Encountering the Outdoors
I believe that elders have a very strong influence on our youth. When I got baptized at the age of sixteen, an elder took me under his wings. My family had gone through several very traumatic experiences in New York City, USA. We were living in a financial, emotional, and spiritual crisis. Elder Omar was a very introverted person, yet was full of love for young people. He invested time in teaching me about the Bible and how to give Bible studies. But the one thing that really impacted my life was when he took me for the first time to explore God in nature at a camp meeting in upstate New York.
I was born in the city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, lived in Miami, Florida, USA, and met God in New York City. I love living in the urban environment. However, a whole week in nature rocked my world. In nature I experienced God’s greatness and love. The early morning activities, prayer walks, personal devotionals, and scavenger hunts continue to impact my life even now.
Jesus, an Outdoor Mentor
As I reflect on how Jesus mentored His disciples, I notice that most of Jesus’ teachings occurred in an outdoor setting (Matt 5:14, 17). He intentionally wanted His mentees to learn experientially in an outdoor environment because it is a powerful teaching tool for all, especially young people. According to Denton Ashley, more than 50% of Jesus’ teaching occurred in the outdoors; 16% was indoors and the other 33% in an unspecified location.1 He states, “Experiential learning aims to achieve transformational outcomes that make a long-term difference in one’s life.”2 Ellen G. White says “nature testifies of God,” “beholds the image and superscription of God,” and “molds the character.”3 The Bible mentions that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps 19:1). Experiencing God in the outdoors is a game-changer.
The Necessity of Outdoor Experience
It is imperative that we mentor our young people in the outdoors. If there is one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that while isolation at home has helped contain the spreading of the virus, it has also created some mental health issues. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) states, “Good mental health is absolutely fundamental to overall health and well-being.”4 One study found that people are facing increased levels of alcohol, drug use, insomnia, anxiety, delirium, agitation, and stroke.5 Dr. John La Puma suggests that we can’t stay inside all the time because our vitamin D level will go down. Spending time in the sunlight is important for our health. He strongly suggests going out intentionally to the forest or under a canopy of trees, or to the park or garden, because nature enhances immune function.6 Four times a week I take my wife and two daughters for a nature walk and outdoor activities. Seeing my daughters running and loving nature is my joy. Experiences in the outdoors have created a bond among us and has decreased our stress level immensely.
The Benefits of Outdoor Activities
In youth ministry, the Pathfinder club is one of the strongholds of the church. Young people in these clubs can develop leadership skills, experience spiritual growth, discover or enhance spiritual gifts, and develop a sense of empathy to serve the community. Most of these things are experienced in the outdoors. When I asked Pathfinders how they learn best, they all expressed that outdoor activities have been the greatest blessing and lesson in their lives. The Pathfinder outdoor fairs, camporees, and honors make a big difference in our young people’s lives.
In this technological era, teens spend six to nine hours a day in front of screens.7 Outdoor activities help mitigate this problem. I concur with Richard Louv, who says, “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”8
My first camporee was at the age of sixteen. It was an incredible and amazing experience. I was exposed to God’s presence in nature through prayer walks and devotionals that made a lasting impact in my life. The leaders and elders used the whole scenery as a teaching tool. The elders took part in the camping, cooking, and worship experience. They were supporting our Pathfinders.
Elders, please know that you can impress our young people by mentoring and supporting them—especially through outdoor activities. Even if your church doesn’t have a club, you can still help the young people experience life outdoors. Young people are longing for elders who care for them. Chap Clark claims that teenagers are growing up with an increasing sense of abandonment and hurt. He suggests that leaders should concentrate on three main areas: (1) developing nurturing environments for young people, (2) providing stable and secure relationships where young people truly feel loved, and (3) helping young people experience authentic and intimate relationships with loving adults.9 This can be accomplished not only inside of the church building, but in the outdoors. But unfortunately, many of us take experiences in nature for granted. According to Harvard Medical School, “spending time outside might have some health benefits—and the ‘greening’ of exercise might have some more.”10 They suggest five major benefits: (1) your vitamin D levels will go up, (2) you’ll get more exercise, (3) you will be happier, (4) your concentration will improve, and (5) you may heal faster.
I highly recommend taking your young people outdoors. Do activities such as sharing nature stories, prayer walks, exercise, tree planting, hiking, biking, swimming, picnic, games, etc. Most of my activities are in the outdoors, and I can testify that it can change your life. I have seen the benefits in my own family and in thousands of young people. I was influenced by an elder and I, in turn, have influenced many others. Let’s keep the trend going. Take Jesus’ example of how to do ministry in the outdoors seriously.
- Ashley Denton, Christian Outdoor Leadership: Theology, Theory, and Practice (Fort Collins, CO: Smooth Stone Publishing, 2011), 21, Kindle.
- Ibid., 24–25.
- Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press), 99.
- World Health Organization, “COVID-19 Disrupting Mental Health Services in Most Countries, WHO Survey,” news release, October 5, 2020, accessed January 31, 2021, https://www.who.int/news/item/05-10-2020-covid-19-disrupting-mental-health-services-in-most-countries-who-survey.
- “How to Build Your Immunity against the Coronavirus, Naturally,” Doctor John La Puma, accessed January 31, 2021, https://www.drjohnlapuma.com/vitamins-and-supplements/how-to-build-your-immunity-against-the-coronavirus-naturally.
- Maggie Fox and Erika Edwards, “Teens Spend ‘Astounding’ Nine Hours a Day in Front of Screens: Researchers,” West Virginia Education Association, accessed January 31, 2021, https://www.wvea.org/content/teens-spend-astounding-nine-hours-day-front-screens-researchers.
- “The Nature Principle,” Richard Louv, accessed January 31, 2021, http://richardlouv.com/books/nature-principle.
- Chap Clark, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 171.
- “A Prescription for Better Health: Go Alfresco,” Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing, July 2010, accessed January 31, 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/a-prescription-for-better-health-go-alfresco.