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Forming Faith at Camp the Methodist Way: The Third Rule – Guest Post by Ron Bartlow

24 Apr 2019 8:37 PM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

Two years ago I chose to simplify my practice of establishing rules with campers down to giving them “three simple rules.” As you read them, you’ll no doubt find them familiar, but with a significant alteration:

1st: Do no harm.

2nd: Do good.

3rd: Participate.

If you grew up in The United Methodist Church and/or are aware of our heritage (or, worse yet, were victim to one of my confirmation or new members classes!) then you know these as the General Rules of the United Societies, with an editorial adjustment to the third. For over 200 years, the people called Methodist have made use of these “rules,” not because they are obligations to be followed, but because like a ruler they delineate how to measure the fruit of our commitment to living as Christians.

In my ministry, Wesley’s expression of the third rule has often been a source of consternation and obfuscation. Wesley’s original words for the third rule are that we are to “attend upon all the ordinances of God.” Many pastors rephrase this to “use the means of grace,” while bishop and scholar Reuben P. Job succinctly shortened the idea to “stay in love with God.” For the purposes of camp behavior, I simplified it down to “participate,” recognizing that the very acts I was about to invite campers to take part in were those self-same “means of grace” and “ordinances of God” by which our faith is formed and our love for God nurtured.

John Wesley, his brother Charles, and other members of their Holy Club at Oxford received the derisive “Methodist” nickname from their “methodical” use of a variety of spiritual practices. In establishing the General Rules, they maintained this constant use of the means of grace as a “rule” to measure spiritual maturity. They recognized that it is in and through such activity that faith matures. For the same reason, as someone called by God to nurture people into a deeper Christian faith, I invite campers to participate in our camp activities because they are spiritually formative; all the more so when we pursue them with intention!

Consider for a moment the significant power of the sacraments in a camp experience. I can remember being a teenager near the fireplace when our youth director led us in communion, inviting us to serve one another after a retreat focusing on every individual’s self-worth. Since then, I have been to many camps where the week wraps up with holy communion during a particularly inspirational and moving evening worship. I’ve borne witness to commitments to Christ, and even callings to ministry, happening at such times. In much the same way, when campers gather together in community to experience the baptism of a fellow camper, the sacramental act can have a powerful and lingering impact on their understanding and living of Christian faith.

Of course, there are more faith-forming practices than just the two sacraments. Many are a regular part of our camp experiences. For simplicity, and to ensure this author doesn’t wax on endlessly, let us consider just those listed under the third rule in the General Rules:

  • Public worship
    Worship is often a daily occurrence at camp, and sometimes more! Camp planners and curriculum writers work with intention to bring elements of worship to bear around particular themes. Counselors and worship leaders engage campers in active participation. Often campers are included in leading elements of worship.

  • Ministry of the Word
    Many of us are diligent to ensure that camp participants encounter Scripture in different ways. Not only may they read it, hear it, or hear it discussed, as the Rules suggest, but campers may also find Scripture integrated into an art project, skit,  or a walk through the labyrinth.

  • Communion (referenced above)

  • Family and private prayer
    Camps build in intentional time for participants to experience prayer in different ways. We may sing grace before meals, pray the Lord’s prayer during worship, take time in silent prayer, pray at the close of a small group, or even pray for a friend in need.

  • Searching the scriptures
    Interestingly, the General Rules mention the Bible twice. In this case, the phrase has to do with seeking to know something about God, and specifically Jesus Christ, as we read the Bible. As we engage in Bible study, discussion, and even worship, we often seek to find how God is speaking to us and what we are learning about Jesus, even in stories about other people.

  • Fasting or abstinence  
    Okay, this practice is probably not a focus you intentionally think about often; and yet this practice of choosing to limit ourselves from other things is actually something we practice at camp. Consider the power of silence, when we abstain from talking, during prayer or a walk through the labyrinth. Or consider the beneficial (and even statistically documented!) benefits of abstaining from cell phones and other digital devices for a week at camp.

We do these things at camp, often with great intention, because we know they play a part in nurturing spiritual maturity. Our efforts may come as recommendations from a curriculum, be based around a theme or experience, or even connect to outcomes we seek to measure; but in the end, these practices are a part of our Methodist heritage precisely because they help to form faith.

“There’s nothing particularly unique about that,” you might suggest, echoing centuries-old critique of Wesley’s description of what a Methodist is. You would be right. Other Christian camps also integrate these activities into their day. But the intentionality with which we pursue these practices, the “methodical” way we integrate them into our camps’ daily schedules, are a distinct and important echo of our heritage as it is brought to bear on faith formation at camp.

(In two future posts, “Shoulders and Knees,” and “Enthusiastically Square,” I will share thoughts on how our heritage of faith formation is both holistic and structurally sound.)

This is the first in a series of three reflections on the influence of our Wesleyan heritage upon the spiritual formation that occurs at camp. Author Ron Bartlow, the Director of Camp and Retreat Ministries for the Desert Southwest Conference and member of the UMCRM Association Board of Directors, has a passion for our Methodist heritage, a lifetime of camp experience, and a white light-saber. Ron has meticulously crafted each blog post and aged it in a charred oak barrel for the smoothest texture possible.

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