A few weeks ago, I helped organize an Interfaith Worship Service (IWS) during our Council’s Winter Camp between Christmas and New Year. It was a five-day camp that crossed a weekend, so we delivered a 30-minute all-faiths service on Sunday morning, which included singing God Bless America, reinforcements of the 12 points of the Scout Law through multiple worldly passages, an opening prayer sang in Aramaic and a sermon from a Baptist pastor. Most folks seemed to appreciate it, including one Scouter who really enjoyed the “undiluted” presentation that included passages from multiple faiths. It was also attended by members of an all-Muslim troop and an all-Protestant troop. Interestingly, a few Muslim scouts came up afterwards and thanked me for their inclusion, while some of the Protestant Christians seemed upset over the mixing.
Later, I was asked:
“If the BSA advocates Interfaith worship … why do large scout camps like Philmont or Bartle provide separate facilities for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, etc. ?”
It’s a good question, and perhaps a teaching-moment with your Scouts:
Consider how we teach First Aid in Scouting
From the 2nd grade Wolf program, we teach very basic first aid. In Webelos, we teach the Readyman pin. And by Boy Scouts, every Scout learns basic First Aid through a required Merit Badge, along with additional training in Lifesaving. But all of those classes presume that you are the first responder to an incident and that while you are rendering aid, someone is calling 911. Your job is to provide immediate and short-term care until the professionals arrive.
Scouting also provides training in Wilderness First Aid, a much more advanced course that presumes that 911 is not a fast phone call away. The standards of care are somewhat different, because of the presumption is that your aid is all that will be available for a considerably longer time period (e.g. during a Philmont Trek in the back country).
Choosing a Religious Service Style and Venue(s)
When my Boy Scout troop did its 10-day summer camp at Bartle last year, the Sunday schedule was relaxed and provided a few hours where the troops could organize sending the boys to the chapels, temples and mosques that were most appropriate for their faiths. Each was staffed with clergy of that faith and the services were familiar and beneficial to all of those that attended. After that period, we all came back together to resume our Scout camp. If you have the staff and the downtime, then I am the first to agree that that is a better format to help each Scout worship and grow in the manner that they are most accustomed (which is what the Reverence mandates are about).
At the Winter Camp described at the beginning of this post, Sunday was the 3rd of 3 merit badge and activity days, prior to leaving on Monday. We didn’t have three hours to separate and then reconvene, nor did we have clergy on staff, nor separate facilities nearby. We did a single all-faiths service in thirty minutes, and then the boys headed off to classes.
So, in that way, you might think of Interfaith Worship similar to Wilderness First Aid. Is it ideal? No. Is it better than not providing any service at all? Yes.
You probably won’t like everything in an Interfaith Service
If you are devout in your faith, there will almost assuredly be things that happen in an IWS that you don’t care for. There are many passages of worldly wisdom that, if you didn’t know which religious text that they came from, would be perfectly acceptable as prose from the worship leader – giving praise to God, thanking the Creator, asking for blessings/wisdom/protection, etc. And if those are used in such a way as to help every Scout and Scouter connect with their understanding of God, that is ideal.
Every once in a while, a word or phrase will sneak in that you may not like – e.g. Allah, Jesus, etc. And it can cause you to be distracted from why you, as an individual worshiper, are there. Candidly, even within my home church that I attend when I am not camping, there are sometimes things that I don’t like – e.g. the tempo of the music, the screens were too slow/fast, the guest speaker talks too long, etc. When that happens, I have two choices:
- I can let myself be distracted by what I didn’t like – and not take the opportunity to commune with God
- Or, I can focus on the other elements of the service that I did like – and commune with God
Some Troops choose to deliver their Reverence programs with a single-faith basis, which is perfectly fine (and arguably more ideal) as long as they don’t restrict membership through it and show respect to others of differing faiths, per BSA guidelines. Even for them, it is occasionally beneficial to attend an IWS, if only to see what how other Scouts do it. But for most BSA units, my advice is to take advantage of separate religious services when your camp offers it, and do the best you can for inclusion when you can’t – like your monthly campouts.