In a few months the winter retreat season will be upon us in full swing. For many youth ministries, the annual tradition represents an opportune time to get away from it all, focus intently upon spiritual matters, and grow together as a community. These weekend events can be transformative experiences for many students, marking a clear turning point in their lives. Some come to trust in Christ for the first time. Others become serious about the implications their existing faith commitments have in their lives. Still others begin to discern a deep sense of what God is calling them to do with their lives. For these reasons and more, I affirm the place of the retreat in youth ministry.
Yet youth retreats, by their intense and focused nature, are by definition a kind of artificial environment. At times this new place helps create space and time for people to encounter God and come to new insights they would never have otherwise. Sometimes, though, the environment is merely artificial and therefore lasts only as long as the weekend. This latter reality is why the last sermon at most youth retreats tends to revolve around the idea that we shouldn’t “lose the fire/focus/passion/determination/etc.” gained over the weekend.
I’m currently in conversation with a group about speaking at one of these weekend getaways. It is an honor to be asked. As I prayerfully consider the opportunity, I’ve also been thinking about the ways we often operate in youth ministry. Because in my tradition we often place a high value on spiritual experience, expressive worship, and the place of emotion in our faith, certain aspects of the retreat take on deep importance. Times of musical worship. Prayer around the altars. Post-service testimonies. These things and more can come to be hallmarks of the experience that many youth pastors look to as signs that “God showed up.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am a Pentecostal for a reason. I believe in expressive and emotional worship, transformative prayers, and the way in which the Spirit of God can and does change hearts and lives in the twinkling of an eye. But at the same time, I am leery of placing too much attention–in any area of ministry–to only those things that we can see in the moment.
Concentrating only the optics of a youth retreat (hands raised in worship, students praying together, emotional and experiential testimonies) contains danger. Because if we start to consider these eminently Tweet-able things the (perhaps only) hallmarks of our success, we will start to look at them as goals in and of themselves. We will, consciously or not, construct our retreat plan not around growing disciples of Christ, but creating places for people to be emotional, pray around an altar, or otherwise do/feel/see something. We will take these outward things as the measure of our success (and post on Facebook about them) rather than the inward and sometimes rather invisible work that God is doing in the lives of students.
Trust me here: I speak from experience. I still remember one retreat not too long ago where a speaker had silly yet emotive countdown. When he reached “zero,” all of the students were supposed to run to the front of the room and engage in prayer and worship. And guess what? They did just that. They did it, I think, because they were emotionally convinced it was necessary. They did so, not a little, because they were manipulated to. They did it because it was exciting.
As seen from the outside, this rush of students to pray and worship God seemed impressive. But that’s just what we saw with physical eyes. Spiritually? I can’t really be sure what was happening in the lives of students.
While I believe that God speaks to us through passionate prayer and expressive worship, I also know that it is possible to whip people up into an earnest emotional frenzy. As youth leaders, seeing these results (especially from sometimes mysterious or otherwise non-emotive teens) might make us feel better about ourselves and what we’ve accomplished. But once again, this is just looking at things with human eyes. Spiritual vision is needed.
You might say that the weekend youth retreat is but a microcosm of youth ministry itself. So often–and it is hard not to–we consider how many students show up on a given night and how we think they are responding in the moment as whether or not we’re doing something right. While there is merit in some of that, the older I get the more I’m realizing that the true measure of a ministry’s “success” is not how many students attend your youth meeting or how we feel about their response or emotions on a given week.
The real measure of a youth ministry’s–and a church’s–effectiveness is how many of those same students are following Christ in tangible ways a decade or two after they graduate from high school. How many have become lifelong disciples.
If we stop focusing on the tyranny of the now (i.e. only what is in front of us) and open our spiritual eyes to look towards the horizon, I think that we as youth ministers will be taking some important steps in the right direction. All the things we might value about retreats and church-based youth ministries right now? We will see them for their true importance, not just the emotional effect they have on us and our students in the moment. Taking “the long view” and avoiding the siren song of tangible short-term results will serve us well as we work together with families and congregations to help others on the path of faith.