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Recreate and elevate at church retreats

Courtesy Lake Geneva Canopy Tours

High in the treetops, suspended on a rope or tiptoeing across a wooden plank, adventurous travelers get more than just a thrill — outdoor activities can elevate a group getaway into a spiritual experience.

For decades, camps and retreats have been essential parts of the church travel program. And although opportunities to sit around a campfire or walk in the woods can make for fun times on any trip, today’s retreat groups are finding that exciting outdoor activities help to bring their faith alive in new ways.

Whether it’s traversing a high ropes course, careening down a zip line or floating on a lake in an inner tube, outdoor activities add recreational and educational elements to church retreats. Here’s a look at how a number of organizations use the outdoors to enhance the retreat experience for their groups.

Lake Geneva Canopy Tours
[  Lake Geneva, Wisconsin  ]
Not all outdoor adventures take place at a church camp. Some groups with getaways in hotels or other venues use third-party organizations for their outdoor adventures.

In scenic Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Lake Geneva Canopy Tours takes groups staying in the area for a two-and-a-half-hour adventure on their eight zip lines and five sky bridges, teaching local ecology and the history of the area along the way.

“The canopy tour and zip lines really focus on team bonding — having a shared event and experience, and getting out of your comfort zone with the people you interact with daily,” said course manager Phil Kroll. “That works really well with confirmation groups, or different segments of a school or church. We’ve even had some people do that with bar and bat mitzvah groups.”

Since Lake Geneva is a more up-market destination that many church camp locales, Kroll sees large groups of adults or multigenerational retreats that use the canopy tour as an adventurous break from the resort where they’re holding their conference or retreat.

“Baby boomers love it,” he said. “It’s exciting but not demanding, so it’s something that everyone can do. The kids are really excited about it and go a lot toward the adventure side, while the older generation sees it as something to check off their bucket list.”

The thrill of high-speed zip lines is only half of the attraction, though. In pristine Lake Geneva, a trip through the treetops gives visitors an uncommon perspective on the natural beauty of the area and helps them connect the sights with their faith.

“We talk about the ability to get out into nature, refresh yourself and connect with the environment,” Kroll said. “We talk about connecting with the Creator in his creation. We see the beauty of what’s up there and talk about the forest and God’s creation from a whole new perspective.”

National Lutheran Outdoors Ministry Association
Across the country, church camps and retreats established by Lutherans put a special focus on the outdoors. The National Lutheran Outdoors Ministry Association (NLOMA) helps these dozens of camps recruit workers and develop programming ideas.

“We try to integrate the outdoors into all of our activities and programming,” said NLOMA president John Busch. “Ultimately, the thing that makes camp ministry different than all other forms of ministry is that it falls under the category of experiential learning. Rather than sitting in a room and talking or reading about something, we integrate experiencing it through doing.”

Many of the Lutheran camps feature ropes or challenge courses, but the outdoor activities go far beyond them. Options can include educational experiences such as guided hikes, serene canoe outings for couples on a lake or adrenaline-pumping rock-climbing adventures.

Staff members at the NLOMA camps are trained to help use outdoor adventures to teach life lessons.

“I believe that when we take people rock climbing, it’s not just for the recreation,” Busch said. “I point out some of the metaphors and use it as a teachable moment so that as people are facing this rock, we can talk to them later about the ‘rocks’ and struggles in life that they face and what the rope represents in terms of their faith.”

Although retreats are often associated with youth groups, Busch said his camps are seeing an increasing number of adults, who come for an opportunity to disconnect from their hectic everyday lives.

“We want to get them outdoors and playing goofy games, and laughing for the first time in 15 years,” he said. “I see them refreshed and renewed just by being in that environment.”