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Youth Retreat: Take a Deep Dive Into Discipleship

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Years ago, we held a youth retreat with the theme of discipleship. Only about one-fifth of our regular students attended. For many youth workers, a turnout that low might arouse feelings of anguish and failure. But I wasn’t surprised by the turnout, because the youth retreat called for a very big commitment. As I’ve learned, when spiritual commitments increase, attendance typically decreases.

Of the attendees at that youth retreat, most wanted to be there. And all were challenged to go deeper in their faith. First of all, we spent an intense amount of time in discussion. Then in the large-group time, we raised the bar pretty high. Next, we also gave teens plenty of quiet time to read their Bibles and journal.

Each year, I approach this youth retreat expecting students to complain about the schedule. I figure they’ll be unhappy that the event isn’t very “fun.” But every year, without fail, the students rise to our expectations. As a result, they leave with a stronger faith than they had when the weekend began.

When it comes to numbers, I’d rather have one-fifth of students getting a lot out of an intense program than 100 percent attending with meager results.

Here’s some youth retreat insight I want to share with you:

If I ran my youth ministry as a personal popularity contest—needing every student to attend every event—then our youth ministry would be very shallow. My challenge to you is to have events for the few who want to grow. Give students opportunities to explore following Christ. But then don’t be surprised that most won’t take you up on the offer. Raising the bar helps teenagers reach new heights in their relationship with God.

When I first started in youth ministry, I struggled with this concept of attendance decreasing as spiritual commitment levels increased. It worked against my self-esteem. I’d come off an event that had a low turnout and tear it apart piece by piece trying to figure out why kids didn’t want to participate. Now that I understand this increase/decrease concept, I’m able to work with students who want to grow their faith without questioning my effectiveness and calling to youth ministry.

Follow these 3 helpful values for your own youth retreat:

1. Keep costs down. 

Don’t let money prevent students from attending. One way we keep costs minimal is to use the church campus for our meetings and have students stay together in private homes for the nights. They love it!

2. Raise the bar high. 

Students are giving you a weekend to help them grow in their faith. Take advantage of the opportunity by giving them a variety of ways to learn and connect with God.

3. Build strong relationships.

Have interaction times that encourage friendships to form. We provide a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon for home groups to spend time together. By then, their minds are ready for a break. Plus, they’re ready to relax and have fun.

What other suggestions do you have for a meaningful youth retreat? Please share them in the comments below!

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dougfields@churchleaders.com'
Doug Fields has been in youth ministry since 1979 and former pastor to students at Saddleback Church in Southern California. He's the author of 50+ books, including the best-selling Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry & Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry. He's also the founder of Simply Youth Ministry, an instructor at Azusa Pacific University/HomeWord, and on the leadership team with Youth Specialties. You can connect with Doug through his blog at www.downloadyouthministry.com! More from Doug Fields or visit/subscribe to Doug's blog at www.dougfields.com