Outdoor Leadership as Mission | Where Outdoor Ministry is Going Today?


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.


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.

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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.


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).

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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!


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

9 thoughts on “Outdoor Leadership as Mission | Where Outdoor Ministry is Going Today?

  1. I live near the Twin Cities in the upper Midwest. I am a former (and I guess returning) Outward Bound instructor. I have been brought up through the OB and WEA educational models. I have been “nudged” by God for the last several years to recommit my life to reaching young men for Christ through the outdoors. I attend a very large church…a wonderful church (Eaglebrook), that I believe would be the ultimate launching pad for an outdoor ministry for kids/teens/and adults of the growing church body. I want to present something to the leadership team, but I am not sure where to start.

    • Hey Tony, thanks so much for your comments. I am stoked to hear about your vision, and if you ever want to talk more please let me know how I can help you. Sometimes I spend time with church leadership teams about how they could start an outdoor ministry, etc. There are a couple resources I think might also help you as you put together a proposal for your outdoor ministry:

      1. Outdoor Ministry Start Up Kit | Outdoor Ministry Curriculum http://ashleydenton.com/fsAGkd

      2. If you haven’t had a chance to read my book yet, that may also be a good resource. It presents a biblical rationale for why Jesus used the outdoors in his discipleship strategy. Here is a link: http://ashleydenton.com/17TaUhh

      3. Churches with Wilderness Adventure Ministry Programs – Archive of blog posts on this topic: http://ashleydenton.com/1dWFUK5

      4. Ashley Denton’s Radio Interview with Family Life Radio on Christian Outdoor Leadership http://ashleydenton.com/gsEjys

      Feel free to give me a ring or email me if you need any more help.


  2. in this region of upstate ny,its more of a challenge to find people of an able age group even in the churches…:(

    • Hey Adam, what age group are you wanting to focus on in ministry? Are there any other folks in your area who share your vision?

  3. Ashley – I am halfway through your book – Christian Outdoor Leadership – and it is affirming so many things that God has done through the leaders and the men and young men that have experienced our adventure ministry called Peak Challenge. I am blessed by what He has done, but I wish I had your book back in 2011 when it came out! We have been going since 2006. We take a very missional approach to what we do on our adventure experiences in the Colorado Rockies each July – intentional that they step back into their communities and live to advance the Kingdom in the new “tribes” that form in their locale as a result of Peak Challenge. Thank you for your vision casting and tireless work over the years to build and now see the fruits of mentoring and discipleship spread and the DNA of outdoor ministry catch fire. As you note in your book, signal fires are going up all over the place to show the revival of “experiential, adventurous and relational evangelism” through outdoor ministry. I am a lawyer by trade, but my passion is to lead men and young men and to take them to the place I grew up in – the Colorado Rockies – to experience God in a unique way that resonates deep within their souls.

    Thad – go for it! Glad to see you stepping into this.

    • Thanks so much bro for your comments, I am so stoked that you are encouraged in your vision for outdoor ministry. It is really interesting that your background is Law. I was just interacting with some students today how wilderness experiences can help people understand the importance and value of good laws. For example how time out in God’s creation helps us understand Natural Law. And also how there are certain “rules” or strong suggestions that we give our groups in the wilderness to protect them… and there are very real and immediate consequences for breaking those rules… unlike in urban society, it is easy to bypass laws or rules and escape the consequences… the wilderness does not usually respect our indifference to the rules of wilderness travel.

  4. Thanks Thad for your thoughts and insights… yeah every weekend… sounds great… and wish it was reality for me too! I’m stoked you are working on starting a church-based outdoor ministry!

  5. There are so many lessons I’ve learned and situations encountered in wilderness activities over the years, and the setting played such a vital role in the lasting memory of those. I think one of the biggest obstacles right now is simply someone willing to lead such an experience. I’ve got a couple of groups already interested in trips this fall. I bet I could be gone almost every weekend leading groups, but my wife wouldn’t be very happy 🙂 . Looking forward to getting this started though at my church. As always, thanks for sharing!

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