Monday, August 28, 2023

The (nearly) Unabridged History of Outdoor Ministry

Outdoor Ministry History (Part 1)

The wilderness experience is a central idea to the Christian understanding of God and how he interacts with humans. It is a period of emotional, spiritual and often phyiscal trial that God allows to afflict those whom he is trying to instruct. It is a tool he often uses with his followers to remind them of their limited control over their own circumstances, and more importantly, of their reliance on him.  The wilderness experience does not always entail physical trial or discomfort. But in the biblical narrative it is often a trail that takes place in a physical wilderness environment. The biblical definition of a wilderness refers to uncultivated regions, dry or desolate, with little human influence. In such cases this is a total body experience in which the person must trust God for both emotional courage and strength as well as physical sustenance.

The wilderness experience that takes place in remote, desolate places provides an opportunity for God’s people to harken back to the Edenic design of undistracted communion with him in nature. The outdoors and especially the wilderness have always played a key part in God's work of human restoration. It has a prominent role throughout the biblical narrative. God 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. One author describes wilderness as, “one of the most basic in biblical tradition, and it is to be expected that it should appear again and again as the Lord’s plan of salvation unfolded.”2 The wilderness experience lies at the foundation of all outdoor ministry.

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.3,4 Other Biblical examples of spiritual training in the outdoors include John the Baptist, an Essene educated in a remote wilderness (Lk. 1:80)5; 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). Whenever we get a peek at Jesus' instruction to his disciples, it is almost always in rural, outdoor places where they were undistracted. Jesus spent much time in remote, natural areas to rejuvenate his spirit and to teach. [For further study on wilderness themes in the Bible see Wilderness in the Bible: Toward a Theology of Wilderness by Robert Barry Leal published by Peter Lang Publishing Group]

The benefits of the outdoors were not lost on the Medieval monks. From as early as the fourth century they left the cities and sought the secluded wild to connect with God. They had a close relationship with the land and the outdoors. This closeness 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.6,7,8

The modern concept of the outdoors in the developed world could be defined as-- a world away from human habitation that offers adventure and a chance to gain philosophical insight. This view is not universal and is decidedly contemporary. It is largely the result of centuries of interaction with nature by believers who sought to understand the Creator through the role of wilderness in human salvation. It was a significant concept for the Puritans when they first arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1600’s. They saw themselves as chosen by God to bring the Gospel to the New World, but first they must be put through the wilderness experience like the Israelites in Exodus. A dichotomic view of the wilderness developed through their experience with the harsh realities of an untamed land. It was a place of “spiritual corruption” where they were to build a garden haven. It was simultaneously seen as a place for religious refinement where they, “had familiar and full converse with [God]” with no distractions.9 They did not seek to destroy the wilderness for cities or material gain. They sought to cultivate the wild land into a garden both physically and spiritually. Their primary goal as they came to understand it was to go, “into this wilderness to see…more of Jesus Christ.”9 Their interpretations greatly influenced the development of the modern view of wilderness.

The camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening in the U.S.A. significantly shaped the concept of how the outdoors could function in the Gospel work. Camp meetings demonstrated to evangelists that meeting in a primitive setting provided a ready climate for revival. Attendants felt closer to their Creator and less constrained by societal expectations in these remote spaces.10 One camp meeting leader observed, “Christians enjoy those meetings most which cost them the greatest sacrifice.” A fifty-mile journey was “a pretty sure pledge of a profitable meeting.”11 Another expressed similarly strong feelings. "The camp meeting is one of the most important agencies in our work. It is one of the most effective methods of arresting the attention of the people and reaching all classes with the gospel invitation."11a Many of the camp meeting locations became well established sites used year after year with primitive facilities and foreshadowed the modern summer camp.10

Modern outdoor ministry as it is known today really began in the latter half of the 19th century. It has built on the ideas of the role of wilderness in the Christian experience that came before it and is at once a culmination of those ideas. Its development 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 a direct outgrowth of 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 extreme 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.12,13

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.14

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."15a

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. The U.S. 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 travel and outdoor recreation as a means of leisure and rejuvenation. Travel to foreign and exotic places was on the rise in this era thanks to new transportation technology.

Thomas Cook, the father of modern tourism, who started organizing trips in 1841 to help spread the message of temperance against alcohol, eventually started the modern tourist industry. Cook believed travel and tourism provided a means to keep people from drinking in the first place and provided other benefits for society.15b A growing interest in travel and leisure in the mid-1800’s laid a foundation for interest in outdoor recreation later in the century. The spread of outdoor recreation such as camping was in large part due to Pastor William H. H. Murray who published perhaps the first self-help camping guidebook in 1869 titled Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks. Its poetic descriptions of nature drew many city dwellers towards the wilderness.15c Camping and other outdoor recreation activities grew rapidly and gained prodigious popularity by the 1880's.16 Many philanthropists saw modern humanity in the industrial cities as cut off from nature.17 The camping movement helped to change that.

The conservation movement began to form alongside the growth of outdoor recreation. 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;18 Frederick Billings who, inspired by Marsh, advocated for early national parks and helped set standards for sustainable forestry and agriculture;19 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;20 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 an early 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”21 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."21 This yearly event became known as Camp Gunnery, the first official summer camp.21

In 1876, the Episcopalian Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock opened the North Mountain School of Physical Culture for the express purpose of bringing 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.21

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. 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.21

In this pivotal time, many youth ministry organizations arose. Mark H. Senter suggests in his book When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry In America, that this period of youth work was defined by the rise of youth societies. 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.22

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 U.S.A. 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.23

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 distinct type of Gospel ministry.

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.24,25

Probably the most influential organization to the development of modern outdoor ministry is the Boy Scouts of America (now Scouts BSA). 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.26 Although not overtly religious, the Boy Scouts of America and also the Girl Scouts of America created a passion for camping in generations of young kids that lasted throughout adult life. They helped to make camping not only common but a cultural a rite of passage.

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 run by the Seventh-day Adventist Chirch in over 160 counties with more than 2 million members.27

The Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, have been at the head of nearly 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.28

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.28

Other influential names in the 20th century who believed in God and the importance of nature include: William C. Coleman who founded the Coleman Lantern company which produced sturdy and reliable lanterns, stoves and other equipment that became mainstays of camping;28a 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;29 David P. Bushnell who worked with youth and who's company Bushnell Inc. put binoculars in reach of the lower classes 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 (Grandma) Gatewood, the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail helped to save it and create renewed national interest in hiking all after the age of 67;30 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.;31 Howard Zahniser, environmentalist and primary author of the 1964 Wilderness Act;32 Jim Rayburn who helped start Young Life, incorporated camp ministry early on in 1946. Young Life now runs youth camps all over the world;33 Tim Hansel, who in 1973, began Summit Adventures, one of the first journey-based outdoor ministries in the world.34

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. Hahn prized many Christian principles which he incorporated 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 England 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.35, 36

Hahn's work helped lead to the most recent trend in outdoor ministry which emphasizes journey-based wilderness experience.37 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 help maintain and support the outdoor ministry movement at large.

In the mid-20th century, the U.S. Congress 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 specialized gear, training, or experience. New roads, trails, and facilities were built and maintained to provide better access. This encouraged park development at the State and local level around the country as well as internationally. Easier access helped to popularize outdoor activities as a form of recreation on a mass scale in the U.S.A. and around the world.38 This enabled the growth of more outdoor ministry organizations and programs.

As Americans flocked to the National Parks in the later half of the 20th century, one Princeton seminary student realized the great ministry opportunity this provided. Reverend Warren Ost worked in Yellowstone in the summer of 1951 while a student. He realized the vast faith-based needs of the campers and visitors who were far from home. He also saw the opportunity to point visitors to God in the midst of his Creation. He organized a worship service for anyone interested held in the Old Faithful Inn. Later he founded an interdenominational non-profit called A Christian Ministry In The National Parks (ACMNP). Nearly 70 years later it continues to operate worship services in over 25 National Parks every summer. It is primarily staffed by seminary students who gain a taste for outdoor ministry while reaching thousands of National Park visitors annually.38b

The experiential era has seen the rise of many faith based outdoor programs, some of which emphasize journey-based experiential ministry. The era has seen outdoor ministry mature into a stand-alone ministry type marked by professionalism. People like author Lloyd D. Mattson and educator Dr. Richard Bradley 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 North Carolina in 1986.39 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 new, influential leaders such as Dr. Ashley Denton whose pioneering book Christian Outdoor Leadership has strengthened and grown the experiential philosophy and outdoor ministry in a broad way.

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).40

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 in all facets. 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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