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Finnish Youth Church Camp, Espoo, FinlandThis past weekend, I had the privilege of attending a youth church camp.  I was invited to see what goes on and to lead a bible study on Mary and Martha.

It was a 1/2 hour trip north and as we traveled north, there was more snow on the ground.  I knew it was going to be a good weekend.

When I got there, I was introduced to the 40 or so teens aged 15-18 and the church workers who were at the camp.

Then it was time for the bible study.  It went well and I’ll have another post on the bible study either tomorrow or the next day so it doesn’t get lost in a long blog post.

It was a good experience overall with some typical campy-type activities – songs, food, talking, fun, sauna, (ok, maybe sauna is more of a typical Finnish camp thing), etc.

Here’s some observations I took away from the experience.

1. The students.  The students were really quite interesting.  I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with groups of them on several occasions for an extended period of time.  They had questions for me and I had questions for them.  We had a great exchange of ideas and knowledge.  I asked them why they come to the camp weekends, what they thought about the role of church in Finnish society, challenges they see for the church and how to overcome them.  I asked them many more questions too and they happily offered their insights.

They told me that they come to these weekends because they know their friends will be there, they know they will have fun and they know they will be able to ask questions about God.  I asked them about their church attendance and what they believed about God.  Several stated that they didn’t know what they believed about God.  Many said that they didn’t go to church.  Why?  “It’s boring.”  When I pressed them on this, they essentially told me that they didn’t see how church related to their lives.  But the youth camps do.

One of the biggest things that I pulled away from these encounters was that the students said that there was nothing for them to go to after they turn 18 and are too old to go to the youth camps.  They are expected to just fit in with the congregation.  When asked if they thought they would do that – most of them said no.  If church is boring now and they don’t have a habit of going now, then why would they go later – that was the idea.

The church camps are an outlet for the youth to talk about God with others who have questions, with church workers who they look to for some spiritual guidance, and a place where things that happen are relevant to them and take their concerns seriously.  In other words, they are saying they feel valued by friends and the church workers when they attend the weekends – which is why so many youth attend these camps.

2. Church workers.  I also had privilege of meeting several church youth workers over the weekend.  These are dedicated youth-oriented church workers who care very deeply about the youth they work with.

They listen to the students, have fun with the students (there was a talent show and even one of the workers and I did a song during it), offer guidance, and yes, discipline when necessary.  The students are generally respectful of these workers.

One worker shared with me that often others look down on such work, wanting to know when a worker will “get a real job” – as if ministry with youth wasn’t a real job.  What struck me about this is that based on my observation, this is not just something that has been said in Finland, but in many other places – I’ve certainly heard it in the US.  That’s a real shame – the youth are the church – both the future and the present.  If they aren’t valued, along with the people who work with them, why should return the favor?

I was impressed with the church workers – their enthusiasm for their work, the ideas they have for the church and their willingness to try new things.

3. Other impressions.  One of the challenges that became present and I had heard about before was volunteerism.  This isn’t a church youth camp specific challenge – it’s more of a cultural challenge for the Finnish.  The Finns are so used to having so many people working for the church or the state, that there is an expectation that an employee will do a job that needs to be done.  And they willingly do the work that needs done.  The challenge then becomes how to engage laypeople and youth in the church in a voluntary manner.  What’s left to do if employees are doing all the work?  As with anything, there are positives and negatives to every situation.  Having so many employees and resources has positives and negatives.  In the US, a church would think it would have died and gone to heaven to have so many people working in the church.  The down side of this was expressed by the church workers – how do we engage laypeople and youth into the work of the church?  The Finns are just starting to talk about this and explore ways to engage with potential volunteers.  This won’t be a quick process, it’s more of a cultural change and expectation that takes time.

Overall, I was thrilled to be able to participate in this church youth camp weekend.  I greatly appreciate the opportunity to meet these students, hear from them and from the church workers, see one way that youth ministry happens here in Finland and to experience Finnish culture in a unique way.  I even got to practice a little bit of Finnish and taste some great and interesting Finnish food.