Experiments in Youth Retreating

Every fall our high school community joins up with the other churches in our Presbytery for what, until this year, is a pretty standard youth retreat. There is worship, a speaker, camp food, bunk beds and plenty of ridiculously messy and/or dangerous games.


Retreats are wonderful and a bedrock of youth ministry for a reason. Kids get a chance to 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 (Camp Spalding). 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 last fall. Our speaker (who is actually a close friend of mine and an incredibly gifted communicator) was standing up on stage in front of ~250 of us sharing compelling Truth through story and Scripture and it hit me: she’s nailing it & most of the kids here just don’t care.

It wasn’t that they didn’t care about being challenged in their faith… it was that there was no way one speaker could 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 word “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 they couldn’t hear a word she was saying.

retreat group

At our debriefing meeting after last year’s retreat, I asked our leadership team if we could do it differently this coming year. What would the weekend look like if we kept the structure intact (games, meals, worship, free time & cabin times) but instead of hoping and expecting one person could stand on stage and engage over 200 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 I am 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.

Options for the weekend included:

  • Our Neighbor’s Faith: Why Jesus in a world w/ so many religions?
  • Without a Doubt? Is it ok that we doubt? If so, how can we doubt well? (led by moi)
  • Identity Crisis! Not only “who am I?” but “why am I?”
  • Relationships- all of ‘em: How can my faith guide me in how I deal with friends, family and those significant other types?

 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.


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