September 4, 2020

Rock Climbing for a Spiritual Connection

I started rock climbing at Walla Walla University, in Washington, United States, where I signed up for a climbing course in lieu of the more standard physical education classes. 

I learned rope management, knots, climbing, and belay techniques. I soon fell in love with the physical and mental challenge, the views and places climbing could take me, and the bit of adrenaline rush every now and then.

Beyond these aspects, recently I have begun to appreciate rock climbing even more because of the opportunities it presents for spiritual connection and witnessing. This dynamic might not be apparent at first. How does scaling a cliff create Christian connection? 

How does an outdoor pursuit serve a missional purpose?

It turns out that at the confluence of my Christian and hobby passions, I find the greatest opportunities for natural, energetic sharing. And when I devote all aspects of my life to Christ, He uses my interests to make connections I could never have made otherwise. 

Let me illustrate with a story, for my hope is that you will take your interests and passions and infuse them with gospel purpose too.

Max* has long hair and a gauge in one earlobe. He's toned, fit, and flexible. He moved to Squamish, British Columbia, Canada, to rock climb, and every summer he puts his work on hold to spend his days scaling the world-famous Stawamus Chief and countless other granite cliffs in the area. As I write this, it’s a sunny June day and Max is probably hundreds of meters off the valley floor, having the time of his life. 

The first time I saw Max at the climbing gym, I steered clear—he looked strong, intense, and focused. I only got more nervous when he responded to my post on the Squamish Climbing Partner Facebook group, and we agreed to meet for a session at the rock gym.

Rob Folkenberg [Photo: Canadian Adventist Messenger]

Rather than intimidating, Max turns out to be an easygoing and thoughtful guy, albeit very passionate about rocks! He and I are quite different. I’m a clean-cut church planter with a wife and two daughters. Max is a single dude who has set off on his own to pursue his passion. I’m Christian, and he’s atheist. These and a host of other factors would have naturally pulled us away from each other, yet we are friends today.

In the past I would not have sought out friends like Max. I am more than gregarious within my comfort zone, but I shrink back when exposed to the wider world. When I served as assistant pastor at a city church, my wife and I became great friends with other young adults in the congregation; but upon moving away, we noted that we knew very few people outside of our spiritual community. We had worked to make our church more welcoming to guests, but we had few non-Christian friends to invite. We prayed and resolved that wherever we served next, we would do things differently.

God certainly granted that request, because we are now church planters in a town with almost no other Adventists. I still get nervous asking for random climbing partners, showing up at town events, and mingling with pastors of other denominations, but God has pushed me out of my comfort zone. I am connecting with people of vastly different walks of life, and it is teaching me many things.

One thing that strikes me is that even though Max and I are so incredibly different, we find lots to talk about. Our connection is more than I expected at first. It goes beyond climbing to deeper talks about values, philosophy, and religion. Recently, we discussed existentialism, a philosophy that emphasizes the individual person and our free will to choose the life we want to live. To Max, this sort of philosophy makes sense because he believes we descended from apes and there is no Higher Power. So for him, the truest fulfillment in life will come by taking charge of one’s own destiny and doing what he feels is meaningful.

I’ll be honest. I don’t know much about existentialism, but learning that Max was into it made me do some research. I found that we could actually agree on some aspects, especially an emphasis on free will. In fact, a key early proponent of existentialism was the Christian theologian Søren Kierkegaard. While Max prompted me to explore existentialism, I suggested he read Ecclesiastes, in which Solomon comes face to face with life’s futility in a way similar to existentialist philosophy.

Getting to know Max has taught me that even though my culture and faith are different from most in secular Canada today, there are plenty of opportunities for connection. In the outdoor mecca that is Squamish, climbing has become both a natural and invaluable tool. For me as a church planter, one aspect of my job is to get to know people in my community, make friends, and look for ways to introduce Jesus. While challenging, this work is not complicated. God has given me a life story and interests that can serve as connecting points. For Max and me, the initial connecting point was climbing, and then our friendship deepened through shared interest in philosophy.

As I reflect on how my family and I are using shared interests such as climbing, children, and music to connect with people in our town, I realize that this sort of outreach based on shared hobbies and interests is open to every Christian. It is not something I became qualified to do through seminary studies, and it’s not for church planters alone. There are innumerable connecting points between you and others — work, exercise, neighborhood, hobbies.

Like me, you might initially think that connecting with new people is intimidating, but getting to know Max has taught me otherwise. There might be discomfort involved, but God has given you the tools for kingdom connections. I firmly believe that intentionality along with divine guidance will lead you to surprisingly meaningful friendships that bear fruit.

As we roped up for a climb, one in which Max quickly proved his climbing superiority by completing a very difficult overhanging route, he inquired, “So, you’ve never been to a strip club?”

“Nope,” I said, “and I feel really good about my life!” We laughed.

He then continued, “If your life ever falls apart and you’re at rock bottom, just know that I’ll be here and we can do crazy $&*@ together.” I laughed. I appreciated his concern, and I’m pretty used to his verbiage by now. He continued, “And you know, if I’m ever at rock bottom, maybe you can show me the way.” I laughed along with him again and said that I would.

While it passed as a joke, this really is what I earnestly hope for. Perhaps through our connection, someday I can be there to introduce Max to a loving and personal God who is doing everything in His power to reach him. Similarly, through the connections you make with neighbors, colleagues, and others with shared interests, you might get the chance to bring someone to Jesus as well. 

* Not his real name.

The original version of this story was printed in the August 2020 issue of Canadian Adventist Messenger.