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Experimenting in Youth Retreating

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Yesterday, I returned, along with a whole bunch of high school kids, on what, until last year was a pretty standard youth retreat. There was worship, a speaker, camp food, bunk beds and plenty of ridiculously messy and/or dangerous games.

Retreats and camps are a bedrock of youth ministry for a reason. Students get a chance to literally retreat from their crazy-busy lives, while leaders get a chance to dive into relationship and discipleship in ways that just aren’t possible back home. Our group has been very happy with both our partnerships with the local churches we attend with and the camp that hosts the retreat each year. So happy, in fact, that I wasn’t actively looking for ways to improve a model and experience that was clearly working for our students.That is until about halfway through the retreat a couple years ago.

Our speaker (who is a close friend of mine and an incredibly gifted communicator) was standing up on stage in front of ~250 high school students sharing compelling Truth through story and Scripture and it hit me:

She’s nailing it and most of the kids here just don’t care.

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about being challenged in their faith; it simply became evident that one speaker, no matter how gifted, couldn’t effectively produce content for such a large number of high school kids who were all entering into the weekend in completely different places.

Some were committed followers of Christ, some were hearing the name Christ for the first time. Some had incredible hurt in their lives and some were so carefree their only concern was getting enough tater tots at lunch. And some kids were so paralyzed by doubt and disillusion that they couldn’t hear a word she was saying.

At our debriefing meeting after that year’s retreat, I asked our leadership team if we could do it differently the coming year. What would the weekend look like if we kept much of the structure intact (games, meals, worship, free time & cabin times), but presented our content differently? Instead of hoping, and expecting, one person can stand on stage and engage 250 students in a personal and challenging way, what if we offered the students a few different options?

What if we used crowdsourcing amongst our students throughout the summer and early fall and asked them what they are currently dealing with in terms of their faith? Could we then use this pivotal weekend to target these student’s actual, specific contexts instead of hoping they’d find a glimpse of something to take home in a general way?

So we did it. We gave it a try and are thrilled with the outcome. Students were able to pre-select which content option they’d like to wrestle with throughout the weekend and were encouraged to truly select what mattered to them- and not simply to go where their friends went. And guess what? They engaged. They wrestled. And they spent an entire weekend thinking and discussing a faith forming topic that mattered to them. Not only do we, the leadership, feel good about this fundamental change to our youth retreat but the students seem to as well. These past two retreats were the highest attended in the camp’s history. I think we may be onto something.

Content options for the weekend included:

  • Our Neighbor’s Faith: Why Jesus in a world with so many religions?
  • Without a Doubt? Is it ok that we doubt? If so, how can we doubt well?
  • Identity Crisis! Not only “who am I?” but “why am I?”
  • Exploring Prayer: what is prayer and what are some creative ways to engage it?

There are certainly some areas of growth (for example, how do we do small groups within each content option while still allowing for the sacred “cabin time” to happen?) but overall it felt like the time, energy and money put into making a memorable weekend was better used in terms of discipleship and forward movement in their faith. We’ve all heard the old adage that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But sometimes in our comfortable world of youth ministry traditions your students are better served if we take the risk to break some stuff.

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4 thoughts on “Experimenting in Youth Retreating

  1. We’ve been doing a similar method with our summer camps and I’m very surprised I didn’t think about doing this for a retreat lol

  2. Funny; we just finished our youth retreat last weekend and for the first time went with 3 different speakers. It went really well; three different people; three different ways of teaching; three different things they emphasized that all came around to the main theme: Identity in Christ.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. That’s so rad! Thanks for sharing. Can I ask for the “why” you decided to do your retreat like that? Would love to hear how you and your team thought through the process and decision.

      1. Absolutely! Since our theme was on identity, we thought we would experiment with three different speakers. They were all speakers that our teens (from two churches) were familiar with, but not that they heard often, every year even! It went really well, I think we will do that again.

        Also, 2 of the 3 were co-cabin leaders and were with us the whole weekend. It totally downplayed “the speaker” factor, the whole mountain-top/come back home crash experience. It made for a really powerful, memorable but simple weekend!

        hope that helps!

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