The Ecstacy And The Agony of The Youth Retreat Revisited

About a year ago I wrote a post that openly fretted about the prospects for students in mainline, progressive congregations to have an experience of camp-based youth retreats that didn’t feel completely out of step with the theology and worship of their home church.

We’ve just returned from our annual experience with the retreat that gave rise to that post, and I want to diverge from my series on Diana Bulter-Bass’s new book to revisit the things that felt funny to me about church camp a year ago.


However positive our students’ experience of the last retreat, their experience of this one seemed even better. The stock and trade of the church youth retreat is so for a reason, because those mixers, songs, and games have a proven track record of helping students make connections and feel comfortable. The staff at this retreat did those things proficiently and with characteristic gusto. I watched with admiration.

The retreat was structured around the beatitudes, and the staff very creatively helped small groups of students choose one with which to spend the weekend. Our students talked at length and in depth, guided by their volunteer adult counselors, about the blessedness of meekness, purity of heart, and poverty of spirit. I’m good right there. Full stop.

But on top of that the staff and counselors led students both in presenting their beatitude to their peers in a creative way and in “sharing” what significance the beatitude had gained for them. What struck me about this was how open-ended the process was and how unresolved many of the outcomes were. The students who presented on “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for example, did a skit that followed two brothers who lose their mother, get disowned by their father, become criminals, and end by wondering if God cares about them at all.

The whole thing allowed for a posture of honest questioning and exploration without expected “Jesus-y” answers. In fact, with the ideas of Christianity After Religion ringing in my ears, the whole thing seemed to be after “how” students believe these beatitudes much less than “what” they believe about them. I was totally digging it.

As for the songs and the King-Jesus-God talks and the altar calls, I’m kind of over my dis-ease. Those things are the wheelhouse of church camp, and if you have a problem with those things then you kind of have a problem with camp. There are better and worse ways to do those things, for sure, but church camp is evangelicalism’s undisputed terrain, so if you’re going to get bent over an guitared avalanche of “Hims” and no hymns then you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.

That battle might be worth fighting at the youth retreat, but immersion in the conventions of a different expression of Christianity than my students are used to is a benefit that I think outweighs the cost of screwy pronouns.

For my part, I was primarily a parent of a four year-old at the retreat and not a counselor, so please excuse this gratuitous exhibit of cuteness.


8 thoughts on “The Ecstacy And The Agony of The Youth Retreat Revisited

  1. Rocky Man,

    Was this a High School or Junior High deal? Where??? Looks like Big Bear…..Who were the planners and leaders of the deal? Most importantly…..when did you get so mellow?


    1. Rex, this was the March Madness youth retreat for junior high and high school students put on by the Big Bear Christian Camp and Conference Center. Like they do with the two weekly summer camps, the camp hires a director and staff to run the program. From what I could gather, many of those staff this year came from St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Redondo Beach.
      As to me being mellow, hanging out with Laura the whole time is entirely responsible for that.

  2. Just happened to stumble upon this after exploring your blog. I can’t tell you how many youth retreats i’ve been a part of that felt, at some level, like emotional manipulation. Obviously none of the camps had that as a goal. In fact, much of the transformation i experienced occurred at these camps. God can and does use all these experiences for his glory. But as we move forward in student ministry i think we have to step out of this box and into the world of allowing students to question God for themselves. To wrestle with the text themselves. Maybe we are afraid where they will end up? God is bigger then that. And the church needs to be a safe place to do that.

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