Student ministry and overnight retreats go together like election cycles and name-calling. The two are virtually inseparable. But in my experience, many student ministers approach retreat planning with an overly simplistic mindset.
On one hand, some plan retreats which are nearly all fun and games, with an obligatory five-minute devotional sprinkled in around a campfire. Alternatively, some student ministers over-spiritualize every aspect of a weekend retreat through a mindset which views fun as the enemy of spiritual growth. Though vastly divergent in their particulars, each approach has a commonality: student ministers set out to create an experience that is its own end.
In most cases, this goal is achieved; relatively large numbers of students make it safely to and from the retreat destination, all while “learning a lot” and “having a great time.” Sadly, these achievements often have a short shelf life. The vocabulary of a “spiritual high” and subsequent “coming down” or “return to normal” has become all too common in the life of the church.
Retreats which are fruitful in the biblical sense are means to an end, not ends in and of themselves.
To quote from Dr. Alvin Reid’s As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students, “Missional Student Ministry starts with the posture of the student ministry as a missionary outpost in the community, utilizing tools like events and activities only as they assist in the fulfillment of the mission…Student ministry should be about turning Millennials into missionaries, not helping church kids hang in there and have a good time.”
Stated differently, our goal is the glory of Christ through the triumph of the gospel. Retreats are a tool to use towards that end. As we pursue the redemption of individuals and the coming of God’s Kingdom through the unique toolbox offered by retreats, everything else will fall into place (cf. Matthew 6:33).
The gospel’s triumph is a universal goal, but the implications of the gospel are as varied as the “great multitude” which the Lamb of God has purchased for salvation (cf. Revelation 7:9). Here are four areas for potential Kingdom growth which are often present in student ministries. This list is not exhaustive, but these particular implications represent tangible goals for student ministries to pursue over time. They are also the likely gospel-fruits of a well-planned retreat.
1. Intentional evangelism. Matthew 16:18 has amazing implications for the ministry of the church. There, Jesus says, “The gates of Hades will not prevail against [my church].” Our Savior described the realm of the dead as having gates: defensive fortifications designed to keep out militaristic opponents. Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 entails much more than protection from the schemes of Satan (although such is certainly implied). By God’s grace, Christ’s church will prevail against the gates of the grave, ransoming a multitude of souls which otherwise would have been marked for death.
As leaders of Christ’s church, student ministers should view such ransoming of souls as an integral function of the ministries which they lead. Retreats provide a plethora of opportunities for intentional evangelism to take place, both through corporate calls to “repent and believe” and through extended allowances for relational evangelism.
2. Purposeful discipleship. In The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman writes, “[Jesus’] concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow…Though he did what he could to help the multitudes, he had to devote himself primarily to a few men, rather than the masses, so that the masses could at last be saved. This was the genius of his strategy.”
The pages of the Gospels are filled with descriptions of Jesus withdrawing from the masses for the purpose of ministering to his disciples. His intentional investment into the lives of these young men made a massive impact: they carried the gospel throughout the known world in their generation. We are no Christ, but the same Spirit which anointed his ministry takes up residence inside each of us.
What fruit might result from well-timed and well-planned retreats aimed at investing in the lives of students?
3. Comradery and Community. I recently led a group of students on a “mystery retreat.” The students were only told what to pack and at what time the carpool would be leaving; they would find out the particulars of the weekend only after taking a step of faith to participate. We stayed at a lake house, attending the opening day of a nearby theme park. The final morning of the retreat, I challenged the students to approach their walks with Christ in the same way as they had the mystery retreat: in unconditionally willing faith, and in anticipation of a grand adventure.
Compared to others I have led, there was less intentional teaching and discipleship during the course of that retreat. And yet by nature of the adventure, those students forged bonds of community at levels which had not yet been realized in our ministry. The typical cliques which existed along lines of school choice and socio-economics were torn down during the weekend, and new friendships were formed which continue to this day. I look forward to watching how that social reconciliation might equip these students as a missional army in the future.
Are there opportunities to see your students grow in like manner?
4. Margin. Jesus calls to the world, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). But in the flood of academic and athletic pressures, by the cycle of comparison brought about through social media, or amidst the realities of a dysfunctional family, the noise of life’s burdens drowns out that call in the ears of many of today’s students. By providing margin from these routines, retreats provide opportunities for students to experience life above these tidewaters. The disciplines discovered during the course of a retreat may also set the table for an ongoing experience of grace during the subsequent weeks.
Regardless of the particulars, I hope you’ll be encouraged to whole-heartedly pursue the Kingdom of God with your students. Retreats and special events may be the tools which the Lord uses towards that end.
How have you seen God use a retreat to further his Kingdom in the lives of young people?