Tag Archives: ebenezer

The Role of Camps and Retreats

i write an every-other-month back page column for Youthwork Magazine in the UK. in the issue that just came out, my column was about the role of camps and retreats. as winter retreat season kicks off in the youth ministry world, i thought these might be some helpful thoughts to some of my U.S. youth ministry friends. and, as i start preparing for a handful of winter retreats i’m speaking at, this is a reminder to me!


Here’s some good news: teenagers in the 21st century still respond to Jesus. In some ways, this is truer than ever! The lives of early and middle-adolescents have changed dramatically from when you and I were their age (no, don’t be tempted to say, “it’s really the same.”). But this shift to more pain, more confusion, more stress, and more isolation make the Jesus way of living truly revolutionary: something teenagers are hungry for.

Today’s teens are hungry for something to be passionate about. And the message of Christ is wonderfully counter-cultural. While their schoolwork often calls for busy-ness, Jesus calls them to a relationship of trust and slowness. While their sports teams often call them to performance, Jesus calls them to a place where their worth is pre-established. While their parents, and even their peer clusters (and, unfortunately, even their churches), call them to wear a variety of masks to hide the pain in their lives, Jesus calls them to be themselves—the selves he so perfectly loves.

A primary issue today’s frenzied teenagers is isolation. Teenagers today live in a world either completely or almost-completely isolated from adults. And this experience of isolation goes deeper: teenagers often experience isolation from self, others, and the world around them. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ can penetrate this isolation, and still bring about the kind of radical transformation we hope for in all our lives.

But in the blur of everyday life, it’s tough for teenagers to experience these passion-worthy truths. But camps and retreats still provide “mini monastic experiences”—opportunities to pull away from the distractions of normal life and practice a slower-paced and spiritually focused daily rhythm.

In my rush to move away from manipulation of teenagers (it’s not hard to get kids to “respond”, if you use the kind of manipulative techniques often perpetrated in our history of youth ministry—especially when it comes to “decision night” at camp), I once shied away from calling students to a decision. I was so conscious of not manipulating decisions that I threw the baby out with the bathwater.

But in more recent years, I’ve come to realize a couple things about these decisions (especially at camps and retreats): First, it’s very rare to find people who made one-and-only-one decision for Christ. Most of us make a series of decisions. In fact, most of us need to make a “decision for Christ” pretty much every day!

Second, teenagers (and adults) still need to make stake-in-the-ground choices. “I’m not going to be a part of this behavior anymore.” “I’m going to re-arrange my priorities based on this new information.” “I’m going to follow Jesus this year.” These choices—this ongoing series of spiritual choices in our lives—become re-directors, guiding bumpers in our journey toward Christ.

So, finally, I’ve come to see spiritual decisions (especially the “biggies” made at camps and retreats) as Ebenezers.

Remember that great Old Testament word? Samuel put a big rock up, called it an “Ebenezer”, and said it was to commemorate a spot where God met us (1 Samuel 7:12). An Ebenezer is a spiritual marker. Significant spiritual decisions—when not manipulated—become spiritual markers for students. And when a 15 year-old girl finds, six months later, that she doesn’t “feel” God anymore, she—hopefully—can reflect back on her Ebenezer from summer camp and say to herself, “But I know I felt God then; I know God is real, because I know God was real then.”

Sure, this is a bit simplistic; and even Ebenezers can be forgotten with enough landscape in-between. But a series of spiritual markers seems to most accurately reflect the reality of the spiritual life for those of us with a few more years perspective.

But we have hope! We know (not from scientific proof, but from our own life experience) that this God-stuff is the real deal—and following Jesus is the only way to really experience the fullness of life.

I want to be a youth worker who never manipulates or coerces teenagers into spiritual decisions. And I refuse to use certain types of programs to manufacture behavior and commitment. Instead: I am an environmental host, creating spaces where teenagers have an increased opportunity to experience Jesus. And that’s why I still love, love, love the unique out-of-the-ordinary environment of camps and retreats. Let’s help teenagers build some Ebenezers!

aspiration & ebenezers, with additional definitions of a personal nature

as·pi·ra·tion (as-puh-rey-shun), noun.

1. strong desire, longing, or aim; ambition: intellectual aspirations.

2. a goal or objective desired: The presidency is the traditional aspiration of young American boys.

3. act of aspirating; breath.

4. Phonetics.

a. articulation accompanied by an audible puff of breath, as in the h-sound of how, or of when (hwen), or in the release of initial stops, as in the k-sound of key.
b. the use of an aspirate in pronunciation.

5. Medicine/Medical.

a. the act of removing a fluid, as pus or serum, from a cavity of the body, by a hollow needle or trocar connected with a suction syringe.
b. the act of inhaling fluid or a foreign body into the bronchi and lungs, often after vomiting.

6. when marko attends church, as in this morning, and finds that — even though he loves his church and the people there — he experiences no connection (with people or with god); and, as a result, finds himself ‘practicing’ the practice of worship and engagement, without the experience thereof, with the intent that the experience and knowledge and belief will, at another time to come, seem once again real and authentic. in this sense, every action and many ‘beliefs’ practiced by marko this morning were done so with aspiration.

Eb·en·e·zer (eb-uh-nee-zer), noun.

1. a male given name: from a Hebrew word meaning “stone of help.”

2. male proper name, sometimes also the name of a Protestant chapel or meeting house, from name of a stone raised by Samuel to commemorate a victory over the Philistines at Mizpeh (I Sam. vii.12), from Heb. ebhen ezar “stone of help,” from ebhen “stone” + ezer “help.”

3. what marko draws on during mornings like this one, where attendance and participation at church feel hollow and fake (not that anyone else there was being hollow and fake — marko was the one who felt hollow and fake). in the midst of choosing to sing some of the songs about god and jesus and stuff, marko remembers that only last week he was in argentina, explaining to a room full of latin youth workers, the value of viewing spiritually intense moments (which are inevitable in youth ministry), when not manipulated, as ebenezers: spiritual markers of “god met me/us here” in the journey of adolescence. this memory, which came during a particularly hollow and fake moment of participating in singing a chris tomlin song — so much so that marko just stopped singing and stood there — caused marko to reflect back on the ebenezers in his recent journey, the recent “god met me here” moments. interesting that the sermon was on the old testament joseph, a dude who certainly would have had his share of “god met me here” moments interspersed with long periods of some opposite experience (what we might call the “inverse-nezer”).