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!

3 thoughts on “The Role of Camps and Retreats”

  1. Love this. At our last retreat somebody invited students to come forward and make a decision, but nobody really got it. Than another leader, raised in a tradition of altar calls, interpreted the invitation to the teens in a way they understood, and many came forward. It was powerful. Thanks for your thinking on this.

  2. i Hate to say it, but the article leaves out a crucial element of what camps and retreats should be about – connecting young people with a solid local church. A planted seed can do nothing without someone nurturing it. If camps and retreat centers and their leaders don’t have great, working connections with local churches, it’s doing nothing for the kingdom.

  3. i wouldn’t disagree at all, daniel. i suppose i was totally presuming, in my thinking, the sorts of camps that are collections of participants coming AS groups from churches. i have pretty much no involvement with any camps where teenagers come as individuals. so, for me, the connection to church was a given.

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