Retreats VS Conferences (in Youth Ministry)

Camp-Retreat-Flyer-photo-300x225When I first began in youth and music ministry worship leaders were song leaders.  Worship songs were divided into two categories:  camp songs and serious songs.  It then shifted to fast songs and slows songs. From there it was divided into praise songs or worship songs.  And then, 25 years later,  we’ve simplified to “worship songs”.

When I first began receiving invitations to travel and sing it was something like this:  “Could you come be the song leader for our youth group event?”  Now, that same invitation sounds like, “Would you come lead worship for our student ministry?”

Another change has been the structure for retreats. I have lived through a shift of retreats to conferences.  Back then, a church youth group would schedule their fall or winter retreat which would be an event for their students and leaders from their church.  The attendance for these retreat would range from 8 – 125 people depending on the size of student ministry and church. They would arrange a place, arrange a speaker, music person or other resource leader, develop a theme, then hype it up like crazy to their students and all of their friends.  The retreats might be specific – such a ski weekend or a mission weekend, but most often, the retreat was just a simple, cut and dried Friday – Sunday event designed for spiritual growth and group community.

Somewhere along the way, due to several factors, groups began to register and attend conference style retreats.  This design allowed for several groups to participate in the same program at once.  The program was set, the theme design, speakers and creative components were all taken care of.  All the youth workers had to do was invite their students, get them registered and get them there.  Attendance for these events range from 200 – 5000 or more. I know there have always been a little of both, but for our ministry, it began change in the late 1990’s.  We stopped getting calls for local church youth weekends and began leading worship for conferences.  Any youth worker will tell you that if they wanted, their students could attend a conference every weekend in some part of the state or country.

But, I have been noticing a shift back to more individual church events. This could be due to the millinnials generations focus on community.  Their mindset lends itself to desiring deeper, long term relationships, ministry that is community based, with a slight push back to digital media by desiring face to face, geographically close relationships. I have noticed that it’s the younger students who are getting into big events – heading to a large conferences such as SuperStart, middle school events, etc.  Even our Light Kids Conference is the most attended Harvest Conference of the year.

We’ve often said (and heard), it’s because the high school students are too busy to give up a weekend. I think it maybe that High School students are just not willing to give up a weekend that isn’t connected in relational community?  What if a retreat with your students is an answer to this?

I think we need both.  I think there will always be large events (and here are four reasons why).  I think, as long as people are meeting with their churches and in small groups, there will always be relational Christian community.  Both ends of the spectrum are needed, especially as students are growing in faith.

I’m guessing the small, local, one or two church retreats will begin coming back in popularity and in usefulness!  What do you think?  Does your church youth ministry have a retreat each year?  Do they attend larger conferences?


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