AN ARTICLE WRITTEN FOR THE MARCH/APRIL 2016 ISSUE OF YOUTH WORKER MAGAZINE:
“I need to tell you what happened to me last summer.”
“I have so much anxiety about starting my senior year.”
“Can we talk about the boys who ask me for pictures?”
“If I don’t have Cross Country I don’t have anything. I feel so much pressure to improve my time.”
“Do you ever have doubts? Because most of the time I don’t believe this Jesus stuff.”
While I’ve talked with countless high school students in our student room, outside of our sanctuary on Sunday morning, and at coffee shops or high schools in our town, the most vulnerable conversations I’ve had with young people have taken place when we were far from home. Students opened their hearts to me with these comments on a hiking trail, making breakfast at a campsite, at the top of a sledding hill, and in a dorm room just before “lights out”. And as you can imagine, these comments led to further conversations, prayers, and action.
In my nearly 10 years of youth ministry experience, I’m more convinced than ever that retreats have the possibility of being an unparalleled catalyst for transformation in the lives of our young people.
On The Run
We’re all running from someone or something. To be human is to struggle and to experience conflict, and we’re all on the run from challenging people or circumstances. There is no population in our society that understands this better then today’s North American teenagers.
Whether it’s the pressure to perform in the classroom or the athletic field, expectations regarding post-high school plans, coping with a bully or social anxiety, or balancing all of the demands for their time, energy, and money, our high school students live historically challenging lives.[i] My relationships with high school students have only continued to confirm this reality, and the high school students I know are desperate for an escape. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that our young people make seemingly irrational decisions or turn to risk behaviors with peers as a temporary refuge from their daily lives.
However, I suspect the reason we’re all in Youth Ministry is because we believe the Church has the responsibility and the potential to be an alternative refuge in the lives of our young people. Whether it’s the physical space of our church campuses or the relational spaces that are created between students and peers and students and adult mentors, youth ministers and youth ministry are voices of advocacy in creating this refuge. The camps and retreats that we lead for our young people have the possibility of being the refuge our young people are desperately looking for.
An Alternative to Refuge
Because of this, I’ve been committed to creating a refuge with my students around two words:
These two words are likely familiar to anyone who was raised in a religious context. In fact, they’re probably so familiar that they may have lost their meaning. I’ve learned to reclaim these words as verbs that are vital to these experiences with my students.
I now create space at the beginning of each retreat for my students to ask and answer these two questions as a group:
Retreat = What are you running from? What do you need to run from?
Pilgrimage = What are you journeying to or toward? What do you need to journey to or toward?
It should be no surprise that our students can actually articulate what it is that they need to leave behind at home, whether it be abuse, habits, addiction, pain, or troubled relationships, if they’re honest, they know they’re “running” or “retreating” from something. And it should also be no surprise that our students can actually articulate what it is they need to journey to while on an adventure, whether it be wholeness, a fresh start, new friendships, a positive environment, or “God”.
In short, in order to help create a helpful refuge for our young, we must reclaim retreating and pilgrimaging as verbs.[ii]
I would never want to minimize all of the good that can take place within relationships or during weekly youth ministry programming, but in order for young people to be able articulate what they’re running from and need to run toward, they need helping creating the space for them to do the running and gain some perspective. As adults, we often take for granted our ability to go for a drive, take a few days off work, or get away for a weekend. Teenagers often don’t have the ability to create this space for themselves. Our Churches have the unique opportunity to provide space from life at home and daily routines through the retreats we offer.
So as we engage the young people we care about so much, may we continue to create the space they need to continue to learn and grow. May we say to them, “run with us” or “run toward us” as you run from all that is painful in your life. And may our retreats be the refuge our young people need as they navigate a difficult and challenging existence.
[i] For more on this, see: Clark, Chap. Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Baker Academic: 2011.
[ii] For more on “retreating and pilgrimaging” in the context of adventures, see my article in the March 2015 issue of Youth Worker Journal.