Outdoors & Spiritual Formation

I love the outdoors. Some of my favorite memories as a child include sled riding in the winter snow, playing baseball in the summer heat, and the occasional trip to the Cleveland Metroparks for a swim in the creek to cool off after a hike.  Occasionally my dad would take my brothers and I fishing or even camping on a road trip. I really enjoyed those outdoor experiences. They were pure moments; when we were innocent, enjoying the natural world, and enjoying each other’s company.

It was in high school when my world began to expand with various trips to the outdoors.  I was a teenager when my dad and I drove across the country to visit distant relatives living in the West. It was the first time I would see the central plains, the Rocky Mountains, or the deserts of the Southwest.

My church youth group was also an integral part of my outdoor experience growing up. I remember going to a retreat center for the first time as we had ‘the sex talk’…we watched ‘When Harry Met Sally’. My mom and dad often took our family on vacation through the Appalachians on our way to Myrtle Beach, but it was during my first mission trip experiences that we stuck around those hollers for a couple of days, walked in the woods, and splashed in the creeks. It was at my first ever Montreat Youth Conference that I would fall in love with the hike to Lookout Mountain and the surrounding trails. Those memories also are remembered as pure moments; times when we were present with each other and with God.

By the time I reached college I decided that I enjoyed the outdoors; perhaps a strange conclusion for this kid who grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. I went on hikes with the College of Wooster’s outdoor club: WOODS. One day, when talking with a much wiser upperclassman, I was compelled to apply for a summer job as a camp counselor at Camp Jewell YMCA in Colebrook, CT. This was a summer that I would never forget. It was there that I realized just how life-giving the summer camp experience could be for both the camper and the counselor! I cried like a baby on my way back to college after that summer. I said to myself that if I could find a job that combined working with young people, ministry, and the outdoors—then sign me up! To this day the outdoor experience, ministry, and working with young people have been part of my life, and I am most thankful each day.

I say all of this because I don’t think that my story is just some ‘blip’ on the radar of spiritual formation, especially in young people. Most statistics will tell you that if you ask a religious leader a formational moment in their spiritual development or call to ministry (formal or informal), more likely than not they can share with you a story that involves the outdoors. Summer camp, retreat, conferences, mission trips, the outdoor spiritual experience is uniquely tied to our spiritual identity.

Bible story after Bible story tells us of humanity’s experience of the Divine in the wilderness; whether it is Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, Moses, Jonah, Elijah, Jesus…the list goes on and on. This isn’t some random coincidence. The outdoors is integral to the spiritual experience for all people. Just like my childhood, these are pure moments; times when we can experience the sacred in a most authentic way.

My hope is that the outdoor experience is forever tied to the church experience of our congregations today. Here are some logistical ways that we may continue to encounter the living God in the outdoors:

  • Worship outside. Yes, it may not work year-round, but many churches have outdoor worship during the more pleasant times of the year.
  • Summer Camp. Yes, I never went to summer camp as a child, but I wish I did. What a wonderful way for young people living in an age of screens and schedules to breathe for a few days in the open air!
  • Mission Trips. Mission trips have so many benefits (perhaps an article for another time). What a great opportunity to help others, worship God in an active way, and create life-long memories.
  • Festivals and Conferences. There are so many wonderful opportunities in some of the most beautiful of settings around the country and the world! Instead of taking that vacation to play miniature golf, sign up for a few days of worship, education, and relaxation (and maybe hit up some mini golf during your free time).
  • Get outside! I know this seems pretty obvious, but sometimes people need to hear it again. Turn off the TV, get out of the office, put down the phone, and spend some time in the natural world. You don’t need to be trained in wilderness survival to enjoy God’s creation. In solitude or in community, God is present!
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