Friday, July 21, 2017

Leadership Lesson Series: Yes, Say No

"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No.' Whatever is more than these is of the evil one." Matthew 5:37 WEB

“No.” It is one of the first words we learn as toddlers. Yet it becomes a word we have a hard time using, especially as leaders. As leaders it is our instinct to want to say yes. We desire to motivate and inspire people and we feel that saying no is contrary to that goal. Yet the truth is often other than what we instinctually feel.

A leader is by definition someone who guides or directs to a certain goal or direction. They are tasked with making one objective prominent above all others. By nature a leader says yes to one thing and no to all others. Yet all leaders, new and experienced, struggle with saying no at times. It is essential to know how to say no.

You may think it rude or unpleasant to say no. But often this response has the follower’s best interest at heart. The greatest leader in all of human history said no many times. The key that made Jesus so good is that he knew how to say no in a manner appropriate for the situation. It is what enabled him to accomplish the greatest objective any leader has ever faced, the salvation of an entire race!

A no response must be situationally fitting. The word no may not even be used. Learning to respond effectively takes experience. When it doubt, a great response is one that buys you more time to consider a yes or no answer such as, “let me think about it,” “that might work, I will get back to you,” “let’s explore that idea,” or simply, “maybe.” This gives you more opportunity to weigh the options and seek guidance if necessary. Sometimes, exploring the idea on the spot by discussing it with the group will show its merit or defects. This strategy may keep you from having to say no in front of the whole group because the error of the idea becomes self-evident. It may even prove to have more quality than you as the leader originally anticipated.

No, does not have to be the final answer. If you begin by saying no, then later realize the idea would be allowable, it is ok to change your mind. As leaders we feel an extra strong drive to appear consistent. This means we detest changing our minds or admitting error for fear of appearing inconsistent. But a great leader is one who can admit their error or change their mind when the situation truly warrants. Admitting an error will prove to your followers you are humble and not above reproach. It will earn their respect and make you a better leader. This lets them know your power hasn’t gone to your head. Changing your mind when you see all the facts more clearly has the same effect. This only becomes negative when it happens to frequently!

As stated above, no has numerous forms. Jesus said no in many different ways. Many examples involve setting boundaries. This is often the hardest type of no for new leaders. They desire to please everyone. Jesus set boundaries on work by taking needed personal time (Mark 1:35); he set boundaries on his commitments by acknowledging he could not be in two places at once (Mark 1:38); he prioritized pleasing God (John 5:44); he set boundaries on inappropriate behavior (Matthew 12:46-50, Matthew 16:23, Matthew 21:23-27, 22:15-22, Luke 23:8-9).

Most of the instances where Jesus says no are due to one fundamental reason, if he said yes, it would detract from his mission. He said no to Satan worship (Matt. 4:1-11); no to immediately destroying those that rejected him (Luke 9:54-56); no to becoming an earthly king (John 6:15). It is a leader’s most fundamental job to keep the group focused on the primary objective. That is the chief reason to have a leader and what made Jesus such a good one. Therefore, someone who is uncomfortable saying no at times should avoid leadership. It should also be pointed out that saying no to one thing, enables the leader and the group to say yes to another. Ultimately, saying no is about focusing, not about rejecting. Communicating focus rather than rejection requires skill. That is why there are so many ways to say no.

There are perhaps hundreds of ways at your disposal. To avoid causing a feeling of rejection, target your no answer at the idea rather than the person. “I appreciate your input, but that idea isn’t likely to work.” Admit the value of the idea but postpone it, “That is a great idea; maybe we could try that next time.” Provide a logical reason why it is not the best idea, “Your idea is good, but I/we believe this idea will work better due to the time constraints.” Reiterate the priority, “We are trying to accomplish ____ so let’s focus on that.”

Sometimes the word no may be just as problematic as the word yes. In a situation where yes is inappropriate and no will likely escalate the situation what should a leader do? One great option is to redirect. Rather than saying no to the desired idea, offer an alternative, preferably equally or more attractive than the first. This technique can be very effective with children. The trick is to refocus from the negative, you/we can’t to the positive, you/we can. You must be careful not to let this become a bribe though. Offering double of something later that can’t be had now is a bribe not redirection.

Redirection can be effective in situations with older groups too, especially when a suggestion is too extravagant. For example, when brainstorming a new fundraising idea, instead of squashing an unattainable proposal, suggest a similar but more modest one. Someone suggests, “Let’s have a raffle for a new car.” The leader says, “A raffle is a great idea, but not everyone needs a new car, lets raffle tickets to Disney World instead.”

It is especially important to say no when people are at risk of harm. In these situations, a simple no is best. For example, during an emergency time is of the essence. If a fire breaks out and someone says, “run for your life,” a leader would say, “No! Everyone walk calmly to the emergency exits. Leave everything else behind.” This keeps everyone from panicking and clogging the exits putting people in greater danger. Context is key in how you say no.

The biggest key to saying no is to do so with tact, whenever possible. A little respect goes a long way. Remember your manners and people will be much more accepting. Saying, “no thank you,” or “not this time,” reduces the chance that people will take it personally. A little kindness with your no goes a long way, you know?

Written by David F. Garner
Photo Credit  Bruno Gl├Ątsch via

Friday, July 14, 2017

Christian Outdoor Object Lesson 54: Injustice

Key Verse

"For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God." Romans 8:20-21 WEB


Nature is beautiful. Watch a sunset or go to the ocean. Look up at the stars on a clear night. Smell a colorful flower in spring. Listen to the bird’s chirp in the morning. Hold a baby animal. In all cultures in every age humans have marveled at the beauty of nature. But they have also seen its harshness.

Nature can be bleak and even downright cruel. A child does not have to live long before they experience the unkind parts of nature and life. The prick of a thorn when they pick up a flower, the bite of a bug that seemed harmless. Eventually we all encounter death. Perhaps you see a dead animal in the road. Or maybe a favorite pet fish or cat died. All the flowers you pick wither and turn brown.

The longer you live the more unpleasant things you will see in nature. Creatures eating other creatures and other things we don’t often talk about. What are we to make of the harshness we find in nature? You may have experienced a sense of disgust, or even anger at the harsh ways of nature. That is a natural feeling. Death and cruelty often awaken a sense of injustice in us. We realize that something is missing or has gone wrong.

If there is injustice in the world than there must be a level of justice by which we measure injustice. Humans intuitively know that justice must exist because they can recognize injustice. If there is a standard of justice, then there must be someone who set that standard long ago and placed it within the mind of each human being. When we encounter death and cruelty in life we instinctively know that it is not right, it cannot be the end.

Sadly, some grow callus to the death and cruelty in nature. Others begin to think that if it has been this way for so long than maybe it was never any other way. Many people give up hope that all the injustice in the world will be made right. That is understandable. Thankfully there is still hope. The Creator of the universe has stepped in to tell us that death is not the end of the story. He has told us the cause of death and injustice in this world and that it is not the end, there is hope. All the injustice will be made right! Jesus has conquered death! When we encounter cruelty and injustice in nature or anywhere in our lives, we can take hope that someday soon, the Creator will come to restore justice and life!


How do you feel when you see a dead flower or animal?

Is it OK for us to be sad or even angry when things die?

Why has God allowed injustice and death in the world?

What has God done about the death and injustice in the world?

Written by David F. Garner
Photo credit David F. Garner

Friday, July 7, 2017

Leadership Lessons: Electronics in Outdoor Ministry

There are increasingly more electronics for the outdoors coming to market. Are they necessary? This article will explore some of the common back-country electronics and their pros and cons. I believe some electronics in the great outdoors are useful, but you ultimately have to decide for yourself. So lets look at some of the details.

There are many types of electronic gadgets for outdoor exploration out there. Traditional back-country wisdom says that when you go into the great outdoors, you leave all electronics behind. Many outdoor ministry leaders probably grew up with this philosophy. I did. But it pays to reassess tradition from time to time so we don’t become pharisaical about it.

Outdoor gadgets range from sophisticated watches to phones, navigation aids, optics, and cameras. Some are sport specific such as avalanche beacons. We previously published an article about electronic back-country navigation tools and rescue beacons (see here). So in this article I would like to primarily focus on electronics for other purposes.

Let’s, begin with the big one, phones. Phones are by far the most common outdoor electronic gadget. Even if you know you will have no service they can do a lot, especially smartphones. Whether you take one depends on what you are doing. So, I will list some pros and cons for you to decide for yourself. Personally, I always take one especially when I am leading a trip for ministry purposes. When on my own or with a group of friends I would be less likely to take one.


Communication when in service (useful for communication with main office, other vehicle drivers or staff, and emergency personnel).

Quality camera

Free to cheap GPS apps and other nav. aids

Carries multiple ebooks, notes, bible translations, guidebooks, music

Alarm clock


Communication when in service (emails, and work or personal calls can be a distraction)

Short battery life


Heavy (but not too bad)

Cause feelings of stress

Next, I would like to discuss e-readers/tablets. These can have many of the functions of a smartphone. Some even can be connected to data over cell towers. To me tablets don’t make much sense in the back-country due to their bulk and short battery life. However, they may be beneficial for international trips. E-readers have some uses in the back-country especially for larger groups or long trips. They make the most sense for educational programs as they can contain a lot of information in a small package. They often have incredible battery life as well. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) did a pilot test and found them to greatly reduce overall group gear weight due to the replacing of several physical books and field guides. So e-readers such as the waterproof and dustproof Kobo might be most useful for an outdoor education trip or college outdoor semester.

Watches are key in backcountry travel and outdoor ministry for time keeping. Beyond this function most other bells and whistles are unnecessary. Digital or analog is a matter of preference, although analog can may work better at extremely cold temperatures. The key here is to have a watch that is decent quality and truly waterproof. Any name brand (i.e. Casio, Timex, etc.) over $30 will preform well. Go much cheaper and you’re risking its failure on the trail. Some watches are GPS enabled. Their most useful feature is probably altitude readout. This can help during navigation if you are trying to save your handheld GPS battery. Most smart watches have too poor a battery life to last long enough for outdoor trips. So leave them at home. Another note, my friend cracked his Apple Watch screen and then found out it cannot be replaced, you have to buy a whole new watch!

Electronic navigation (nav.) aids are pretty affordable these days. Many have multiple functions. Most of these dedicated GPS units are built ruggedly. These are discussed in detail in the previously mentioned article. So I will be brief here. I personally prefer a GPS app on my phone as it is one less thing to carry and much more cost effective. But if an organization or club is looking for an option than a dedicated GPS would be preferable so the nav. aid is not on one person’s phone. I prefer the Garmin InReach as it doubles as an emergency beacon. Any name brand handheld GPS will be good. Just remember this does not replace map and compass skills!

Lastly, optics and cameras come in many electronic options. These are only useful if you have the money and the desire to use them. Some digital binoculars on the market can take pictures. Unless you’re hunting or bird-watching these seem unnecessary. Digital cameras on the other hand do have a lot of positive aspects. They might be worth it if you don’t take your smartphone or your organization or club has a dedicated photographer. Its also important to consider if your willing to allow staff to take picture on their phones or not. Many A.C.A. accredited summer camps do not allow this to avoid inappropriate photos in cyberspace. This is a real concern especially for organizations working with minors. One lawsuit would be enough to kill most outdoor ministries. There are tough digital camera options out there worth considering as well as ones that take higher quality images than any smartphone. Assess your needs before spending a lot of money!

Aside from utilitarian purposes I am all for leaving electronics and even books at home or in your backpack, except from the Bible. When in nature, seek to enjoy it and learn from it as God intended. Wadsworth says it best:

The Tables Turned


Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you'll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain's head,

A freshening lustre mellow

Through all the long green fields has spread,

His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:

Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! on my life,

There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless—

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Christian Responce To Trump's Environmental Agenda

Bear's Ears National Monument

So, what is the big deal with Bear's Ears and the withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement? Our Commander and Chief seems to be focused on undoing actions of his immediate predecessor. Whatever his motivation, President Trump is certainly on a mission to reduce governmental influence on environmental conservation. Should Christians be concerned about these actions?

Bear's Ears National Monument was created under the authority of the Antiquities Act in the last weeks of Obama's term in office. The 1906 Antiquities Act gives a president power to designate areas of historical significance as protected sites without Congressional involvement. Trump is the first president in history to even suggest that some of these land designations should be reversed. This presidential privilege has been key in creating some of the most iconic outdoor sites in the United States including Devil's Tower National Monument, Grand Canyon National Park, and Teton National Park. In fact, several National Monuments have become National Parks.

These presidential designations have always been opposed to some degree. But the general public has always overwhelmingly been in support of the creation of National Monuments. Bear's Ears is especially divisive for a few reasons. First it was just created. Second it was created by Obama who Trump campaigned to replace. Third it includes a large tract of land totaling 1.35 million acres which is larger than most Monuments.

The Antiquities Act does not provide the President with power to reverse a Monuments designated as such. Thus, Trump has ordered a review to see if the creation of Bear's Ears was 100% in line with the law. His ordered review extends beyond Bear's Ears though and includes Monuments created as far back as 1996. It is ultimately up to Congress to reverse a Monument's status.

So, what is the big deal if Bear's Ears loses it designation? Well, particularly the motivation behind Trump's decision to reverse it. Taken with all his other statements and actions to date, Trump seems to have little concern for the environment and its preservation. This is concerning for Christians who have a Biblical obligation to be good stewards of God's creation (Gen. 1:28). It is also concerning because of why Bear's Ears received Monument status. It was not simply a random tract of land that Obama decided to protect. It was selected because of the efforts of five Native American tribes to have it protected. They campaigned for over six years to achieve the preservation of this beautiful land. It would be yet another line in the long list of ways Native Americans have been disregarded by the United States government over the past few centuries.

There is more at stake with Bear's Ears than simply a status designation. The preservation of our environment for future generations may be threatened if Trump succeeds in undoing all the environmental protections he appears to be after (see his comments on the EPA here). This is a social justice issue. It goes beyond how the government treats Native American’s. Pollution and environmental degradation hurt the poor most no matter their ethnic background. They have the least resources to deal with the fallout.

This is why Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord is also something you should be disappointed by. This will make the USA the only developed country to back out of the agreement. It is disappointing because it seems the motivation is based on money alone. Syria chose not to join the Accord in the first place because it said the measures were not aggressive enough. The pullout would stifle the growth of green energy solutions in the USA. Thankfully, conservation and green energy have taken hold of the general public to a degree that individuals and the Private Sector are taking the initiative to implement these on their own. Whether or not you believe global warming to be caused by humans, there is no doubt that things like smog, water pollution, and mass deforestation are human's doing. And these things along with others will hurt the poor most. (see here)

Trump's actions and their effect on the environment will continue to be debated for years. We should hope that his actions will not be as dire as they initially sound. The bureaucratic process will hopefully result in sound policies toward environmental conservation as well as economic stability. There are many Christian taking part in good stewardship of the environment. You can too. Get involved in a local green intuitive; reduce, reuse, and recycle; make your voice heard in matters of environmental conservation (click here to take action to preserve Bear's Ears). Follow and get involved with Christian environmental organizations like A Rocha; help your church or school to become better stewards of the environment (click here for tips). Most importantly, pray and work for Christ's soon return so that he can make all things new!

Written by David F. Garner

Friday, June 16, 2017

Christian Outdoor Object Lesson 53: Chameleon Like

Key Verse

“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more;”
‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭9:19‬ ‭NKJV‬‬


One of the most fascinating creatures in God's kingdom is the chameleon. It's eyes can move independently of one another and focus on two different objects at the same time. It's tail is prehensile so it can grip things. It's feet look like hands. It has a tongue like a frog which can hit bugs with a force of up to 41 g's. And of course, it can change the color of its skin.

God gave chameleons an amazing form of camouflage. They can change the color of their skin to match that of their surroundings. The most amazing part is that their skin can be multiple colors at the same time to match the pattern of the plants and scenery around them. Special color pigment cells under the skin called chromatophores allow them to do this creating combined patterns of pink, blue, red, orange, green, black, brown, yellow, and even purple.

Chameleons typically live in warm tropical places where there are plants with many varied and bright colors. That's is why they use odd colors like yellow and purple. But hiding is not the only reason chameleons change colors. Some show darker colors when angry, or when trying to look impressive. Males show light multi-colored patterns when enticing female attention. Desert varieties change to black when its cooler to absorb heat, then light grey to reflect heat.1

No matter how well the chameleons camouflage works, no matter how alike they appear to the plants and ground around them, they are still fundamentally different. Chameleons are animals, not plants. They can walk, think, and see. The chameleon make look like a plant or tree bark at first glance, but as you look more closely you can see it is fundamentally different.

As Christians we are called to serve people that we might win them to Christ. To do this we often appear similar to worldly people. We dress similarly, talk similarly, act in many of the same ways, we may even listen to some of the same music. But we must remember that we are fundamentally different, we are not of this world. We are free from the pressure of living up to the expectations of others and only have to please God. We act and think according to God's standards not man's! When we do choose to appear similar to the world we must remember it is not for our own gain, but to share the hope we have. Like the chameleon we blend in, but we are different.


What example did Jesus leave us about how to live in the world without being of it?

What types of things are ok for Christians to do without endangering their salvation?

The Pharisees had long checklists of do's and don'ts. How can we avoid becoming like that?

Written by David F. Garner
Photograph by Marcel Langthim via

1. Rene Smith, Fun Chameleon Facts for Kids (July 8, 2016),, Accessed 6/16/2017

Friday, June 2, 2017

Outdoor Ministry And Its Future

Outdoor Ministry History (Pt 2: The Future)

The next chapter in outdoor ministry history has yet to be written. (For part 1 of outdoor ministry history see this article). Where is this form of Gospel ministry headed in the future? What trends will dictate its direction and effectiveness? Should outreach leaders pay more attention to this form of ministry? Historically, outdoor ministry has proven to be a viable form of in-reach, outreach, and training for future generations of Christians. Today it is more vibrant than ever. So where is it headed?

Many summer camps and outdoor ministries are tied directly to specific churches or denominations. With so many people leaving churches, especially young generations according to recent research, these camps and ministries are loosing much of their clientele. Many were designed to primarily cater to existing members of their parent church or denomination. Many of these ministries have not historically focused on outreach so much as in-reach. In-reach is vital. With the large and ever-growing interest in outdoor recreation in Western culture and around the world, a fantastic outreach opportunity exists for all outdoor ministries! Shrinking churches may force many outdoor ministries to refocus their target audience and mission. This is an opportunity, not of a crisis! Outdoor ministries may be a future hub of outreach evangelism!3

A recent survey by Pew Research suggests that Millennial's are more interested in continuing the work of the Gospel than previously thought. While many Millennial's may be leaving churches this does not necessarily mean they are completely forsaking their faith in Christ. This 2015 survey suggests that many Millennial’s are still very serious about maintaining their faith and in sharing it-- albeit in less traditional ways. Finding new ways to share the Gospel with new generations can be a good thing. The ways of the past may become less effective. The survey also indicated that there are a core segment of Millennial’s who are committed to picking up the leadership torch in traditional ways too.5 Church and ministry leaders can be confident that there will be Millennial’s who, “will hold themselves to the standards of behavior and motivation described in Scripture, and will live identifiable as disciples of Jesus Christ.”2 The future of Gospel ministry may look different or employ new methods but will be carried forward.

Current trends in American summer camps include a rapid rise in programs involving adventure camps/programs, family camps/programs, and nature/environmental education programs according to the American Camps Association.4 This trend creates fantastic evangelism opportunities for Christian outdoor ministry. First of all, adventure and camping programs provide a platform for experiential education and character building. The wilderness experience as modeled throughout the Bible is a primary means God uses to train and prepare His followers and to build and test their character. Adventure programs offer a great medium through which to use wilderness experience training. The effects are more potent and long-lasting when these experiences are shared with family or friends. The lessons learned and struggles overcome are reinforced long after the program has ended and participants are back at home when shared with people from home. Family focused programs have this advantage and should be emphasized more in outdoor ministry along with programs that emphasize friend involvement.

One proven framework of outdoor ministry that emphasizes friend and family involvement is the club-based model. A new Christian scouting movement in America has arisen and is growing rapidly. It is called Trail Life USA. It is an outdoor focused charter organization similar to Boy Scouts of America but is expressly Christian. After its first full year of operation, TLUSA had over 500 troops in 48 states and more than 20,000 members. It is experiencing explosive growth. Their focus is on outdoor adventure, character, and leadership development through a biblical worldview.1 It represents a current growing trend in evangelism.

The internet and social media are playing an increasingly important role in outdoor ministry also. The internet has enabled the Gospel message to spread more rapidly on all fronts. It has also boosted the effectiveness of outdoor ministry in two key ways. First, it has increased the exposure of outdoor ministries to the general public enabling them to reach and serve more people. Secondly, social media in particular enables these ministries to stay in contact with previous participants and continue discipleship or encourage participation in the future.1

Outdoor ministry has a bright future. It is growing and adapting. It is gaining a more important role in outreach evangelism. It is more important than ever for in-reach and maintaining the fold of God’s people. Christians must encourage its growth at the local as well as at the organizational levels. It will require volunteers, laity, and professionals to grow and succeed. Outdoor ministry has many forms which are all effective and vital. Experiential education will predominate its future just as it has in the past. It offers many benefits such as small groups and is a primary method Jesus used.6 These are all reasons why outreach and in-reach leaders should take notice of and promote this form of ministry. What better discipleship method is there than learning about the Creator in his creation!

Written By David F. Garner


1. Stemberger, John, “10 Positive Trends Christians Should Thank God For,” Charisma News, (1 Jul, 2015), Accessed June, 5 2017, god-for.

2. Cruickshank, Jessie, "Some Perspective on Millennials Serving in Ministry," Christianity Today, (5 Nov, 2015), Accessed June, 5 2017 millennials-serving-in-ministry.html.

3. Sorenson, Jake, "Outdoor Ministries: Present Challenges and Future Outlook," The Blessed Wilderness, (20 Dec, 2013), Accessed June 5, 2017 challenges.html?m=1.

4. American Camps Association, “ACA Facts and Trends,” American Camps Association, (2017), Accessed June 5, 2017

5. Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, (12 May, 2015), Accessed June 5, 2017

6. Denton, Ashley, "Why Is Church Outdoor Ministry Relevant Today,", (n.d.), Accessed May 5, 2016

Friday, May 19, 2017

The (nearly) Unabridged History of Outdoor Ministry

Outdoor Ministry History (Part 1)

The outdoors and especially the wilderness have always played a key part in God's work of human restoration. God himself often uses places of wilderness to train his followers.1 God's leaders have ascertained this and used the outdoors to disciple others throughout history. The first record we have of the use of the outdoors in organized ministry is the School of the Prophets begun by the Prophet Samuel in ancient Israel (2 Ki. 6). These schools were likely set in rural locations and on the outskirts of town. Outdoor work and leisure were a part of their routine.1a,2

Other Biblical examples of spiritual training in the outdoors include John the Baptist, an Essene educated in a remote wilderness (Lk. 1:80); John’s disciples trained by him in the desert wilderness (Mt. 3:1-17); Jesus who was put through the wilderness school by the Holy Spirit (Lk. 4:1-13). Also, whenever we get a peek at Jesus' instruction to his disciples, it is almost always in remote, outdoor places where they were undistracted. Jesus spent much time in remote, natural areas to rejuvenate his spirit.

The benefits of the outdoors were not lost on the Medieval monks. They also had a close relationship with the land and the outdoors as well. This was considered an essential part of spiritual development and maintaining purity of mind. Their monasteries were often self-sufficient requiring the monks to grow all their own food.4,5,6

Modern outdoor ministry as it is known today really began in the 19th century. Its history can be categorized into three pivotal eras. The youth ministry era, the reconnection era, and the experiential era. The outdoor ministry movement of the 19th century was defined by youth ministry leaders attempting to reconnect urban youth with nature. It is tied closely with the youth ministry movement. For many decades, they were one-and-the-same.

The Youth Ministry Era: 1785 - 1861

The Industrial Age in Europe and America caused many people to cram into tight cities where little trees or grass existed. Philanthropists noted concern for the youth who were often involved in criminal activity. Statistics show a drastic increase in juvenile crime from 1800 - 1850 justifying their concerns. As drastic shifts in populations from rural to city settings took place social structures were upset and left many families in poverty. Poverty hurt the youth most. It was concern for these youth, for the future generations, that drove individuals and churches to take revolutionary action to confront these issues.7,8

The youth ministry movement has its roots in the formation of Sunday School. A major figure in the Sunday School tradition was William Fox who founded the Sunday School Society in London in 1785. Originally, Sunday School was an all-day school program for poor working youth who had no other opportunity for education. Teachers taught reading and writing with the Bible as the main textbook.9

During this era, the idea of healing and rejuvenation in nature in the modern sense began to find widespread support. It can be traced back to educator, physician, founding father, and dedicated Christian, Benjamin Rush. He observed in 1812, "It has been remarked, that [those]...who assist in cutting wood, making fires, and digging in a garden...often recover, while persons, whose rank exempts them from performing such services, languish away their lives within the walls of the hospital."10

Shortly after the California Gold Rush began, Settlers discovered Yosemite Valley and all its beauty in 1851. The writings of James Hutchings and later John Muir and others added to a growing sentiment in the U.S. that places of natural beauty needed to be preserved from the industrial revolution and westward expansion. Congress began preserving sites of special beauty and later established the National Parks Service. During the latter half of the 19th century, American and British working classes discovered outdoor recreation as a means of leisure and rejuvenation. It really gained popularity by the 1880's.11 Many anthropologists saw modern man in the industrial cities as cut off from nature.12

The conservation movement began to form around the same time. Among the early proponents of nature conservation and enjoyment were many influential names who held a belief in the benefit of the Bible and its Creator God. Some kept their beliefs to themselves while others were vocal. All contributed in momentous ways, eloquently spreading ideas of the importance of nature. These early names include George Perkins Marsh author of Man and Nature which in 1864 helped launch the modern conservation movement;12a Frederick Billings who, inspired by Marsh, advocated for early national parks and helped set standards for sustainable forestry and agriculture;13 Sir Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill who both helped establish the Commons Preservation Society of England in 1865, one of the first organizations to promote conservation;14 preacher and author Charles H. Spurgen who advocated for the benefits and preservation of Creation throughout his ministry from 1854-1892; George Washington Sears author of the 1884 classic Woodcraft which was perhaps the first guide to camping and so influential it has never gone out of print! These and others laid the foundation of nature enthusiasm in the public mind that paved the way for outdoor ministry.

These two ideas of conservation and reconnection to nature grew and flourished throughout the latter half of 19th century. During this same period, the youth ministry movement had become a staple part of Christian ministry. It was only natural that youth workers would try to reconnect the youth with nature and use it to point young minds to its Creator. Many individuals did so. But only a few had the vision to form a ministry where the outdoors was key.

The Reconnection Era: 1861 - 1930

Following the Biblical model, these few began to use nature as the classroom for spiritual instruction. First to do so was Fredrick William Gunn, the “father of recreational camping”15 in the United States. Gunn was an educator who believed that nature was an inherently wonderful teacher and that learning how to manage oneself outdoors was necessary. Gunn was a deeply religious man and outspoken about his abolitionist beliefs. In 1861 Gunn led a group of his own students on a camping trip on the coast of New York City for two weeks of "sleeping in tents, boating, sailing, fishing, marching, and tramping."15 This became known as Camp Gunnery, the first official summer camp.15

In 1876, the Episcopalian Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock opened the North Mountain School of Physical Culture for the express purpose of bring together boys not already living in one place. It was more akin to a modern summer camp than that of Mr. Gunn. The program offered activities such as swimming, walking in the woods, and instruction in natural history, weather, drawing, and others.15

The first church-sponsored camp was started by Rev. George W. Hinkley in 1880. His Rhode Island camp resembled a modern summer camp with a daily schedule including religious services, recreations periods, swimming, and evening campfires.15 But, unlike most modern summer camps, it had no grounds of its own. A year later in 1881 Earnest Balch founded a Christian camp on a New Hampshire island he named Chocorua. It had a similar structure to Hinkley’s camp and emphasized building life skills and Christian character. Camp Chocorua lasted only nine years, but inspired others to start similar camps sparking the summer camp movement.15

In this pivotal time, more youth ministry organizations arose. The Christian Endeavor Society was formed in 1881 in Portland, Maine, under the direction of Rev. Francis E. Clark as the first national church youth organization. The forward-thinking Clark established it as non-denominational enabling the organization to grow rapidly. Clark's organization set the precedent for the future of organized youth and outdoor ministry. It still operates today in multiple countries over 130 years later.16

Among the growing interest to rescue the youth and save nature appeared the YMCA or Young Men's Christian Association and its sister organization YWCA for women. The YMCA was first established in London in 1844 and later arrived in the USA where it grew. Camping became a cornerstone of YMCA programming in 1885 when the YMCA started Camp Dudley, at Orange Lake, New York which is the longest continually operating camp.17

In the last two decades of the 19th century, outdoor ministry began to shift into a subcategory of youth ministry. Summer camps, outdoor-based school programs, and the rise of outdoor recreation changed the way people interacted with and viewed nature. The reconnection era represents the true beginning of modern outdoor ministry as a separate type.

After the turn of the 20th century, nature became more accessible. Enabled by the automobile, American and British citizens flocked to the great outdoors by the thousands. Clubs begin to arise to meet the demand for skills and knowledge. Perhaps the best example of the transition from general youth ministry to outdoor ministry is the Royal Ambassadors. It's traces its heritage back as far as 1883 to youth clubs organized for the express purpose of training youth as missionary ambassadors for Christ. It was officially organized as a national organization in 1908 and by the 1930's regularly included camping and outdoor activities. It went on to establish clubs and camps all over the world now present in at least 14 countries.18,19

Probably the most influential organization to the development of modern outdoor ministry is the Boy Scouts of America. It was founded in 1910 by William D. Boyce and modeled on the earlier British Boy Scouts Association. It was started to teach boys camping and nature craft as well as positive character traits. Duty to God is a fundamental principle of Scouting. The religious emblem programs make every effort to strengthen Scouts in their religious obligations. Clubs are often based in churches however the organization is not affiliated with any specific religious organization or creed.20

Another influential club based organization is the Pathfinders. 1928 was the year in which the first Pathfinder Club was formed. It was modeled after the Boy Scouts but was overtly Christian. Pathfinders from the beginning was designed to use nature as a medium for teaching Biblical truths. It is probably the first club based organization founded on this model. Today Pathfinders is a global organization in over 160 counties with more than 2 million members.21

The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, have been at the head of every major social justice movement over the past 200 years. During the reconnection era many were at the forefront of helping people get back to nature and enjoy the spiritual benefits it brings. Some members significantly influenced the rise of outdoor recreation and outdoor ministry. These included several notable mountaineers such as Corder Catchpool and Eric Shipton.

Another, Thomas Arthur Leonard spent his life promoting outdoor activity among British citizens. He began by leading church groups on "holidays". In 1893 he founded the Co-operative Holiday Association (CHA) which operated into the current century. In 1913 Leonard founded the Holiday Fellowship as a more rustic, youth-focused, hostel-type organization. Both the CHA and HF strove to connect their clientele with nature and God in meaningful ways much like modern Christian resorts and conference centers. Leonard also helped establish the Youth Hostels Association and the Ramblers Association both of which still exist. These organizations greatly promoted the spread of outdoor recreation in Britain in the early 20th century.21a

Other influential names in the 20th century who believed in God and the importance of nature include: President Theodore Roosevelt who established many National Parks and the U.S. Forest Service; Horace Kephart nicknamed 'John Muir of the East' and author of Our Southern Highlanders;22 David P. Bushnell who worked with youth and who's company Bushnell Inc. put binoculars in reach of the middle class spurring nature enthusiasm; videographer, philosopher, and author Sam Campbell who's mid-century Living Forest series has continued to entertain and inspire young nature enthusiast; Emma Gatewood, the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail helped to save it and create new national interest in hiking. She also hiked it two more times, all after the age of 67;23 conservationist William O. Douglas who used his time as the longest serving U.S. Supreme Court Justice to promote the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and to preserve many locations throughout the U.S.;24 Howard Zahniser, environmentalist and primary author of the 1964 Wilderness Act;24a Jim Rayburn who helped start Young Life, incorporated camping from the beginning in 1944. It now runs youth camps all over the world;25 Tim Hansel, who in 1973 began Summit Adventures, one of the first wilderness-based outdoor ministries in the world.26

The Experiential Era 1930 - Today

The philosophy of experiential learning characterizes the next era. Many philosophers have promoted experience as the best teacher including Plato, John Lock, and John Muir. Outdoor education in our modern sense began with Kurt Hahn founder of Outward Bound. It is not clear if Hahn was a devoted Christian. What is clear is that he shared many Christian principles and these helped form the basis of outdoor education. The Biblical story of the Good Samaritan greatly influenced Hahn. Concerned with moral decline, Hahn set out to build an educational model that not only transferred knowledge, but helped develop a student’s character and convey a sense of right and wrong. In 1941, Hahn created Outward Bound in Britain to train seamen how to cope with the rigors of sailing on the high seas. His approach focused on leadership and character development along with fostering a sense of service and intellectual training. He believed these goals were best achieved through experience in a natural, outdoor setting using group activities and outdoor pursuits such as hiking, camping, rock climbing, and others.27, 28

Hahn's work helped lead to the most recent trend in outdoor ministry which emphasizes journey-based wilderness experience.29 Outdoor education philosophy and the classic spiritual wilderness experience as seen in the Bible share many similarities. The experiential era represents a shift in outdoor ministry from one of traditional spiritual training happen near or in nature to a utilization of nature as a medium for spiritual training. It also sees a shift from fractured, independent outdoor ministries to a more unified movement characterized by professionalism. This era has seen explosive growth of programs and organizations that now help maintain and support the outdoor ministry movement at large. The incorporation of Christian Camping International in 1963 marked a significant transition toward centralization and professionalism in the movement. The U.S.A. established the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) which lead to the development of outdoor spaces through laws such as the Wilderness Act of 1964. ORRRC’s work literally paved the way for park development across the country giving the general population in the U.S.A. access to wilderness places which had been nearly inaccessible to those without proper gear, training, or experience. New roads, trails, and facilities were built and maintained to provide better access. This encouraged State and local park development as well as internationally. Easier access helped to popularize outdoor activities as a recreation on a mass scale in the U.S. and around the world.30

The experiential era has seen the rise of many faith based outdoor programs that emphasize journey-based experiential ministry. The era has seen outdoor ministry mature into a stand-alone type marked by professionalism. People like author Lloyd D. Mattson and educator Dr. Brady Daniel helped to develop guidelines and standardize practices. Mattson wrote extensively from the 1960's through the early 2000's. His numerous books provided much needed practical advice and pro tips for summer camp staff, churches, clubs, and families on camping and outdoor ministry. Dr. Daniel helped to start one of the first degree programs for Christian outdoor professionals at Montreat College in 1986.31 Other similar collegiate programs ranging from the bachelor to doctoral level have subsequently arisen. Outdoor ministry has become a type of ministry in its own right. It has produced a new generation of influential leaders such as Dr. Ashley Denton whose pioneering book Christian Outdoor Leadership has strengthened and grown the experiential philosophy and outdoor ministry at large.

Arguably the biggest contributor to the professional development of outdoor ministry has come not from a person but an organization. Beginning in 1950 several Christian camping and conference groups saw the benefit of joining resources. Over the next few years their efforts led to the Christian Camping International (CCI) association incorporated in 1963 with Graham Tinning named the first Executive Director. Over the following decades, it grew to include affiliates on 6 continents. Today the U.S.A. chapter is known as the Christian Camps and Conference Association (CCCA).32

Before the experiential era, youth groups may have taken an occasional jaunt into the outdoors for a day hike or weekend camping trip. Summer camps offered youth closeness with nature but often did not emphasize spiritual training directly from it. Summer camp leaders were often trained the same as other youth workers. Indeed, youth pastors have historically been the main source of leadership in outdoor based ministry. Outdoor skills were usually optional. Pursuit of expertise in natural knowledge, recreational skills, and the use of these in effective ministry was mostly voluntary and certainly secondary to theological knowledge.

The experiential era could be seen as reaching back to the roots of outdoor wilderness based ministry as set forth in the Bible. Its philosophy focuses on providing a challenging experience and then assisting participants in understanding how this experience contributes to their spiritual growth. An increased focus on professionalism in outdoor ministry has raised the standards for outdoor ministry leaders. Increasingly outdoor ministry leaders are required to have knowledge and skill in the outdoors in addition to theological. These skills are moving from an optional position to a mandatory one. This has opened new frontiers in outdoor ministry. Classic summer camp ministry caters to children and adolescents. But new models of outdoor ministry that have arisen sense the '70's and '80's offer spiritual wilderness experience for adults also. Some also cater to both ages in the form of family focused ministry.

The philosophy of the experiential era has helped outdoor ministry rediscover its roots. It has led to a strong and thriving ministry model that has seen explosive growth and success. Organizations such as Christian Camps International, the Wilderness Ministry Institute, and the Christian Adventure Association help to drive outdoor ministry toward professionalism and results oriented practices. The experiential philosophy has added positive aspects to the classic summer camp model of ministry which in turn helps breed and foster future generations of outdoor ministry leaders. Outdoor ministry is vital to God's work of restoration. Understanding its history helps to understand its future and the impact it can have for God's kingdom!

See Part 2 on the future of outdoor ministry.

Written by David F. Garner
Photograph by Leland J Parter

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