A review of Sacred Playgrounds

My former teacher Don Browning defined practical theology as “critical reflection on the Church’s dialogue with Christian sources and other communities of experience and interpretation for the purpose of guiding its action toward social transformation and individual”. Sacred Playgrounds is a practical theology project that Browning would have admired. Jacob Sorenson seamlessly weaves together theology, church history, scripture, and empirical research on the impacts of Christian summer camp on campers.

The book makes two complementary arguments: the Christian summer camp experience has multiple measurable impacts on campers, and the camping ministry deserves scholarly attention. The research supporting the project is impressive. Over the summers of 2015 through 2019, Sorenson’s team interviewed more than 7,000 campers at more than 35 Christian camps across the United States and Canada.

Studies have found that camp experiences have statistically significant impacts on multiple measures of faith formation. The results are more than just a “camp high,” which fades. Sorenson has measured significant results that are sustained for at least three months after campers return home. Furthermore, there is additional empirical evidence that religious camp experiences show significant positive impacts on participants at least five years later, particularly with respect to communal religious practices and identification with religious communities.

The book begins with an introduction to what camp is and why Sorenson’s project is unique. He explains why play is important and why he chose the metaphor of the playground: “Our invitation today is not to climb on a particular device but rather to find a space where we can play together. At the heart of our desire for a playground is the deep desire to be in relationship.

Sorenson provides a rich history of Christian camping ministry in the United States. This section of the book will be of interest to any church historian, academic or not. It will also help general readers understand a lot about the camping ministry today. Sorenson also examines the history of camping ministry research, noting its failure to take a deeply empirical approach. “The consequences of a reliance on anecdotal evidence are clear: the camp itself is devalued and seen as useless,” he writes. Sorenson offers an alternative, a project built on all the empirical evidence he has collected but also full of engaging stories. These stories propelled me through the book. Many come from his own years as a camper, counselor and manager. Others come from his work as a researcher, interviewing campers and staff across the country.

Sorenson writes about both the Confirmation Project, which included camping ministry as a major component, and the American Camp Association’s more recent emphasis on outcome-oriented research and scholarship. Sacred Playgrounds would have been possible without these two projects, but they certainly gave Sorenson (who did the camp research for Project Confirmation) excellent training and tools. They also allowed him to be part of a broader movement of research and ongoing reflection on the impact of the camp.

The second section of the book is devoted to the five fundamental characteristics of Christian summer camp that Sorenson’s research revealed. The subtitle of each chapter reveals its purpose: “Camp is Unplugged from Home”, “Camp is Participative”, “Camp is also Church”, “Camp is Relational” and “Camp is a safe space”.

Sorenson explains early on that the book is an exercise in practical theology and is intended to be interdisciplinary. In these chapters on the five fundamentals, his practical theology shines. While the stacks of surveys and thousands of data points elicit my respect for the project, the lively storytelling and quotes are what I love. We hear from a young camper about the impact of camp: “Once you walk away from your life, you can see a whole different angle, and it can be a lot more fun and exciting.” Another camper writes, “Letting go of technology kind of frees your brain.

Sorenson’s exercise in practical theology shines brightest in the chapter “The Face of the Other: The Camp is Relational.” It weaves interviews with campers from various camps with a discussion of the differences between centralized and decentralized camping, which includes statistics and arguments about how and why relationship breakdowns occur at camp. He writes about the power of small groups and relational encounters, drawing on quotes from living and dead theologians, scripture, neurobiology, psychology, the history of trauma, and the study of Directions of Life. ‘American Camp Association.

I was a camper and counselor at Christian camps and am now what is sometimes called a raving camp fan. But I don’t think you need to be one of those things to glean some wisdom for the ministry of Sacred Playgrounds. Anyone who tries to love as Jesus loved can gain new insights from these pages on caring for young people.

Camp professionals and councils will be empowered by this book to be authentic themselves in the Christian ministry of camping. Public ministers serving any type of Christian community will benefit from the chapters’ discussion of the five fundamentals, each of which relates its characteristic of camp to the life of the congregation. The connections could easily be applied to a campus ministry, court system, or even a hospital chaplaincy program. Sorenson makes these connections with the hope that the camps and other Christian communities will remain under the yoke. It simultaneously acknowledges that, for some campers, “camp is their primary space of connection and religious affiliation.”

I hope Sacred Playgrounds will be discussed around the campfire, in ministry groups, and in the classrooms of theological and seminary schools. We need camping now more than ever. Sorenson has given us the research and stories to explain why this is so and the knowledge to effectively engage in Christian camping ministry in the years to come.

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