After guiding at Young Life’s Wilderness Ranch from 1991-92, my wife Becky and I came away with a vision to use wilderness camps to share the Gospel with urban and suburban kids in the Denver area. We took out a few trips from one of the local churches, and within just a couple of years we saw amazing transformation in the lives of those kids, to the point where it really affected the ethos of the whole church.
Soon after that, we saw a need to start a backcountry ministry to serve even more kids in Colorado, and that vision quickly came to life serving over 300 kids each summer and involving 24 trained guides each year. That ministry became known as Young Life’s Rocky Mountain Region Backcountry (a.k.a. “RMR”) and continues on today. In 2000 I was invited to experiment with cross cultural wilderness ministry in, the Philippines and Japan, and after seeing significant fruit we decided to move to New Zealand to as the national director of Young Life New Zealand Trust to expand youth ministry and help start an outdoor ministry as well.
OUTDOOR LEADERSHIP AS MISSION
In 2005 some light bulbs came on for us. We looked back over the previous ten years and noticed that many of the kids and volunteer leaders who had gone out with us on wilderness trips from 1995-2005 were becoming catalytic leaders with a serious commitment to relational evangelism and missions. My wife and I continued to be fueled by a desire to see every kid have an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ and grow in a relationship with Him, so we began to look harder at what it would take to expand youth work and wilderness ministry to young people all over the world.
MISSIONS IS ABOUT CREATING LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS FOR THE GOSPEL
Outdoor leadership and adventure camping are becoming more common tools for ministries in a wide representation of countries. My blog continues to look at some of the rationale behind why I believe outdoor leadership is a vital tool for missions in the years to come. At its core, a missionary’s role is to create learning environments for people to grow in their loyalty to Christ. And clearly Jesus used outdoor adventure methods to create these types learning environments to communicate the Gospel.
AN ANCIENT IDEA IS BEING REDISCOVERED AND SPREADING LIKE A GOSPEL VIRUS
The wilderness is a unique setting where God commissioned key leaders to engage in missions. When Elijah met God in the cave after the Mount Carmel miracle, God blessed him for the purpose of being sent out on a mission to preach a message of repentance to the lost (1 Kings 19:1-21). We also see again in Matthew 28:16-20, from atop a mountain outside of Jerusalem the disciples were commissioned to engage the people in the cities and villages with the assurance of Jesus’ companionship to the very ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20).
LOOK AT THE BIBLICAL COMMISSIONING ACCOUNTS AND THEY POINT TO EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING IN THE WILDERNESS…
The main commissioning accounts in the Bible include: Moses at the burning bush, the original call and commissioning of the Twelve (Mark 3:13-19a;7-13), the sending of the Seventy Two (Luke 10:1-12), the general instruction to the disciples (Luke 12:1-12), and Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:9-13). Each of these commissioning accounts involves some element of sending out people into God’s mission field to seek and save the lost. Amazingly, the setting of four of those six commissioning accounts was outdoors.
My dissertation, entitled Wilderness and Missions: A Theology for Developing and Sustaining Young Leaders in Missions, argues that both in Old and New Testament times God used the wilderness to forge the faith of young leaders so that He could send them off into mission with the character skill to sustain their call. The wilderness was a school for casting vision and equipping leaders for the challenges of the mission field.
- What experiences have you had in the wilderness that remind you of the encounters other people of the Bible had with God (like Moses, Elijah, the Twelve Disciples…). Share your story in the comments below!
- How are you seeing people around you displaying a hunger for experiential learning?
- What is one simple action step you can take as a leader this year to infuse your student ministry program or other ministries in your church with a vision for outdoor ministry?
- What do you think are the main obstacles to getting more people in your church or community to experience the benefits of spending time with Jesus in the outdoors? Please comment below!