Planning a Gospel-Centered Retreat

At the start of a new year, there is a brief moment for youth ministers to take a breath and prepare for the ministry the Lord has prepared for the coming year. Unfortunately, it is often just one breath, since a new year can also mean it is time to prepare for a winter retreat, Disciple Now, or ski trip. As I write, our student ministry is gearing up to go on our winter retreat this weekend.

In the midst of the logistics, communicating with parents, and planning retreat content, it is easy for us as ministers to begin to view the retreat as simply something we do; it becomes professionalized in our minds. Our focus shifts from seeing the weekend as an important time for our studentswalk with Christ to viewing it more like a business. To the contrary, as Davis Lacey points out, “Retreats which are fruitful in the biblical sense are means to an end, not ends in and of themselves.”

As ministers of the gospel, our goal in the logistics and planning must be that of Paul: that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19). Keeping this goal in mind allows us to see retreats that glorify God and effect real change in the hearts of our students.
Here are three fundamental areas of planning that can flow out of our focus on Christ’s “dwelling in students’ hearts through faith:”

Choosing Ministry Partners

I grew up in a small town in Mississippi—so small, in fact, that several of my schoolteachers were also my Sunday School teachers. As a result, the Christian world also felt small. When I came of the age that I could start attending camps and retreats, it was both fascinating and encouraging to see that I was not alone in pursuing Christ at my school.

In the verses from Ephesians 3 quoted above, Paul points out that he longs for “all the saints” to be united in their love for Christ. Opportunities like retreats demonstrate to students who “all the saints” are. Attending retreats with other churches helps students begin to see that their local church is a part of the universal church. They observe that God is at work not only in and around them but that he is also bringing salvation to the whole world (Rev. 7:9).

When thinking through possible church partners for a retreat, it is crucial to choose those who see Christ as the center and goal of the weekend, despite whatever denominational differences there may be. This holds even more true when deciding on a speaker and theme. Retreats can often fluctuate between being so focused on fun and entertainment that the spiritual aspect gets relegated to an after-thought, and being so hyper-spiritual that students fail to engage at all. That is why personal relationships are key in finding partners.

The retreat that our students are attending this weekend is primarily composed of Presbyterian churches, while we are a Baptist church. Due to the personal relationships that have developed through our Rooted Regional Group in Orlando, it was easy to find churches that aligned with our vision for retreats and to plan one together. In conjunction with these other ministers, it was far easier to find a speaker who would point our students to Christ. Together we were able to pick a theme that straddles the line of being engaging for students and bringing truth to bear on their lives.

Choosing a Location

Perhaps no retreat decision is more logistically complicated than choosing a location. Distance, price, accommodations for disability and dietary needs, and the disposition of the venue’s staff all play a role in our choices. In these logistical decisions, we are ultimately seeking to ensure that our students are well cared for.

One of the most important considerations for the location of a retreat is that of safety. If a location fails to provide adequate safety guidelines, such as training for staff on the ropes course or boundaries for leaders, students will struggle to focus and relax throughout the trip. In order for students to “have the strength to comprehend” (Eph. 3:18), ministers must be careful to choose locations that are safe and caring.

For example, the retreat that our students are going on has separated cabin areas for the boys and girls. Plus, there is a strict three-person rule. Any time students are walking to activities, there must be a minimum of three people in the group, even if they are with leaders. While students may not see the use of such rules, the retreat center is helping them get the most out of their weekend.

Creating a Schedule

Liz Edrington writes, “A retreat can be intentional time taken for relationship with God, for relationship with yourself, or for relationship with others.” Paul incorporates all three in Eph. 3:17-19 in praying 1.) “that Christ may dwell in your hearts,” 2.) “with all the saints,” and 3.) “that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” We should keep this three-fold focus in mind as we create a retreat schedule.

As Liz points out, the way the word relationship is conceived is being fundamentally changed for younger generations through technology. The concept of space – space to yourself, with others, and before God – has simply evaporated through the tangling of all of life across media platforms. In this complicated modern context, retreats offer times to retreat. Imagine that!

Retreating from the rhythm of normal life into a concentrated time of fellowship with others around the Word of God is not simply a novelty anymore; it is counter-cultural. It should be our goal when making a schedule to create intentional times together around the Word, as well as intentional times to simply be together.

A weekend set aside allows students to consider the truth of Gods Word free from distraction. In this setting, we pray they will truly be able to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of Gods love for them. The schedule must therefore reflect a commitment to concentrated times of receiving Gods Word, including both personal devotional time as well as small group study and reflection.

The theme for our upcoming retreat is “Who is Jesus?” with talks centered on the gospel of Mark. We have written devotional and small-group questions that explore this concept biblically and urge students to respond. This part of the schedule is intentional about showing students how the person of Jesus impacts their lives.

In any retreat schedule, there is also a critical place for fun activities and unplanned moments. In the midst of the fun of dodgeball, ropes courses, and fire-side chats, relational trust can be built. Walls of separation such as which school students go to, which clubs they are a part of, and their unique situations at home are torn down as students spend carefree time together.

Retreat to the Lord

In the midst of our retreat planning, we must also remember to retreat to the Lord ourselves. I pray that as you go about these practical decisions as a minister of the gospel, you will remember it is the Lord who “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen,” (Eph. 3:20-21).

Skyler is an associate pastor over family discipleship at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, Mississippi, as well as the associate program director at The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Skyler earned an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He's now working toward his Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen. His wife, Brianna, is originally from Memphis, TN, and they have two children: Beatrice and Lewis. Skyler has served on the Rooted Steering Committee since 2021.

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