By Paul Boatman
“Grandpa, my friends don’t know I’m this kind of girl.” Six-year-old Allison was reflecting on our day of hiking in the canyons of Indiana’s Turkey Run State Park.
“What kind of girl do they think you are?”
“They think I’m a girly girl, but I’m an adventure girl!”
Adventure! The term is a dominant theme in contemporary culture. I receive winsome advertisements for “adventure travel.” So-called reality television shows contrive adventures for their casts of exhibitionist participants. Interactive Internet adventure games invite virtual participation in activities ranging from mysterious to obscene, all intended to stir a sense of peril. The trend of giving action-oriented names to churches has produced several signs reading “Adventure Christian Church.”
What is this preoccupation all about?
Adventurism is nothing new. Fables, fairy tales, novels, and epic stories have long glamorized the dauntless person of bravado. Former generations have admired both heroes and pranksters who dared to challenge boundaries. What may be different today is the availability of information on opportunities, ease of travel to out of the mainstream sites, and the relative affluence that permits both the time and the money for such exploits.
Invested in Adventure
I confess that love of adventure is a driver in my own life. While I see myself as having lived a simple life and career in ministry, other people see me as having invested much in adventure. Highlights of my experiences show why: 10 transoceanic journeys to about 30 different countries, 40 fishing trips into remote areas of Canadian wilderness, ascents of 10 of the highest mountains in the Western United States, motorcycle trips as far as Alaska, backpacking trips through some of the most spectacular wilderness of our land (including eight treks through the Grand Canyon), running 10 marathons and countless shorter races of 3 to 13 miles, whitewater rafting and canoeing, rock-climbing, rappelling, spelunking—I’ve clearly pursued a variety of activities that provided a combination of excitement and challenge.
The adventurous moments within this simple list would provide hours of campfire entertainment. So, what is my reticence about calling myself adventurous? Adventure at its best is part of a highly productive lifestyle that overcomes obstacles. At its worst, it may reflect a narcissistic hedonism. Boundaries are always challenged by adventure, because the pursuit takes one into a sphere of uncertain outcomes and potential jeopardy.
I sat with a group of friends viewing Into Thin Air, a movie about several people who lost their lives climbing Mount Everest. Most of the group expressed wonder that people would undertake a pursuit so perilous and devoid of meaning, but two of us were saying, “I wish I could be there!”
My own adventure experiences have not met tragedy, though there have been some disconcerting events, such as a lightning storm at the top of a 14,000-foot mountain, being trapped in the wilderness by a forest fire, and near loss-of-life when a canoe swamped in a raging river.
I would never consciously choose to relive those perils, yet I do not recall them with unmitigated regret. In fact, I have a sense of being energized when I reflect on the processes by which we survived the threats—processes that give credit to God’s care, the strength of the human spirit, and the bond of friendship.
There is a danger that the emotional high resulting from risk-taking may become its own reward, stimulating an addictive cycle of steadily increasing vulnerability. However, a lifestyle totally avoiding risks is alien to Christianity. Pursuing the oft-elusive balance between risk and desirable outcome is the process that can lead the Christian to adventure.
Clovis Chappell, while visiting our campus near the end of his life, was asked, “Reflecting on your long career in effective ministry, do you have any regrets?”
The great preacher quickly responded, “I wish I’d taken more risks.” I doubt I will have that regret.
Ministry with Adventure
My 43 years in ministry have presented me with precarious opportunities I would likely have avoided were it not for an adventurous spirit within. Church planting, interracial ministry, inner-city service, short-term mission trips in more than a dozen countries, wilderness camp experiences with teenagers 45 years younger than I (and these are only the more obvious examples).
The past 28 years as a seminary professor and administrator have also offered adventure, even in the presumably staid academic environment. We have gained accreditation from three highly reputable agencies—with each application carrying an attached risk. We have repeatedly revised curriculum, defying the standard caution, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We have established new degree programs, offered classes in nontraditional formats and contexts, taken seminary courses around the world, all in the cause of fulfilling the seminary’s mission.
Some of these ventures have proven very costly, and a few have been discontinued, either because expectations were not realized, or because the cost-benefit ratio became too negative. Yet the spirit that pursues such risks continues to enliven an institution that began with an adventurous challenge to change the direction of the church and ministry in this part of the world. It may be what keeps me engaged in ministry in a geographical setting far from the usual “adventure” settings.
Faithful in Adventure
Actually, well-disciplined adventure has a solid place in our Christian heritage. Hebrews 11 presents faith in the framework of confident action when the outcome is not at all visible. In creating the world, God accomplished a result not seen before (v. 3). Abraham’s commendation notes his response to God’s call, “even though he did not know where he was going” (v. 8). The author alludes to adventurers “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (vv. 33, 34). Equal affirmation is given to a further litany of faithful ones whose earthly lifetime rewarded them only with torture, imprisonment, destitution, homelessness, and brutal death (vv. 35-38). Christian adventure activity is distinctive in that, while the ultimate goal is secured by faith in God, the present life may never reward the faithful one.
The apostle Paul’s ministry was bathed in adventure. I doubt when he saw Mount Olympus he was consumed by a compulsion to climb to the top. However, the gentle ascent up Mars Hill in Athens threw him into a most precarious circumstance as he dared the intellectual elite to consider the claims of the gospel. This reflects a style that preceded his conversion. When he met Jesus on the Damascus road, Saul was already an ardent pursuer of difficult and hazardous activities. His encounter with the Messiah and his ongoing tutelage under the Holy Spirit disciplined and redirected his willingness to be vulnerable.
In partnership with Christ there was simply no barrier that, by itself, was so perilous as to turn him back. He was “convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38, 39). His listing of experiences includes imprisonments, floggings and beatings of various sorts, exposure to death, shipwreck, danger from rivers, seas, bandits, and people in every imaginable context (2 Corinthians 11:23-26).
What can make the pursuit of adventure honorable? The goal and motivation are the critical factors. Risk for risk’s sake is unjustifiable. Reasonable risk that stretches our abilities, increases our endurance, and provides relief from other stresses in life may be justified. A willingness to be vulnerable in carrying out a Christian calling, if practiced with sensitivity to the Spirit and partnership with God’s people, prepares the way for an honorable adventure.
I will try to maintain the balance, but I’m with my granddaughter: I’m an adventurer.
Paul Boatman is associate dean of ministries and head of the department of pastoral care and counseling at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.