In the past few months and years in the youth ministry blogosphere, it seems as though there has been a debate about the value of youth retreats and youth gatherings. Especially with the state of the economy, people wonder if retreats and gatherings are worth the time and money put into them. There are also those who question if the participants really “get” very much from them.

Whether you’re a volunteer or a professional working with youth, gatherings and retreats can be a major part of youth ministry programming. In the Lutheran Church, obviously the National Youth Gathering is a huge time and financial commitment that churches are making for this upcoming summer. As a DCE, some of my responsibilities include helping plan and lead such events and gatherings for both middle school and high school students. Before we begin to plan the event, I try to ask the question, “How will this event impact the students that attend?” and “What spiritual truths are our focus?” Being Lutheran, we always try to be aware and teach God’s grace through His son, Jesus, and it is usually the main message of the event.

I recently read Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, as well as saw him in person when he traveled through Oklahoma City on his book tour. In his book and on tour, Donald Miller said something that has stuck with me. He said that “a good story is about a character that wants something and then goes through conflict to get it.” Beyond the message of a weekend, I think that retreats and gatherings have a great opportunity for youth to live good stories. Retreats and Gatherings help students enter into a “mini-story.”

Retreats and Gatherings are kind of a microcosm of life, community, and struggles–and all over a week or weekend. When our 8th graders head to camp for their confirmation retreat, one of the main components is the General Initiative Course (GIC). The students work through a series of group challenges on the ground and on the high ropes course. There is always a goal given and immediately students enter into conflict and must work through the conflict to achieve the goal. Even more, they almost always have to work together to achieve the goal. Those experiences that they share on the course are often bonding events for youth who were once strangers and are often ripe with spiritual implications. Youth learn how to live their stories in this contained event in the hopes that they take what they learn and can live good stories in their “real lives.”

Retreats and Gatherings also help youth learn to live their stories in relationships with others. Whether by bonding with the adults who came on the trip, or youth from outside their group, there are so many opportunities for students to step outside of themselves and their comfort zones. Having just come back from our Oklahoma District Middle School Gathering, I saw middle school students step up and meet new people in their small groups, learn to trust and listen to the high school students leading their Bible Study groups, and connect with their adults in real, tangible ways. I also saw middle school students meet the needs of the community through acts of service, singing and visiting with residents in nursing homes and cleaning up yards and grounds for those in need. The students this weekend lived their stories and their faith in their words and actions.

How about you? What’s been your best retreat/gathering experience? What’s the biggest benefit of this type of program? What would you change? What would you keep?

Published October 2009