by Stephen Ingram
Youth retreats have been and are one of the foundational building blocks of any successful student ministry. They not only provide a time away for students to bond and achieve cohesion on a communal level, they are also exceptional vehicles through which many deeply developmental crisis points happen in a student’s spiritual journey. Most of us who are in youth ministry can point to one or two retreats from our youth experience where some very tangible pieces of our own call story found their genesis. Because of these and other intensely palpable experiences, very few of us would argue against the effectiveness of such retreats. We should, however, remember that not all retreat models are equal, and slight nuances to the schedule, elements, and activities of the weekend can result on some pretty profound changes in the ethos of your retreat.

The Attractional Retreat

One of the most common types of retreats in student ministry is the attractional retreat. In this retreat you will find elements of excitable games, energizing worship, and inspiring sermons. The purpose of this type of retreat, for our youth group, is to provide a funnel, catalyst, and energy boost for our student ministry. These retreats are excellent gateways through which students can bring their friends into a non-threatening excitement-laden 36 to 48 hours that is so memorable they will have to explore deeper the ministry responsible. This type of retreat also convenes and energizes the base of the student ministry. It is something that they can be proud of and take ownership of through out the school year. This is the retreat that everyone is still talking about on Monday morning in the hallways of the school. These retreats are usually excellent to provide at two different times of the year; either at the beginning of the school year or at a usually low point or dead time in the year. Because these retreats bring so much good publicity and word of mouth to the ministry, they are natural to use when you want to increase momentum in the student ministry.
There are a few important elements to consider when planning an attractional retreat. The first is keep the energy high. This will propel guests more easily into the group allowing them to be wrapped up in the excitement rather than feeling like a visitor. Secondly, shamelessly identify and define who and what the student ministry is and is all about. Remember: this is an attractional retreat; in order to be attracted to the student ministry they first have to be presented with who we are. Lastly, inspire them with a sense of belonging. Hospitality should be one of the top priorities in this sort of retreat, so go above and beyond to make sure all guests know they are love and welcomed. This retreat should increase momentum, excitement, and guest participation in upcoming events and programming in your ministry.

The Discipleship Retreat

While attractional retreats will often bring visitors through the front door, they will not keep them from leaving through the back. If you have been doing student ministry for any amount of time you know that students want something much more than to be entertained. So while attractional retreats serve a great purpose of inviting and defining, we should also be about the business of providing discipleship retreats. The foundational pieces of a discipleship retreat are meaningful small group time, a concentrated thematic approach, and a spiritually challenging subject matter. One of the essential pieces of these events is a well-planned and executed small group element. These groups should be led by well-trained and committed adults who are involved in the student ministry. We require all of our adults to go through specific training based on and through the small group guide weeks prior to the retreat. These adults are key in making sure the discipleship component is maximized in this retreat. While in the small groups they have the opportunity to challenge and guide the youth further down the path they began on during the time of worship and devotion.
The theme and subject matter are also critical when planning a discipleship retreat.  If the students do not feel like they have been challenged and helped move further in their spirituality, they will ultimately come from the retreat knowing that a part of the experience was missing. When we set up an expectation that a retreat will impact students’ lives and cause them to want to come closer in their discipleship journey, we had better be willing to work hard to achieve that goal. Usually these retreats are based less on a catchy theme and more on the promise of diving into a passage of scripture or a theological theme and concentrating on it throughout the weekend. By intentionally communicating the discipleship nature of the retreat up front, we will help prepare the students for a little more serious time as well as help open up their hearts even more to the molding and shaping that awaits them.

The Spirituality Retreat

The final type of retreat is the spirituality retreat. This retreat, almost always smaller in nature, is for the students who are ready to take that plunge into a more self-directed spirituality and self-sustaining faith journey. For this reason the retreat focuses on self-guided reflection, a journey-centric approach, intentional crisis points, and a more relaxed and restful schedule. When I do this type of retreat I always have a retreat guide that is written, not for a small group leader, but for an individual student. There is a certain amount of trust that we have to bestow on our students during these types of retreats. In that trust they will find the freedom for self-reflection and discover a self-sustaining faith that will eventually allow them to help disciple other students in the ministry as well as understand how their own ministry is taking shape.
Instead of small group time we have the students go off by themselves to read, write, and reflect through their guides. The content of these guides focuses less on the teaching elements found in a discipleship retreat small group and more on setting up and developing crisis points in the students spirituality through self-reflective questions. These guides also have to have a journey-based approach to their demeanor and flow. This will not only help give narrative to their progression it will also guide them into the woods of self-reflection while leaving a bread crumb trail back. Finally, these weekends, because of their intense nature, must be intentionally restful and relaxing. We usually have a good balance of group play time and rest peppered throughout the retreat to give a reprieve to the often taxing journey they are on.
Again, we know that retreats work. By being more intentional with the goals, elements, and audience we can populate our calendar with the right types of retreats at the right times for the right people. When we do this well, we will find our student ministry’s real potential achieved in and through these staples of youth ministry life.
Stephen Ingram is a dad, husband, and foodie. He serves as the Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He has a BA in Religion from Samford University and a Masters of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. Stephen has worked as a student minister for over 13 years and also serves as a consultant with Youth Ministry Architects. He lives in Birmingham with his wife Mary Liz and their three kids Mary Clare, Patrick, and Nora Grace.
Stephen’s book Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook and the American Dream Neutered the Gospel is now available from CYMT Press. He blogs at