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

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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this is so powerful.
    It has encouraged me a lot.


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
We have been trained by NOLS, the leader in outdoor education, click this logo for their web site.

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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