Last weekend, I embarked upon an adventure with my high school students that every youth pastor should consider, if you have not done so already. We completed our second annual Winter Retreat.
I cannot express to you how important and vital this weekend away with your leaders and students means for your end-of-school-year momentum. This event has become the backbone for our spring semester… for a number of reasons.
I have asked my good friend and colleague, Benjamin Kerns, to guest post about this topic. He and I partnered our students and leaders together, and we shared our Winter Retreat experience together at Hume Lake in the Sierra Foothills of CA. He recently dropped some awesome perspective and knowledge about this topic on his blog, which I have asked him to share here. Quite honestly, he took the words from my mouth, and expressed way better than I could my thoughts on this topic. Enjoy chewing on the goodness and freshness of his take — spoken by a man with over 15 years of Youth Ministry and Winter Retreat experience. Let's give it up for my friend and yours, Benjamin Kerns. Enjoy…
Now that winter camp season is coming to a close, most of us have completed our annual journey to some sort of winter camp, conference, retreat. We pounded the pavement, got students to commit, took care of the logistics, lost $1000, got our kids fired up and inspired, and upon re-entry we get to see (or not see) any lasting impact. Like all events in a youth worker’s calendar we have to do a cost / benefit analysis for each of our events, and the winter camp evaluation is always tricky. Because the cost is so high, and the benefit is a little sketchy, we must answer the nagging question, “Was it worth it?” YES IT IS, and here is why:
“Camp High” is not a bad word:
I get that some student ministries and even some students get cynical about the liturgical rhythm of student ministry. “This is when we do the sex talk.” “It is time again for our mission trip.” “Camp is coming up.” “Saturday is gospel night.” “I love cry night at camp.” But if camp highs, gospel night, and even cry night have become cliches or even jokes, then that is because you have let it. Your students follow you and your staff’s lead when they talk about and shape their spiritual experiences.
In every example in scripture, in every testimony, we see a common thread, some mountain top experience, where they encountered the living God. Camp has often been one of those places that God shows up in big and powerful ways. When we go to camp we often encounter Jesus and that leaves us with a spiritual high. This is a good and needed thing, something that should be expectant of when we go to camp, and celebrate when we leave camp.
We must guard our own tongue and be sure to not wreck an opportunity due to our own baggage and issues. Let us help create an expectant heart for our students so they can encounter Jesus and move into a deeper walk with him. Let us also help them re-enter “normal” life and shape both experiences so that camp isn’t just equated a fix for a junkie.
Students need a break from their chaotic world:
It is easy to forget the plight of our students. I have landed. My hormones have calmed down, my body is now in the right proportions. I am done with school and have a job and a house. I have a group of friends whom I love and love me back. I have found the love of my life and get to make out and have sex whenever I want. (Ok, not whenever I want) For the most part, I have landed.
Our students have anything, but landed. Their lives are in total chaos. Socially, hormonally, spiritually. Their campus life is a disaster and they are always on guard. They often feel alone and beat down. They must perform in every area of their life in order to be accepted by their peers, teachers, parents, and even their youth pastors. This is no joke and should not be treated lightly.
Winter camp gets to be a small respite from this world that is continually bearing down on them; a break from the rhythms that crush them, and give them a complete reboot. We have the blessing to rescue them from their phones, facebook, parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, whatever and spend a weekend setting up new ways to relate to one another and to God.
Camp offers a living example of Christian Community at its best:
In many student ministries, including my own, community is a high value. We want them to not just learn the truths of God, but experience them and live into them. Christian community is the place where this happens, and camp is a year’s worth of youth group wrapped up into a weekend.
Students alway reflect and wonder why they feel so close to Jesus at camp or on mission trips. It is because they are living in a way that matches they way they were designed to live more than at any other time in their lives. They are unplugged from the destructive people and choices in their lives. They get to think and reflect on the deeper things of life. They worship and pray, and learn about Jesus. They have fun that is clean and safe, (more emotionally than physically). And when 2 or more gather in Jesus’ name He shows up. Add a couple hundred others and look out!
This isn’t a psychological trick that we get be cynical about, but an eschatological reality that we should embrace.
Shared experiences and memories provide the foundational elements for community building:
This is psychological. The more memories we can provide our students, the more positive experiences we can provide for our students the more likely they will have some longevity in their faith. We are so proud of our speaking and teaching, but these words are simply words that go in one ear and out the other. An experience or a memory those stay with students for a life time. When those experiences and memories allow them to live out the abstract spiritual truth we have been harping on them, then their faith become more and more their own.
Our faith needs watermark experiences and places:
When you reflect back on your life and think about those times and places where you felt the closest to Jesus, where you could actually sense His presence, where you could actually or almost hear His audible voice, where were those places? I am pretty sure that they weren’t in a youth room or even in your church’s sanctuary. Those places are common. Needed, but common, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. They are needed, but not memorable.
Most likely those encounters happened in special and specific places. These places, these times are important watermarks. The place in the rock that reminds us that although this time and season is dry and barren, there was this time once where there was water and it left a mark!
Camp is that place. Students need water marks. Students need places and people other than you and your group. And usually when they get to some place other, when they get a voice that is not yours, when they get out of a context that is known and common, God usually shows up and that should be celebrated.
These watermarks don’t just happen. We can’t conjure them up. But we can make space for them, and actually calendar them into our ministry program. For me, winter camp is an intentional time an place where we get out of our common surroundings, expect God to show up in this thin place, and celebrate with our students and give glory to God when he shows up and rocks our world.
Are you providing these places and spaces for your students? Are you allowing other voices and experiences to shape your students or are you holding on too tight? Are you calendaring in these experiences or just trying to manufacture them? Is your cynicism and baggage hindering the way your students can and should embrace camp?
For as high a cost as winter camp always seems to cost me, our youth budget, and our insurance premiums, the benefits are through the roof! I am thankful for the watermark moments that have happened in my life and in the life of my students at winter camps all over our country!
Thank you Hume Lake for another great year of winter camp! You guys are the best and continue to bless me and my students.
QUESTION: Tell us about your Winter Retreat experiences and how they have strengthened your community through the dry Spring months.