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?