Nothing changes teens’ lives
like retreats and extended times away together. A group survey of 1000 teens and many other studies proved that pretty conclusively. But not all retreats are created equally. It’s possible to maximize the impact of a weekend with a few intentional enhancements. Here are 5 ideas that really work:
Fine Tune Your Goals
I want kids to have a good time. We hope they all feel closer to God. We want to become closer as a group. All of these are great intentions. None of them are measureable. How will you know if you achieved any of them. You may be able to observe kids talking with one another and some participating in worship more enthusiastically than back at your church. The problem with this vague anecdotal evidence is that you can’t determine how many and to what extent are students being influenced
Clear goals for your retreat will keep you honest about whether your program brought about the desired results or they did not. If this is an outreach event you can measure how many pre converts come to the weekend. How many of these came to Christ. How many joined the follow up discipleship program at the end of the retreat.
Clear goals are essential for programming. A retreat designed to help students develop spiritual disciplines will be conducted differently than a retreat where the goal is develop a vision for the youth ministry.
The best way to craft these goals is to establish the general direction for what you want. Next you hammer out the specific measureable details. For example if the goal is to build community you may set a goal: By the end of the retreat each student will have prayer with 5 other students and made at least one new friend. This goal has a start and end. It can also be observed and measured.
2. Make Everything Point to Christ
“All weekend you have been saying that Jesus died. How did he die?” a student asked me in cabin devotions. I was astounded that anyone in this culture did know the answer to that question. Now I take nothing for granted!
Students live in a world where they will hear the Lord’s name used as a swear word more often than they will use it in praise. So for this weekend we want to help students focus on Christ. This can happen at the campfire, meal time, even trail rides. We want them to see Jesus in their cabin leaders and camp staff.
If there is an element of your program that doesn’t connect to Christ consider how it can be refocused to bring him in view.
3. Community in Everything
Just as some activities can build community, some activities can tear it down. Sometimes what is done in a prayer service is undone in the cabin craziness.
Go through every aspect of your program and determine if this activity encourages love and acceptance or it goes in some other direction.
For example, some retreats force kids to eat with strange implements at a meal time. Does that build community or detract from it? I have seen students tied together at the wrist at meal time in the misplaced hope that this will get kids “closer.”
One way that leaders can constantly be working at this is connecting students with other students. As a camp speaker, I often see pairs of students wandering the camp for hours during the “free time.” In fact I have watched these pairs of friends go through the entire weekend without interacting with any other students. It’s as if the retreat is a time to get away with their friend and ignore everyone else. These students need to be drawn into connection with other students. Activities can be designed to do this. Also leaders need to connect these pair with other pairs.
4. Let God Speak
If you give God room to work it is amazing what he does!
We need to plan for times where students can encounter God personally and corporately. Getting students to check in their smart phones sometimes helps them focus. Allow for times after the speaker for students to reflect on what was said. If you give students the option to linger in the meeting room to hear from God or to run to the dining hall for banna splits the moment can be ruined.
In fact sometimes I feel that directing student to start singing during the prayer time can also get in the way of hearing from God. Don’t be afraid of silence. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable for a little while. Silence makes students nervous but its when we create this awkward moment that some hear from God in a way that they never have.
One thing that I like to include in my planning is a time for students to spend an hour (30 min for jr high) with in silence and solitude. Students can walk the camp grounds or sit quietly somewhere. They can carry a bible but not a phone. I often have them pick up an object that represents what they feel God is saying to them. Later that will show their object to another student or a leader and tell them what it represents. After they have shared with one person I invite some of them to share with the whole group. It promotes community and can put the focus on the Lord.
5. Evaluate for Improvement
For the longest time I put no effort into evaluating my retreats. If it seemed like students were having a good time and that they were participating in the teaching times I was happy enough that all that time planning and the late nights had been worth it.
It wasn’t until I went away as the speaker for a huge youth group in Toronto that I saw the beauty of setting specific goals and evaluating these at the end of the retreat. Next the leaders compiled all of the answers to the questions that they had asked the students and began to discuss how they could improve on next year’s retreat. I was even more impressed that someone took notes and they were already making changes to schedule for the next fall.
It’s too easy to just do something in your first year at a group and stick with that template for all the years following. Wise youth leaders will always consider way to improve the program to maximize the impact in the lives of the students.
Here’s A Great Resource!
Here is an excellent resource that we came across for planning your retreat from beginning to end. If you are new at this it is a step by step guide. If you already have your template for your retreat down, here are some things you may not have thought about.