Have your kids lost their taste for the beauty of God in Nature?
It’s a vanishing experience in their lives. Here’s why we must reverse that trend.

God’s Great Outdoors

girl playing guitar by the campfire on a backpacking trip

kids seem to do everything now – except go outside

Kids today are amazing – they’re leading worship, crafting their own personal mission statements, and planning mission trips. They’re “purpose driven” and intentional and… indoors more than ever.

The change in our culture is a migration from outdoor activities (hiking, biking, tag) to indoor activities (video-gaming, TV-watching, coffee-house conversation). In fact, national parks in the U.S. continue to experience declining numbers of visitors. I think the shift away from the natural world is not only disconcerting, it’s hurting young people.

In fact, in an effort to “meet kids where they are” some ministries have put camps and retreats on their “toss” list. That’s a shame – outdoor activities found at camps and retreats may be too “traditional” for some, but they’re unbeatable tools for reaching kids.

A 2005 study (Directions: Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience – A study conducted by Philliber Research Associates and the American Camp Association with generous support from Lilly Endowment Inc.) by the American Camp Association found that a stay at a summer camp helps teenagers:

  • become more confident as their self-esteem improves.
  • develop more friend-making social skills
  • grow more independent and boost their leadership qualities.
  • try new things and explore their adventurous side
  • grow more deeply in their religious faith.

Just after kids returned from camp, they told surveyors their greatest growth was in their physical abilities and their critical-thinking skills. Parents reported that they saw their kids grow most in their positive identities. The study found that six months after a camping experience, kids and parents were still reporting positive impacts from their time at camp.

Meeting a Deep Need

two girls stand together after rappelling at a backpacking youth camp

Redefine what “Camp” means to you and your youth.

So if camps and retreats have lost their significance in your ministry, consider redesigning them with a passionate purpose – just like you’re redesigning the rest of your ministry. If the word “camp” or “retreat” has lost its taste, call it a “pilgrimage” and make it an adventure. Whatever you call them, realize these events can still meet many of your kids’ needs.

Chief among these needs is giving kids an experience in creation, the world that God has made. In Romans 1:19-20 the apostle Paul explained how encounters with nature are vital: “Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

Has there ever been a society so protected and distracted from nature? We travel from our climate-controlled homes in our airtight autos to indoor schools, jobs, or maybe our gym (if we’re motivated and healthy enough to be “active”). For our brief times outside we wear specially designed clothing, sunblock, and bug spray to avoid potential discomforts. Venturing outdoors is a planned event that includes a paranoid evaluation before embarking (especially if we’re taking our children). Getting hot, cold, tired, dirty, or rained on can be enough cause to avoid creation altogether.

Between our fears and our very busy lives, kids are left to entertain themselves indoors. It’s not just that parents won’t let their kids outside (let alone up a tree), it’s that kids don’t want to go. When was the last time you saw a boy wake up and dash outside to work on his tree fort or catch a frog in a creek? Television, Xboxes, Game Boys, Laptops, iPods, Smart Phones… these phenomenal inventions not only captivate our attention and time, but they’ve also stolen our kids’ ambition to explore creation.

As a result, some young people rarely or never experience God through nature. I don’t mean being cognitively impressed by what He has made – you can get that from a nature program or a science textbook. I mean spiritually moved. I mean deeply convinced in our core of a God we can’t fathom and instinctively respect.

What better way to understand “God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature,” than in nature?

And I think this is exactly what our kids are hungering for – to experience God in a deep authentic way. Even our popular styles of church worship reflect this craving (for example when we run lyrics over images of nature on the big screen). We’re working hard to compensate for a tremendous lack of nature in our lives, without knowing it.

Dramatic Encounters With God

youth pause for a quiet time devotional during a river hike

Experience intimate encounters with God in creation.

I suggest we recognize the dramatic need young people have for intimate encounters with God in creation and take it seriously. Let’s customize retreats and camps to provide such opportunities and put forth the purpose-driven, intentional energy necessary for our kids to experience God through what he has made.

Our teenagers need to experience deep, powerful worship in creation. The beaches, mountains, deserts, rivers, and woods are all ready. Lets do what it takes to get them there.

This article, written by our very own Craig Lomax, first appeared in the Church Ministry Sourcebook 2008, published by Group Magazine.