I just returned from a weekend retreat with the youth group I work with. If you’ve ever gone to a youth retreat, you know that they’re usually loud, energetic and fun, but all too frequently, the theology presented is weak and shallow. This was fortunately not the case this weekend (not too badly, anyway).
It made me think about the purpose of such retreats though. Why do we take the time to bring young people a couple hundred miles from home, keep them up late, hype them up and even spend money on it? There are a number of answers possible, to be sure, but I’ve got a few thoughts which might be helpful.
First, the answer which almost goes without saying is that for some reason, despite our best efforts, God works through camp ministry. Some of the most powerful weeks of my life were spent at camp. Was there poor theology? Probably. Bad influences? You bet. Did I do dumb stuff? Absolutely.
I still learned about God and drew closer to him.
A huge part of this growth was unrelated to the programs of the camp. Ultimately, a sermon will only reach kids who care to listen. A song will only touch kids who are already lost in the wonder of the great God we serve. A game only engages the kids who are interested, and even then, still requires someone to bridge the gap between it and the gospel.
Ultimately, I believe the single most important part of camp ministry is the people who are working on-on-one with the kids attending. I just spent over 48 hours straight with the same 11 teens, and it was a blast. During that time, we were able to talk about stuff that would have never come up in a conversation at a normal youth group night. As a further illustration, I remember one of the counselors I had when I went to camp in high school. Dorian Houser has a Ph.D in biology and works for the U.S. Navy, but chose to take time off work every year (at least as long as I was in high school, and probably both before and after) and spend a week at camp with a group of smelly, loud and awkward high school kids. I still remember much of what he said to us though, and one thing in particular which has been huge in my walk with Christ. He said “what you look upon is what you become”. My point in telling this story is that the counselors can have a tremendous impact upon the lives of the kids they work with.
This is huge. In my experience, the vast majority of those who grow up in the church and then leave their faith behind do so in the year after they graduate high school. There are many reasons for this, but I believe the prevalent one is an unrootedness which originates in a lack of discipleship. What I mean is that kids may hear all the truths of the gospel, and may be good Christians from an outsider’s perspective, but when they go to school, they look the same as all the other kids because they’ve never learned how to be different. When they leave their parents’ house, they are free of whatever restrictions existed there, and with their newfound freedom, they quickly leave behind their faith, which is perceived simply as a hindrance to good fun. This is all because there are not enough older, more mature Christians taking the time to get to know teens and younger kids and speaking into their lives.
Certainly, much of this responsibility falls upon the parents, but I know from my teen years that sometimes a different voice can speak the same message much more loudly and effectively. There are many things that my parents told me, but I didn’t hear most of them because I was too caught up in my own pride and too rebellious to consider the fact that they loved me and genuinely wanted me to succeed. Through this though, there were voices speaking to me, and I thank God that those voices were wiser, older Christians who also cared deeply about me.
This is where the church comes in. We have the ability to point the teens and kids in our churches to Christ, and to make a difference in their lives! See, we can talk about theology all day long, but if it doesn’t motivate us to go do something, we’re studying the wrong thing, drawing the wrong conclusions, or both. Rather than making this mistake, let’s take the knowledge we have, limited as it may be, and do everything we can to build relationships with younger Christians, especially teens who might not otherwise have any sort of relationship with other Christians. Will you join me in this?