The Ecstasy And The Agony of The Youth Retreat

We took our junior high and high school youth to a retreat last weekend put on by our denomination’s local camp and conference center. It was the first foray in a long while for our church into this camp’s programming–or any camp programming for that matter (more on that later).

Our students made really valuable connections with students from other churches in our area, which was encouraging. To me, that’s a huge part of why you do retreats like that in favor of retreating with only your church’s youth. Literally within minutes of arriving, some of our students were talking with complete strangers on their own initiative.

The volunteer staff were college students who led high-quality group games and facilitated small groups. I think the model of faith provided by these volunteer staff for the youth was very positive.

The setting was ideal: mountains, snow, sun. It made for an entire afternoon of sledding and making snowmen and snowball fights. And students came in from the snow to a big lodge with a fire burning. Recreation meets comfort meets community. It was fantastic, and our students seemed to have an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Yet . . .

Our students came from the most theologically progressive church represented, I’m sure, and the content of the retreat was notably out of step in tone and tune from what we’re nurturing them in back home. I’m not interested in a sustained critique, and I think readers of this blog will know what I mean when I describe guitar-led, male pronoun-dominated praise songs filled with images of divine Kingship, sacrifice, and blood alongside devotional talks pressing kids to make a decision for Jesus.

I wrestled all weekend with two things: first, I believe it’s a good thing for our youth to be exposed to Christians from across the theological and denominational spectrum. Neither the church nor the world is served by communities of Christians rearing their young in isolation from one another with their own branded God talk.

But how do we both include our youth in those gatherings while also taking an active role in shaping them so that our youth can actually recognize what’s being presented and not experience it as a foreign language? For what it’s worth, I used my evaluation form to volunteer to help plan the next one.

Second, my experience has indicated that Christian camps, even those of mainline Protestant denominations, are irreducibly tilted towards the evangelical experience of faith. Liberal churches, then, are more likely to abstain from the church-wide camp or retreat experience altogether than they are to engage with that culture.

I’m certainly missing something here, right?

17 thoughts on “The Ecstasy And The Agony of The Youth Retreat

  1. You know, this dichotomy was the same back when I was in youth group in the 80s. Youth retreats were a totally different (and sometimes uncomfortable) experience coming from a staid, mainline Presbyterian church, as I did.

    My husband and I both grew up in these mainline Presby churches, but when we moved to Boston during my husband’s post-doc years, we unwittingly joined an increasingly conservative/evangelical church. We bristled about many things, but I also regard it as perhaps the most formative time in my faith journey. I learned to talk about God & Jesus more openly and comfortably and use language like my “faith journey”. I learned about the spiritual disciplines of prayer and studying the Bible and small groups. I prayed over sick friends. I learned about how to talk to others about Jesus outside the context of church (didn’t practice this one very much, though :-)). The fervency of evangelicals to witness to others comes from the Great Commission. God could return anytime and we want everybody to be saved so that no one goes to hell.

    We are now back in the south. It’s almost impossible to find churches that have figured out how to incorporate both sides. At the beginning of Officer Training, we were asked to go around the table and talk about our “faith journey” which I thought was going to be sharing about our relationship with God and how it had evolved (including the ups and downs). Nope, it was a recitation of the different churches we had gone to throughout our life. Who was the most Presbyterian? 🙂 (My grandmother came from Scotland and I went to a Presbyterian College, so I think I won.) Mainliners just can’t speak this other language.

    We belong now to a mainline (healthy) Presbyterian church whose focus is justice and service. We love our church. I do miss the intimacy of Bible Studies, small groups, being challenged to infuse each day with prayer, being pushed and stretched in a deeply personal, spiritual way. We neglect our own relationship with God; it’s uncomfortable to go there. But why can’t we do both? Or do it all? Talk about what it means to feed ourselves.

    Having discussions amongst ourselves about the differences between these flavors of faith practice could lead us to a different place. Maybe God is calling us to have those discussions — not to turn us into evangelicals, but to reconcile us.

    It would be interesting to talk to the youth who just came back from a conference about these things? I’m betting they would have some interesting observations.

    1. Thanks, SuzeB. I grew up in that evangelical (even charismatic) landscape, and so my sensitivity is heightened. Like you, I miss some aspects of it and have been a bit perplexed at a widespread discomfort on the part of many of my mainline brothers and sisters when it comes to talking about their faith in a personal way. I think many of them are also responding to more conservative upbringings.
      You know, I don’t think our youth experienced the weekends as disorienting at all. They did notice and point out that the music was not at all like what they get at our church, and I think they meant the lyrical content as much as the instrumentation.
      On the whole, I’m positive about this camp experience for our youth, and I’m putting it on our calendar for next year. But I also want it to speak more the language that our kids are using in their own faith community.

  2. FWIW–the first words out of Clayton’s mouth when I asked how the retreat went were, and I quote: “Rocky has MAD Snowball skillz”. Which I think points to relationship rather than content being the main point of these adventures anyway.

      1. I’d just like to say that this last reply was awesome. I can picture this, and yes, you do have mad snowball skills.

  3. I grew up going to church camp that seemed to make me feel like Jesus was right in the room, but that I still couldn’t get to him, that I needed to dedicate or rededicate my life or somehow feel guilty.

    A few months ago I helped chaperone a United Methodist youth retreat. It was such a welcome change. The leaders talked about how the planet will reach 7 billion people and what it means to live in community with all of them, particularly in light of our faith. One of the youth leaders talked about how he had turned his car into an electric vehicle in order to live out his values. That included being less dependent on foreign oil because many of the countries where it comes from don’t allow women to vote.

    There was still plenty of room for songs and games. A particularly sentimental video of Michael W. Smith reading Psalm 139 had me scratching my head, but overall, I thought it was a great experience for our kids.

    And I think it would have been great for any kids, not just us mainliners. It gave me hope.

    1. Thanks Teresa. Your observation helps me think about the altar call dynamic that seems to be a camp requirement. It’s not a bad thing in its own right, but employed over and over again it can create an anxious, self-obsessed faith. I’d love to visit that Methodist camp some time.

  4. What I love about the youth camp that I take kids and leaders to is that they’ve removed the alter call aspect of the camp experience and placed those moments back on the shoulders of the church leaders who will live out life with kids back down the mountain.

    On another note, I guess I’ve been living in a world where mainline denominational churches can be evangelical… and I didn’t know that the “evangelical experience of faith” was a bad thing.

    Is there a certain definition of evangelical that are you pushing back on?

  5. Anthony, certainly mainline churches can be evangelical–they all fundamentally are, theologically speaking. But culturally speaking they’re not. And the “evangelical experience of faith” is in no way a bad thing. But I grew up in a context where hearing the gospel preached and being summoned to respond with repentance was the only dimension of faith experience presented. The value of camps like this for our students is that they don’t ever really get that in our congregation, but they need to. Camp experiences help with that.

    Glad to have you as a reader!

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