About Adventure Discipleship

Adventure Discipleship develops leaders and disciples of Jesus in the great outdoors using adventure activities.

Adventure Discipleship is a service based business designed to lead and teach adventure activities in order to make disciples, teach leadership, and teach outdoor skills to youth and youth leaders in the great outdoors.

Adventure discipleship also serves to do consulting with youth leaders, to teach leadership, adventure activities, outdoor skills, and youth ministry skills. We also act as a service provider or subcontractor to supply youth ministries, camps, and other organizations with adventure based discipleship programs.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Discipleship and Leadership

Jesus’ Teaching, Discipleship, and Leadership

In this work we will look at Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ method of discipleship, discipleship as leadership, and the National Outdoor Leadership School’s view of leadership and how that relates, compares, and contrasts with discipleship and leadership in scripture, and as modeled and taught by Jesus. One of my personal convictions is that leadership and discipleship are synonymous in many ways. I desire, yet hesitate, to say that they are exactly one and the same. Logic tells me that discipleship and leadership are somewhat different, however, study and instinct tells me that they are very much related, like fraternal twins, or peanut butter and jelly. We will explore this connection between discipleship and leadership by looking into what Jesus models for His disciples about leadership and/or discipleship, His informal teaching, and what Jesus formally taught about discipleship and leadership. We will also compare this to leadership as taught by the National Outdoor Leadership School, which ironically has unconsciously filtered Christian discipleship or “religious” discipleship from the leadership that they teach, but ironically, as we will see, there are still trace elements of “spirituality” or God left there in their teachings on Leadership.

Leadership and Discipleship

Leaders are learners. This is an old cliché, that is nevertheless very true, and this truth is still as young and fresh today as when that cliché was first stated. Andy Stanley, in his book “The Next Generation Leaders,” says that “Great leaders are great learners. But learning assumes an attitude of submission. And submission isn’t something all leaders are comfortable with (Stanley).” Jesus called his followers into the discomfort of submission; He called them to be learners.

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus said “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly (Peterson).” Jesus is calling His followers into an experience with, and of, Himself. This is a learning opportunity to “walk with God and to learn directly from Him.” We can watch how He does the rhythms of life and learn from the examples that He models. This is discipleship. This is not something that we do on our own power and strength though. Notice when Jesus says, “Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.” Jesus says that He will show us. He is taking us somewhere. He will recover our lives. This discipleship is coming along side of Jesus as He teaches us, models for us how to move away from our own doings, or religion, and we learn directly from Him as we walk with Him, move with Him, and come along side of Him. This learning, this discipleship, is intimate and experiential and it has to do with coming to Him and going with Him.

Jesus called His learners “disciples.” These disciples were the leaders of the early church and began the spread of Christianity throughout the world after Jesus’ ascension to heaven. This spreading of the gospel, or making of disciples, took great leadership. These leaders were learners who made other learners who also led through what they had learned. Most of this leading took the form of teaching and so the movement begins as commanded by Jesus Himself in Matthew 28:18-20. In this scripture, the Great Commission, Jesus commands His disciples, and us, to go and make disciples, or learners (leaders), of all nations: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.” ("The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version")

There is never a formal mentioning of the word leadership in the New Testament, though leadership is displayed in the New Testament as it is in The Old Testament, which also does not mention the word leadership formally. The word leader does appear in scripture and this word leader in the Old Testament Hebrew, according to the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, is defined as: “5057 נָגִיד [nagiyd, nagid /naw•gheed/] n m. From 5046; TWOT 1289b; GK 5592; 44 occurrences; AV translates as “ruler” 20 times, “prince” nine times, “captain” six times, “leader” four times, “governor” three times, “nobles” once, and “excellent things” once. 1 leader, ruler, captain, prince. 1a ruler, prince. 1b prince-overseer. 1c ruler (in other capacities). 1d princely things (Strong).” As you see, this word leader appears only four times in the Old Testament and the Greek word for leader is only mentioned once in the New Testament: “3595 ὁδηγός [hodegos /hod•ayg•os/] n m. From 3598 and 2233; TDNT 5:97; TDNTA 666; GK 3843; Five occurrences; AV translates as “guide” four times, and “leader” once. 1 a leader of the way, a guide. 2 a teacher of the ignorant and inexperienced (Strong). Though leadership is not mentioned, and leader is mentioned so few times, leadership can be found throughout scripture. It just doesn’t seem to be called leadership. So let’s examine this.

There are countless stories of leadership and examples of leadership in the Old Testament. There are also plenty of occurrences of leadership in the actions of Jesus and his disciples, and in the spread of Christianity, in the New Testament. The word disciple is mentioned many more times throughout the scriptures as we will see. So what is discipleship? It is my conviction that discipleship is synonymous with leadership. Leadership is defined by John Maxwell, a North American leadership guru, as simply influence in chapter one of his work “Developing the Leader Within You” (Maxwell Developing the Leader within You). Maxwell also comments at length on what he calls The Learned Leader. Maxwell states that this Learned Leader has seen leadership modeled most of their life, has learned leadership through training, and has self discipline to be a great leader (Maxwell Developing the Leader within You). He goes on to say that these leadership qualities are acquired, or learned. John Maxwell also states that leaders are learners in his chapter on teachability in his work “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader” (Maxwell The 21 Indisputable Qualities of a Leader). Leadership is undeniably connected with discipleship since leaders are influencers and learners, and learners are disciples, and disciples are commanded to lead through teaching and making other disciples, or learners. Discipleship reproduces itself in this way. It is influence. Good leadership also reproduces itself and is influence. As it pertains to Christianity, a “disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master (Luke 6:40) (Maxwell The Maxwell Leadership Bible).” This is the high call of Christianity and Christ. We are to be leaders of this caliber, like Jesus, who taught and influenced His followers to look like Himself.

So, what is discipleship and who is a disciple? According to the Greek Lexicon, a Disciple is “a person who learns from another by instruction, whether formal or informal—‘disciple, pupil.’ (Louw). A disciple is a student or a learner. A disciple is also a leader, because discipleship possesses a call to reproduce itself by influencing others, as mentioned earlier in the Great Commission. Someone who studies under a teacher is a disciple, and in this case the teacher says; teach others and follow me, and they too will follow me and teach others. This is discipleship. This is influence. This is leadership in Christianity. As we seek to follow and learn from Jesus, we are students of Jesus; we are disciples of Him. He is the Great Teacher and leader and we are his pupils and followers. We as Christians are Disciples, followers, of Christ.

Wikipedia, while more of a general opinion from and for the masses than a scholarly source, notes that the word disciple appears two hundred and thirty two times in the four gospels and the Book of Acts. A scholarly work supports this massive number and says the Greek word disciple (3101), according to the Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon, appears two hundred and sixty-eight times in the New Testament. This trumps the word Christian, which only appears around three times, like in Acts 11:26: "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." This term Christian was first used to describe those known to be disciples, or followers of Jesus. The other two occurrences in the New Testament are Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16. These occurrences refer to the public identity of those who follow Jesus and His teachings. This large number of occurrences of the word disciple also trumps the word leader that occurs, as we discussed earlier, only once in the New Testament. There is something significant about this word disciple in scripture and as it relates to being a “Christian.”

Again, the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament describes a disciple this way: “27.16 μαθητήςb, οῦ m: (derivative of μανθάνωa ‘to learn, to be instructed,’ 27.12) a person who learns from another by instruction, whether formal or informal—‘disciple, pupil. ‘No pupil is greater than his teacher; but every pupil, when he has completed his training, will be like his teacher’ (Luke 6.40) (Louw).” Again, in plain terms, we are learners of Jesus and in the end we will look like and be more like Jesus because of His work in our lives. As 1 John 3:2 says, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2) ("The Holy Bible : King James Version. Electronic Ed. Of the 1769 Edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.").” We will be like Him and do what Jesus does through His power and influence over us. Jesus Himself said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father (John 14:12) ("The Holy Bible : King James Version. Electronic Ed. Of the 1769 Edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.").” As we follow Jesus we will do what He does, and greater, and this discipleship is modeled by Jesus Himself as He follows His Father.

Paul taps into this idea of discipleship and beautifully describes a portrait of discipleship in his letter to the Colossians in chapter two, verses two through four:

“I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries, or “the Secret (Colossians 2:2-4).”

As we see in this scripture from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, a disciple is someone who looks like their teacher. They are woven into the fabric of the tapestry of the teacher’s lesson. They look like the lesson. In this case that lesson is the gospel message of love. This love is none other than God Himself. A disciple is in tune with everything that the teacher is instructing them. In this case the instruction is everything that there is to know about God. As referenced in the above scripture, a disciple is confident, secure, and at peaceful rest with the message of their teacher. They are focused on the lesson. In this case, and as it pertains to Christianity, the lesson is Christ Himself.

There is nothing greater according to Paul in these verses of scripture than the wisdom and knowledge of Jesus Christ who has been fully revealed to us. A disciple follows this revelation of God in Jesus Christ and is not led astray by false teachers. We don’t have to look any further and we don’t have to look anywhere else. As true disciples, we are to look like our teacher who is none other than Jesus Christ: God incarnate.

Leadership and The National Outdoor Leadership School

In the outdoor world of expeditions, and experiential education, leadership is defined as something that is learned as well. One definition of leadership says that, “Leadership is not a science to be picked up in one book or course, but an art to be learned over time. Good leaders sometime tell people what to do, but leadership in not just (or exclusively) giving directions-it’s liberating people to do what is needed in the best possible way (Graham).” This definition is in sink with Maxwell’s definition of leadership as influence and his emphasis on leaders being learners. This is also congruent with Jesus’ model of leadership and influence over people.

Jesus is always liberating people by teaching them the truth. Like this account in John’s gospel: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” . . . Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:31-36).”” We are free because the very word that we are abiding in is the good news that Jesus Himself has freed us through His work on the cross and from the grave. The Son Himself makes us free. Abiding in this liberating word of Jesus, the gospel, frees us to be His disciple making disciples who in turn lead others to Jesus so that they too can find their freedom in Christ and liberate others, and so the movement continues.

This idea of leadership and discipleship from a Christian perspective or worldview, as we have been discussing, is not always accepted or embraced by secular organizations or groups, as we will begin to explore here, however, these Christian principles of leadership and discipleship are not at odds with what these “non-religious” organizations teach on leadership. Next, we will focus on the leadership teachings of one of these organizations, The National Outdoor Leadership School, and compare and contrast their views and teachings of leadership with the Christian teachings on leadership/discipleship that we have already discussed.

The NOLS Philosophy of Leadership

As stated in the Wilderness Educator’s Notebook, the NOLS core curriculum has “Leadership education as the hallmark (Gookin).” At The National Outdoor Leadership School, the teaching that takes place about leadership “means timely appropriate actions that guide and support your group to set and achieve realistic goals. Great leaders create an environment that inspires individuals and groups to achieve their highest potential (Leach).” The skills emphasized at NOLS are the National Outdoor Leadership School’s seven leadership skills as outlined here: 1. Expedition Behavior, 2. Competence, 3. Communication, 4. Judgment and Decision Making, 5. Tolerance for Adversity and Uncertainty, 6. Self-Awareness, and 7. Vision and Action (Leach).

These skills are clearly spiritually neutral and could very well fit seamlessly into a Christian world view in accord with what scripture teaches. A Christian world view also produces fruit that looks very much like these seven skills. For instance, scripture teaches us what everyone knows as the golden rule, which is: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12).” I like the way that this is expressed best in Galatians 5:13-15: “Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then? (Peterson).” These leadership skills can connect pretty seamlessly in the one word command to “Love.” As Christians, according to this scripture and the Golden Rule, we are called to look to others best interests as well as our own and to spur one another on to the accomplishment of goals. This is just one of many ways that Christian teachings fit “hand in glove” with the NOLS seven leadership skills.

In his book, Practicing Greatness, Reggie McNeal, another Christian leadership Guru, connects the following seven skills to solid Christian leadership. These skills are very similar to what NOLS teaches in their own seven leadership skills and they come from a biblical and Christian world view. They are: the discipline of self-awareness, the discipline of self-management, the discipline of self-development, or learning, the discipline of mission, the discipline of decision-making, the discipline of belonging, and the discipline of aloneness (McNeal). McNeal’s work, Practicing Greatness, supports the idea that Maxwell has, that leaders are learners, and it highlights and gels with the seven leadership skills from NOLS. Christians are clearly thinking these thoughts about leadership, are connecting with these leadership skills, and are thinking these thoughts about leadership that NOLS puts forward and teaches on, or at the least, they have very similar leadership skills in mind.

We could spend quite a lot of time giving scriptural and other support for each of these NOLS leadership skills point by point; rather, I have chosen to focus on Expedition Behavior because it does fit so well with the Golden Rule that most people know about Christianity. So we will focus on this first, and very important, NOLS leadership skill of Expedition Behavior, to illustrate the point of the similarities between leadership taught by NOLS, and leadership taught by Christianity.

Expedition Behavior according to the National Outdoor Leadership School, is comprised of the following: serve the mission and goals of the group, be as concerned for others as you are for yourself, treat everyone with dignity and respect, support leadership and growth in everyone, respect the cultures you come into contact with, be kind and open-hearted, do your share and stay organized, help others, but don’t routinely do their work, model integrity by being honest and accountable, admit and correct your mistakes, be proud of your successes and build on these, say yes and deliver, or say no clearly if you cannot do something, find a healthy balance: work hard, play, reflect and rest, and resolve conflict in a productive manner (Leach). Wow! Where do we begin? There is so much more than the Golden Rule of: “Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them (Luke 6:31) (Peterson)! In the attributes of Expedition Behavior we also see the Christian principles of Sabbath rest, service, helps, respect, honor, integrity, stewardship, accountability, bearing one another’s burdens, confession, “letting your yes be yes and your no be no,” commitment, and conflict resolution and balance.

Where did this term expedition behavior come from? In an expedition, it is important to consider safety, gear, clothing, camping technique, and outdoor living and survival skills. Equally important to these skills and equipment is our need to be able to relate well and get along with our fellow travelers. “There are lots of words and terms to describe the human interactions on an outdoor expedition: process skills, soft skills, people skills, etc. Paul Petzoldt coined the term “Expedition Behavior” to describe these skills (Harvey).” These terms describe rules for living and relating responsibly, and respectfully, with your teammates on an expedition. This is important because our lives can be a challenging expedition, much like a wilderness expedition. The Christian life is also difficult and there are rules to follow to protect us. The law was given to us by God to help us and to draw us safely to Himself and to one another and so that we could navigate the complexities of life safely and successfully.

Mark Harvey, in the Wilderness Guide from the National Outdoor Leadership School, says this about Expedition Behavior: “Human relations play an equally important role (in relation to all the important factors in safe expedition, such as equipment, skills, etc.). To be blunt, how well you get along with your travel mates can mean the difference between enjoying the wilds or detesting every second of it; between summiting a peak or getting hopelessly lost in the process. That you need to get along and communicate effectively with your travel companions probably seems obvious (Harvey).” This need to get along with our travel mates does seem obvious, does it not? Though it may seem obvious, our failures to love well only illustrate our need for constant reminders to have good Expedition Behavior in our daily lives and interactions.

Concerning following Christ, or discipleship, in our relationships with God and others, Paul hits on this concept of Expedition Behavior in his letter to the Colossians 3:18-4:1:

“Wives, understand and support your husbands by submitting to them in ways that honor the Master. Husbands, go all out in love for your wives. Don’t take advantage of them. Children, do what your parents tell you. This delights the Master no end. Parents, don’t come down too hard on your children or you’ll crush their spirits. Servants, do what you’re told by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work. And masters, treat your servants considerately. Be fair with them. Don’t forget for a minute that you, too, serve a Master—God in heaven (Peterson). ”

Like an intense wilderness expedition, with survival needs, off-trail wilderness hikes, valleys, and mountain summits, our following Christ and obeying Him in our relationships with others can be challenging as well. Christ demands, as stated above in Colossians, great love from us toward others. In other words, God’s desire for His followers is solid expedition behavior that reflects His love for us.

Just as outdoor trips place us in close proximity to one another for long periods of time, so does Christian community and the Christian life with fellow believers and the church. We can never escape our call to follow and love Jesus and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The command to us is love in this wilderness life; we cannot escape it. “Jesus said, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them (Peterson) (Matt. 22:37-40).”

We cannot escape our Christian beliefs and community. We always have an obligation to God and one another. We cannot “check our Christianity at the door.” Harvey emphasizes a similar point about the importance of consistent community and expedition behavior in The Wilderness Guide:

“On a backpacking or a mountaineering trip, you cannot just go home at the end of the day and relax in the confines of your own house. At the end of the a day on an outdoor expedition, you still have to work as a team setting up camp, making dinner, and keeping the tent in good shape. Nearly every aspect of camping is communal, from sharing food to the battle for room in a small tent. At its best, this shared living brings people together in a spirit of camaraderie seldom found in their normal lives. At its worst, the demands of outdoor living can bring people to blows (Harvey 166).”

Such is the church and Christian community. The Christian life is the same as an expedition in that it is always communal. When we exhibit good expedition behavior, or when we live out our call to love God and others rightly, the Christian life brings us together and draws us closer to God Himself. When we live wrongly, when we are intent on living in our selfish sinfulness, we can be in serious conflict and separation in our relationships with God and others. We must live in obedience and we must live with good expedition behavior in this wilderness life.

For Harvey, expedition behavior is the key ingredient to a group’s accomplishments. Similarly, loving God and one another and having good “Expedition Behavior” in the Christian life is a key ingredient to the success of God’s Church. Harvey says it like this:

“After years of mountaineering experience, training soldiers and outdoor leaders, and completing major alpine expeditions, Paul Petzoldt concluded that good or bad expedition behavior often determined a group’s destiny even more than technical skills and physical strength. Expeditions with moderate talent but with good expedition behavior can achieve greater things than bilious (or difficult or disagreeable) expeditions with all the talent in the world (Harvey 166).”

This is very much like the church, Christian community, and the Kingdom of God. What could we accomplish if we had love for God and one another? The success of the church is dependant on good expedition behavior and living the Christian life is also dependent on loving God and One another.

As illustrated in the example of the NOLS leadership skill of Expedition Behavior, this idea of leadership and discipleship from a Christian perspective; though not always accepted or embraced by secular organizations or groups, are not necessarily at odds with what these “non-religious” organizations teach on leadership, and vise versa. The leadership teachings of The National Outdoor Leadership School, while not necessarily “cut from the same “religious” cloth,” are compatible with Christian teachings on discipleship and leadership that we have previously discussed and are useful in teaching and making disciples/leaders.

What we Learned about Jesus’ Teaching, Discipleship, and Leadership

In this work we explored Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ method of discipleship, discipleship as leadership, and the National Outdoor Leadership School’s view of leadership and how that relates, compares, and contrasts with discipleship and leadership in scripture, and as modeled and taught by Jesus. We also explored one of my personal convictions that leadership and discipleship are synonymous in many ways, or at least are connected. Though I did not find much out there to directly support this idea, I was able to make a substantial case for the connection of the two. However, discipleship and leadership, as we discovered, are not exactly one and the same. We explored this connection between discipleship and leadership by looking into what Jesus models for His disciples about leadership and/or discipleship, His informal teaching, and what Jesus formally taught about discipleship and leadership. We also compared this to leadership as taught by the National Outdoor Leadership School, which clearly has elements of “spirituality,” a biblical world view, and God in their teachings on Leadership.

Building on NOLS Curriculum to Make Disciples

As illustrated in this paper, there are differences and similarities in the teachings of leadership at NOLS and making disciples/leaders in the New Testament. We can build on these similarities by teaching leadership in a wilderness setting and through leading expeditions to intentionally make disciples as commanded of us. Making disciples as commanded and illustrated in the New Testament is very similar to educating leaders and the teaching of leadership at the National Outdoor Leadership School. However, as noted earlier, these goals of teaching and making leaders according to NOLS have very different outcomes and expectations tied to them. Making disciples has the kingdom of God in mind and the NOLS leadership curriculum has the success of an expedition and skills to manage leadership opportunities in life in mind.

We can learn much from the skills and the teachings that NOLS offers by way of their cutting edge materials on teaching leadership and managing expeditions in the wild. We can benefit even more by using this information in a NOLS-like setting and course and combining them with our calling to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything that Jesus commanded and by teaching scripture and biblical principles of great leadership.

Leadership and discipleship go hand in hand, and if we are willing to make this connection, this could be the push that is needed to make more disciples of Jesus. Teaching leadership and outdoor skills is also a particularly helpful way of teaching discipleship to those who may only be interested in or knowledgeable about leadership in the great outdoors and in outdoor adventure activities. One is a parable for the other.

We have an obligation to make connections between leadership, discipleship, and scripture as they relate to other materials, like the NOLS leadership curriculum and program for teaching and developing leaders in the outdoors. These materials and outdoor adventure activities are useful tools in our effort to make and to be disciples of Jesus Christ.


Gookin, John. Wilderness Educator Notebook. Ed. John Gookin. Lander, WY: National Outdoor Leadership School, 2006.

Graham, John. Outdoor Leadership:Technique, Common Sense & Self-Confidence. Seattle, WA: The Mountaineers, 1997.

Harvey, Mark. The National Outdoor Leardership School's Wilderness Guide. Lander, WY: The National Outdoor Leardership School, 1999.

"The Holy Bible : King James Version. Electronic Ed. Of the 1769 Edition of the 1611 Authorized Version." Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995.

Leach, John Gookin and Shari. The Nols Leadership Educator Notebook: A Toolbox for Leadership Educators. Lander, WY: The National Outdoor Leadership School, 2004.

Louw, Johannes P. Nida, Eugene Albert: Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. Electronic Ed. Of the 2nd Edition. New York: United Bible societies, 1996, c1989.

Maxwell, John C. The 21 Indisputable Qualities of a Leader. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1999.

---. Developing the Leader within You. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc. and Injoy Inc., 1993.

---. The Maxwell Leadership Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002, 2007.

McNeal, Reggie. Practicing Greatness: 7 Discipline of Etraordinary Spiritual Leaders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
"The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version." Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo: NavPress, 2002.

Stanley, Andy. The Next Generation Leader. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publisher, INC., 2003.

Strong, James. "The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order. Electronic Ed." Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996.

Wilderness: Metaphor and Reality, an Incubator for Growth

In this paper we will explore wilderness as both metaphor and reality, we will look at wilderness in scripture, we will survey wilderness as an incubator for spiritual growth, growth in leadership, and growth in discipleship, and we will entertain the use of wilderness as an incubator for this growth and as a teaching tool.

Wilderness: Metaphor and Reality

“What is wilderness to you? Finish this sentence, “Wilderness to me is . . .”” This is how my recent two week experience with the National Outdoor Leadership School ended. This was a question designed to be a final group debrief and sharing time. I wondered if this was a profound question or a ridiculous one when I first heard it posed to our group. Fifteen of us had been living in the Bridger Teton National Forest, a remote wilderness area, for two weeks, yet many of us scrambled for an answer to this question. How long does one have to live in the wilderness before he or she understands what wilderness is to them? Two weeks should have done it, right? After much thought, I came to the conclusion that wilderness to me was both a reality and metaphor.

Wilderness is defined by the Encarta Dictionary as “a mostly uninhabited area of land in its natural uncultivated state, sometimes deliberately preserved like this, e.g. a forest or mountainous region.” In other words, wilderness is very real and tangible. The Encarta Dictionary also defines wilderness as “an uncomfortable situation, a place, situation, or multitude of people or things that makes somebody feel confused, overwhelmed, or desolate” (Encarta Dictionary: English, North American). To state this last definition differently, and to make the point, wilderness is not just a place; it is also a metaphor for something more.

In his work Wilderness Spirituality, Rodney Romney agrees with this point that wilderness is metaphor for something more and then he connects this tradition with scripture and sites the wilderness wanderings. He says, “Wilderness as a metaphor for life has a long and honored tradition. It is probably seen most clearly in the journey of the Israelites from Egypt into Canaan, which most historians place around 1300 B.C.E. (Romney).” This theme of wilderness in scripture is where we are headed next.

Wilderness in Scripture

Wilderness is a huge theme throughout scripture, both the physical and geographical wilderness and the metaphorical wilderness. Throughout both the Old and the New Testaments wilderness as a real place is spoken about and these geographical locations of wilderness are the backdrop for God’s shaping his people, making Himself known to His people, and calling His people. This is also the setting for the testing and trials that many of God’s people faced, including his own son, as clearly seen in Matthew chapter four.

Discipleship happens in the wilderness and the wilderness, as we see it in scripture, is a proven incubator for growth in relationships with God and others. Wilderness as a metaphorical place is also an incubator for growth and discipleship. When God’s people are going through hard and trying times, it is said that they are walking or going through the wilderness because, as stated earlier, the wilderness is where God chose to work in His relationship with His chosen people, Israel, in the wilderness wanderings, as in Exodus. Rodney Romney also supports this idea that God was alive and shaping the Israelites in the wilderness. He says this about their journey: “But the faith of those ancient explorers was that God was not aloof from their journey but active within it, guiding and shaping the course of their affairs to some divine and sovereign purpose (Romney).”

I believe that God is still active like this in our wildernesses and that this is still where God desires to meet with His people today, and I am not alone with this view. When asked, “Why do you choose to do our discipleship experiences in the wilderness?” The people from the Coalition for Christian Outreach replied with this statement: “Scripture says that God’s invisible qualities and eternal power can be seen in and throughout creation. We read many Biblical accounts in which God uses the wilderness as the classroom in which to prepare individuals to lead His people, and we recognize the unique value of that classroom (Coalition for Christian Outreach).”

The history of God working in and through wilderness in the Old Testament is striking and compelling. God chose to start His creation and to make man and woman and place them in a garden, a wild place. Jacob was familiar with wilderness; he fled there to be safe from his brother and wrestled with God there, as described in Genesis. When God freed the Israelites from Egypt, they fled into the wilderness, and when they were hardened and disobedient, they wandered the wilderness. God prepared Moses, the leader of the Israelites, in the wilderness as he shepherded sheep for his father-in-law. He also called Moses to lead from there as he hid out and tended his sheep. David, “the king after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14),” was also a shepherd and was also equipped to lead in wild places. Elijah the prophet was also familiar with wilderness and went there by himself to rest and recover from his enemies; he also met God there in the wilderness. These are just a few examples of God using wilderness in His relationships with His followers. We could go on with Jonah, Job, Abraham, Joshua, Solomon, Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and on we could go ("The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version").

In the New Testament God continues to work and move in the wilderness. The Gospels start off in wild places. Jesus Himself is born in the wild out in a stable, which some believe was a humble cave, where animals were kept. John the Baptist also came preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness. He was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the pathway for the Lord.” After being baptized by John in the Jordan River, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days, as described in Matthew chapter four. This is how Jesus’ ministry begins and it is a reflection back to Adam and Eve’s temptation in the Garden as well as the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites. However, this time Jesus, the new Adam, prevails over Satan, obeys and follows God’s calling, and trusts God for His living bread.

Jesus also withdrew into solitary places and taught in wild places throughout the New Testament. He taught in natural places and wild settings and we find Him and his disciples traveling by foot and by boat in these wild settings. Jesus not only went off by himself to solitary places to pray on mountain tops, he also took His disciples to the mountain top and was transfigured before them. This transfiguration is also a flash back to the glory of God as revealed to Moses in the wilderness in the Old Testament. Before the crucifixion, we find Jesus and His disciples back in a garden, bringing the Old and the New Testaments together in harmony ("The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version").

John Maxwell, in his “Leadership Bible,” writes an insert especially focused on Matthew chapter four and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as it relates to Jesus’ leadership. This article, titled “The Law of Sacrifice: Quality Leaders Are Prepared in The Wilderness,” highlights and supports this idea that God uses wilderness to equip and prepare quality leaders, and that He even used wilderness to prepare His own Son. Maxwell states:

“The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness right after His baptism by John, reminding us that at least part of His preparation for ministry came from a wilderness experience. Does this sound familiar? Quality leaders can almost always point to a wilderness experience as part of their leadership preparation. During this time, our motives become purified, our backbone solidifies, and our calling gets clarified. The devil tempted Jesus for 40 days in the wilderness-a screening process to see what Jesus would give up and how He would trust God to provide (Maxwell).”

Henri Nouwen, in his work “In The Name of Jesus,” referred to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as a temptation to lead falsely in three areas: (1) the temptation to be relevant, or as Maxwell puts it, the temptation to be self-sufficient, (2) the temptation to be popular, or as Maxwell puts it, the temptation to be spectacular, and (3) the temptation to be powerful (Nouwen). In the metaphorical wilderness of life, Christians are tempted by these same false motivations of living and leadership. As Maxwell noted, “Jesus didn’t become controlling, even with His legitimate needs. He trusted God. Jesus refused to become a stunt man. He didn’t perform to become a celebrity. Jesus wouldn’t take a shortcut to gain power or worship (Maxwell).” Unlike Jesus, we do not have the power to resist temptations and these temptations are our inclination. However, through Jesus’ resistance of temptation in the wilderness and His power, we can voyage confidently through our wilderness journey into a leadership that is marked by His power and influence. The wilderness prepared Jesus for resisting ultimate temptation just as the wilderness prepares us to live confidently for Him. Because Jesus resisted temptations in the wilderness, we too can resist temptation and we can learn from Jesus’ wilderness experience and be empowered by His prevailing in our own wilderness.

Wilderness, an Incubator for Growth

Wilderness is an incubator for growth in relationships with God and others. We grow wildly in wilderness settings. My grandfather used to raise quail. He had these incubators that used to hatch the eggs. According to the Encarta Dictionary, “an incubator is an apparatus in which the temperature is kept at a constant level so that eggs can be artificially hatched, or cells and microorganisms can multiply in or on a growth medium. Incubators are also used to sustain life and assist in growth and development. The word incubator can also refer to a place, organization, or environment that promotes the growth or development of something” (Encarta Dictionary: English, North American). Like my grandfather’s incubators that caused birds to grow from eggs and hatch, the wilderness too is an incubator for spiritual growth. It aids in fostering growth in relationships between ones self and God.

Ironically, the National Outdoor Leadership School provides an incubator for spiritual growth, though its emphasis on formal teachings on spirituality is found lacking, as they do not have any blatant or formal teachings on spirituality on their expeditions. This is, however, right in line with NOLS’s own teaching and definition of spirituality which says the following:
“Spirituality refers to the tacit knowledge that makes a person feel more energized and connected. This includes an insightful relationship with yourself and others, a strong personal value system, and meaningful purpose in your life. There are character traits associated with spiritual well being, like self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-comfort, and self-reliance. A spiritually strong person feels empowered to influence the universe and can think and act in a calmer state of mind.

“Spirituality in education arises from everyday events that provide spirituality for people. NOLS expeditions provide the setting and climate for spiritually uplifting experiences without spirituality being an overt part of our program. That’s OK that it isn’t overt. NOLS strengths are that we immerse people in the grandeur of nature (wilderness), we provide real leadership lessons, we insist on a high level of self-discipline, we run expeditions that are long enough to accomplish great things, we provide time for reflection, and we provide good coaching. We create an environment where people feel like a part of some things that are bigger than themselves-the natural community, the expedition team. It is not an academic explanation of the human experience that provides spiritual growth. It is the deep human experience that provides spiritual growth” (Gookin Wilderness Educator Notebook).

Though NOLS captures an element of spirituality without a formal teaching of spirituality, as illustrated in the above definition and declaration of spirituality by NOLS, a formal teaching would be more effective. The absence of an intentional teaching of spirituality clearly does not hinder spirituality in a NOLS course. Conversely, an intentional and Biblical teaching of spirituality in a NOLS-like course in the wilderness would only enhance and multiply the effectiveness of that teaching in a wilderness setting. It would, in affect, be an incubator for growth.

What NOLS is tapping into in the above quotes on spirituality is God’s natural revelation to His people through His creation, as quoted in Romans 1:19-20, which says: “But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse (Peterson).” Natural revelation is unavoidable in the wilderness setting and helps to foster, or incubate, this spiritual growth.

We also see an impressionistic portrait of the church in reference to community in this NOLS quote about spirituality in their reference to “an environment where people feel like a part of some things that are bigger than themselves-the natural community” that provides leadership lessons, reflection and coaching. The church is also supposed to provide a supportive coaching environment where its people can accomplish great things. We are also supposed to nurture one another’s relationships with God and each other. Community life itself is supposed to be a training ground for Christians to conform into a deeper more accurate image of Jesus. We are supposed to teach and disciple leaders and be a disciplined people, after all, discipline is at the root of being a disciple.

The Leadership and Discipleship in the Wilderness program of the Coalition for Christian Outreach, which has a blatant Christian theology and mission, knows this about community and spirituality. They say this about their course in Wyoming: “This course will take you into the pristine and majestic wilderness of the Rocky Mountains for six weeks. While backpacking, climbing, and preparing to summit a 13,000 foot peak, you will build strong community, grow in your intimacy with God and embrace your identity as an image-bearer of your Creator. Part of growing to be more like Christ is learning to lead like Him, so you will model your outdoor leadership on his leadership and learn how to guide others in the wilderness faithfully (Coalition for Christian Outreach).” Discipleship, leadership, and community in the wilderness have the potential for exponential spiritual growth in the individual who seeks it. This growth occurs even more rapidly when we, like the Coalition for Christian Outreach, are intentional about it.

However, the Christian does not have what it takes to be a “good” person, as the NOLS definition of spirituality suggests. Scripture clearly tells us “And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else? Our involvement with God’s revelation doesn’t put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else’s sin (Romans 3: 19-30) (Peterson). Clearly Christian values are at odds with the secular values of NOLS. We have no moral high ground to stand on and a deeper self knowledge only propels us into the loving arms of a savior who can give us His grace and spur us on to good character traits, a genuine view of self, a strong God-esteem, self-forgetfulness, self-sacrifice, and God-reliance. As Christians we are empowered by God to influence the universe for His kingdom and can think and act in a more realistic and truthful state of mind. This is also known as having a “Christian World View.” This world view leads us to be true to this high calling to Christian Community, obeying the scriptural command of community in Hebrews 10:22-25: “So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching (Peterson).”

Another definition, or assertion, about spirituality by NOLS can also be found in the Wilderness Wisdom book. This definition states that “Spirituality is the recognition of connections and relationships and their meaning. Both the outdoor environment and human community are fertile places for awareness of these connections. Spirituality can include “organized” religion, but it is easily discussed and experienced without depending on a single religious tradition, or any at all (Gookin Wilderness Wisdom, p. 103).” Obviously as Christians we will find fault in the last sentence of this quote. We cannot however disagree with the first part of this statement. Christianity has everything to do with connectedness of relationships between God and us and us with other people. Relationships are essential to the Christian life. It is also true that the outdoor environment, or wilderness, is fertile ground for growth and awareness of these essential relationships. These environments are incubators for growth, however, if you take God out of the equation, there ceases to be right relationship.

One of my favorite quotes, that is also of value in discussing spirituality (or as I will refer to it, discipleship) and NOLS is by John Gookin who is a well respected NOLS instructor and author. This quote simply states “It’s not your religion if you only do it in church (Gookin Wilderness Wisdom, p. 103).” How true. There isn’t a single stitch of scripture, nor is there a single quote from Jesus in the “Wilderness Wisdom” book edited by John Gookin from NOLS, where this quote is taken from. However, this statement speaks volumes about Christians and the church. We are supposed to be followers of Christ outside the church doors and we are also supposed to grow and mature in our faiths outside of the church walls, and I believe that the wilderness provides this context for growth. It is an incubator for growth and it seems as if Jesus saw wilderness as an incubator for growth as well considering he spent so much time there and He did so much teaching from this pulpit of the wild.

Using Wilderness as an Incubator for Growth and as a Teaching Tool

As illustrated, wilderness is a metaphor for our relationships with God and others. It is a metaphor for our Christian lives and interactions. Wilderness is also a reality. It is a geographical place. Wilderness is a real and beneficial classroom for us to teach and learn and make disciples as illustrated throughout the scriptures.
Wilderness is also an Incubator for Growth in our relationships with God and others, also as illustrated throughout the scriptures. Wilderness enhances and provides lessons about ourselves and God that are pivotal in our growth as Christ followers. Wilderness enhances and speeds up our knowledge of God, others, and self and teaches us how to relate and love well in community. We are blessed to have such a classroom for our learning and teaching. Wilderness has been essential in God’s story and it can and should continue to be an essential training ground for His disciples today.
If Jesus so readily went to the wilderness, took people into the wilderness, and taught in the wilderness, we should also consider the wilderness as an essential tool for teaching, learning and growth. Wilderness is important in the formation of our lives and relationships with God and others and we should not neglect its use as a tool for teaching, learning, and making disciples in our present time.

Wilderness: Metaphor and Reality, an Incubator for Growth

We have explored wilderness as both metaphor and reality, and have looked at wilderness in scripture, we have surveyed wilderness as an incubator for spiritual growth, growth in leadership and growth in discipleship, and we have entertained the need to use wilderness as an incubator for growth and as a teaching tool. Wilderness explorations and expeditions for their own sake are mere entertainment and miss something greater; that greater something that they miss, as it turns out, is actually someone; God Himself. If we are honest, we have found God in His creation and in our “wildernesses.” As Rodney Romney has said in Wilderness Spirituality, “A wilderness is an unexplored place. . . No wilderness is without light, once you are willing to explore its darkness. No wilderness is without friendly voices, once you are prepared to listen. . . We all need the wilderness of place, a place of isolation where we can allow change to overtake us, where we can adapt to a constantly altered environment, and where we can recover from our own mistakes. . . We can also find wildernesses that have brought us to the place where we heard God’s call and experienced God’s presence (Romney).” May we explore the wildernesses in and of our lives, may we go on the expedition of exponential growth and may we explore the unexplored reality and hear the lessons of wilderness metaphor.


Coalition for Christian Outreach, Outdoor Leadership Team. "Commonly Asked Questions." 2008.

Encarta Dictionary: English, North American. 2008.

Gookin, John. Wilderness Educator Notebook. Ed. John Gookin. Lander, WY: National Outdoor Leadership School, 2006.
---. Wilderness Wisdom. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Maxwell, John C. The Maxwell Leadership Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2002, 2007.

"The Nelson Study Bible, New King James Version." Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo: NavPress, 2002.

Romney, Rodney. Wilderness Spirituality. Boston, Massachusetts: Element Books, Inc., 1999.

About Me

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Robbie Pruitt is a youth minister in Alexandria, Virginia. Robbie loves Jesus, family, ministry, the great outdoors, writing poetry and writing about theology, discipleship and leadership. He has been in ministry more than twenty years and graduated from Columbia International University and Trinity School for Ministry.

References and Reviews

“Robbie is very energetic and has the great ability to relate to the youth of our Boy Scout Troop. Robbie has been asked on many occasions to teach/lead some team building activities. His activities always teach to the point that is requested of him and are always very well received by the scouts. Robbie has been a valuable asset that the Troop will continue to rely upon to help teach the principles of teamwork.” April 21, 2009

Matthew Kniller, Troop 1257, was with Church of the Epiphany, Herndon when working with Robbie and Adventure Discipleship

Wilderness First Aid

Wilderness First Aid
We have wilderness first aid training with the Wilderness Safety Council Program, click this logo to view.

Training from National Outdoor Leadership School

Training from National Outdoor Leadership School
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NOLS Risk Management Statement

Adventure Discipleship has invested in the quality of its risk management practices by participating in the Risk Management Training offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), an organization with over 40 years of experience managing risk in wilderness environments. As a result of this training Adventure Discipleship has developed/is developing a risk management strategy encompassing all levels of our organization. In order to mitigate the risk that is inherent in all wilderness expeditions, we have invested time and resources in these practices because the health and well being of our participants is of highest priority.

Wilderness Education Association

Wilderness Education Association
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Leave No Trace

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