventure, intentional community, and leadership development—play out at camp. They’re each basically a different form of preaching! When you come to camp, you get preached to all day, every day. And while that might not sound terribly exciting to you, let us reassure you that you’re so busy having fun that you hardly realize it’s even happening.

A few weeks ago I (Jim) was preaching at a congregation where a youth member was giving a talk about Camp Mount Luther’s GROW in the Snow event. After his talk an adult member said, “Man, that sounds like fun. Can I come?” And another member quickly replied, “I think you’re a little old for that!” And we all laughed.

But actually it’s not true.

There’s a misconception out there that camp is only for kids. It certainly is for kids. And it’s for adults, too. We are an intergenerational ministry and we want everyone to come and experience God’s love at camp. So, just as Jesus said to his first disciples, “Come and see.” Come talk to me about how you can get involved. Come to Camp Mount Luther yourself and see our risen Lord as he dwells among us in Bible study, worship, and play. Come to a day of Family Camp or one of our adult retreats. Give money to support a camper this summer. Come and see the trees, the birds, the wildlife, the hills, and let them preach to you. Come and see others live in Christian community, learning about how to be disciples in this world and then join in yourself. Encourage campers, potential staff, and congregational leaders to get involved in the life of the camp. There are so many ways you can be a part of what we do at Camp Mount Luther. So come! Join us at camp! And be planted in good SOIL.

Amen.