Welcome to the 
Association of UMCRM

Forming Faith at Camp the Methodist Way: Enthusiastically Square – Guest Post by Ron Bartlow

26 Jun 2019 5:20 PM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

Forming Faith at Camp the Methodist Way: Enthusiastically Square

(Methodism’s spirit-filled, structural approach to faith formation)

My poor campers. It happens every morning at camp (and I mean, every morning)... If the risen sun shining through their cabin windows isn’t enough to rouse them, they have to suffer through the indignity of my overly enthusiastic, off-pitch rendition of this little ditty:

“I’m alive, awake, alert, enthusiastic!

I’m alive, awake, alert, enthusiastic!

I’m alive, awake, alert;

I’m alert, awake, alive;

I’m alive, awake, alert, enthusiastic!”

John Wesley would probably roll in his grave if he heard me! Not just due to my performance (which I admit might distress the dead as much as it does sleepy-eyed campers), but in linking him with the word “enthusiastic.”

In Wesley’s day, barely a century removed from the English Reformation and its conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, the term “enthusiast” had become a negative critique. It was used of certain Protestants whose theology or religious practice was reminiscent of the suspect-to-them mysticism of Catholicism. “Enthusiastic” (from the Greek, “possessed by a god or spirit”) was one of the derogatory terms that followed and frustrated Wesley, used by others to dismiss him and the spiritual revival he led.

Yet here we are today, ministry leaders and volunteers around the nation enthusiastically gearing up for summer camp ministries that will invite participants into a deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Indeed, we are fulfilling part of Wesley’s original vision of his ministry, “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” (if we, like him, define “scriptural holiness” as the fulfillment of the great commandment to love God and neighbor). Many of us are enthusiastic for the work, enthusiastic to be responding to the call of God, enthusiastic to be partnering with the Holy Spirit to nurture spiritual formation in people young and old!

In the last decade, my understanding of “enthusiasm” in the religious sphere has become synonymous with appreciation, gratitude, and acknowledgment of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in my life. As a life-long Methodist, I am part of a holiness tradition that has always taken the Holy Spirit seriously; we believe we are a Spirit-filled people; that God’s presence illuminates and motivates our lives and actions. Today, I would say that we are enthusiastically open to the Spirit’s movement and guidance!

In responding to the movement of God’s Holy Spirit over the centuries, the people called Methodist have formed and followed some particularly sound methods of faith development. In previous blogs, I reflected on our heritage’s emphasis upon holistic faith formation that recognizes the interconnectedness of the spiritual experience. (View “The Third Rule” and “Shoulders & Knees.”) Today I aim to show how, led by the Spirit, we Methodists have developed some distinctive organizational structures for both thought and community.

First, we are a bit "square" when it comes to theological reflection. While faith is more than belief, belief is still an important aspect of one’s faith; one that is nurtured, challenged, and formed throughout our lives. We do not arrive at a mature system of belief – a deeply held interconnection of thoughts on God, Creation, humanity, Scripture, etc. – instantaneously. We reflect upon what we know of God (e.g. “theology,” or knowledge of God). Traditionally, Methodists approach theological reflection with an understanding of four interconnected, mutually dependent resources, what Wesley scholar Albert Outler named the “Wesleyan quadrilateral”: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.

Methodists are enthusiastic about this spirit-filled approach to theology. We value the Spirit’s inspiration of Scripture; not only for the Spirit’s presence in the past (during the creation and canonization of the scriptures) but also in the Spirit’s presence in the present as we read and interpret. We look to our own experience of the Spirit, discerning where and how God might be speaking a word to us today. We reflect upon what we can learn from the traditions of the church, recognizing that even the Bible comes to us via tradition. Through it all we integrate our God-given capacity for reason, since God did not give us minds just to check them at the door of faith!

While scholars rightly insist that Scripture is primary for John Wesley, they generally acknowledge that Wesley brought all four elements of this so-called “quadrilateral” to bear in his own theological reflection, and invited others to do the same. For Methodists, these four sides are a Spirit-influenced frame for the lenses through which we read Scripture and see the world; a frame that develops as we grow in faith.

Our heritage is born from a tradition of Spirit-filled revival, and Camp and Retreat Ministries owe a portion of their creation to the revivalist tradition of camp meetings in the 19th century. Sensing a need for ordinary Christians to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit more directly, camp meetings gathered people together outside of their usual churches and homes to hear the Word of God read, sung, and expounded upon. These experiences very often led participants to make a commitment in response to what they heard. These camp meetings were an experience of the “creative dislocation” I have shared about elsewhere [The Prophet Elijah’s “Creative Dislocation”], and were at least partial progenitors of camp ministries. In such experiences of “creative dislocation,” Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason are experienced by participants in new ways that help form their faith.

In addition to the stability of our square-ish theology, our heritage is also one of organized community structure. Over time, through practical needs that required logistical organization, the Methodist movement formed a three-tiered structure many of us can recall: Society, Class, and Band. As a quick summary:

  • the Society was the location for preaching and teaching, where a large group of Methodists from the local (Anglican) church parish would gather midweek to hear more teaching about God and faith than they experienced in Sunday’s sermon;
  • the Class was an organizational unit of about 12 that owed its origins to the need to collect money, but became a place for the smaller group of participants to account for their commitment to the three rules (sometimes supplanting the place/role of a band);
  • the Band, with its roots in the Holy Club at Oxford, was a much smaller group of like-minded individuals who went deeper into their faith and behavior, including a focus upon its members’ “backsliding” (penitent bands) or their service as leaders (select bands). Whereas classes were diverse, bands were also more intentionally homogeneous.

The logic and effectiveness of this structure have enduring merit. The deepening levels of intimacy from Society to Band allow for greater trust and accountability among participants, building relationships that can help foster behavioral change. (Remember, Wesley was early in teaching that behavior can influence belief.) While we can learn concepts and theory in larger groups, to truly embody them we need to practice with the help and evaluation of others. Interestingly, this practical structure was not imagined and devised in advance of the movement, but developed in response to the growing needs of communities yearning to grow in faith.

Though perhaps not of conscious origin, I have actually seen much the same structure in camp and retreat settings. Many of our events feature times when the large group gathers with featured speakers or special leaders, who teach from Scripture and their own life experience. But we don’t expect the large group gathering to be enough to foster faith formation; we re-gather in “small groups” to further read Scripture and reflect upon it together. Sometimes we see even smaller groupings, where mentoring and leadership development occur.

I would share one example from my current location in ministry. Two years ago we initiated “Leadership Camp” for a small number (12) of Senior High youth. Each day the youth gather as a large group (Society) for reflection together, learning about healthy leadership from Scripture and other sources. They spend a couple of hours each morning working in pairs to serve, helping lead activities with elementary campers. Half return at a time to reflect upon what they learned and what they did (Class). We don’t, perhaps, get as deep as the “band” level might, but I am blessed to bear witness to their faith and leadership formation over the week.

Our Spirit-fueled enthusiasm, Wesleyan quadrilateral for theological reflection, and organizational structure may no longer be entirely unique to Methodism, but they were distinct developments of our heritage that continue to guide our efforts at faith formation to this day.

This is the third in a series of three reflections on the influence of our Wesleyan heritage upon the spiritual formation that occurs at camp, allegedly written by Ron Bartlow, interim Director of Camp and Retreat Ministries in the Desert Southwest Conference and a member of the UMCRM Board. In trying to confirm his authorship we were informed he was “dead, asleep, inattentive, and apathetic.”

Questions?  Please contact our Association Registrar

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software