Last summer I had the opportunity to go on a retreat with my church’s junior high youth group. It was my seventh time serving at this retreat as a leader and I always come away from it rested and rejuvenated (spiritually, at least). God was clearly at work. Eleven students gave their lives to Christ and many more rededicated themselves to Him. However, His work did not stop there. After some reflection (and a lot of sleep), I realized that God was teaching me some very important things during the week as well. Here are a few of them:
Reliance on God’s Spirit
As leaders and adults, we often become accustomed to having a certain amount of control. For the most part, our lives are in our hands. When working with students, we also recognize that we possess a great deal of influence and power. After all, that is why we are there. However, engaging students on a spiritual level is a humbling experience. While we can ask for obedience in almost any other realm, it is impossible for us to soften a heart. Despite our best attempts and our genuine pleading, we cannot cause anyone to fall in love with God – that work is reserved for Him alone. The Bible tells us that Spirit speaks to Spirit (1 Cor. 2). That means God must be active in both us and the student before we can develop any kind of connection. While this loss of control can seem disheartening, it is nevertheless a very good thing. It prevents boasting on the part of some leaders and gives hope to those who may be less experienced. It is ultimately God’s Spirit that works.
Love over Knowledge
As many people know, I have a very strong interest in theology and religion. Although my personal fascination in these subjects may exceed those of many people, it is nevertheless a sign of spiritual maturity to pursue further theological knowledge. It is my prayer that Christians entering adulthood continue to read and expand their minds and hearts in this area. Yet, youth retreats continue to affirm the Biblical truth that love is greater than knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1). Even more than answers to deep questions, people need love. While this is true for everyone, it is exhibited most clearly in young students. They want to know that someone cares about them. They want to know that someone is invested in them. If these are not realized, all the knowledge in the world will fall on deaf ears. Love is the foundation from which knowledge can be built.
Profoundness in Simplicity
Christianity becomes complicated in the intellectual realm. I am currently reading a book called Theology in America that expounds upon the various denominational and theological differences that exist within American churches. There are so many nuances and philosophies separating these churches that it is nearly impossible to remember them all. Yet, despite the best efforts of academics to branch Christianity into metaphysics and mysticism, youth retreats continue to affirm that profoundness is found in simplicity. Simple things do not have strings attached to them. For students, these are experienced as faith, hope, love, and joy. They do not require dictionary definitions or in-depth analysis. They are simple, tangible, and real. These are the things at the heart of Christianity (1 Cor. 13). These are the things that make it powerful.
Joy in Beginnings
The older we get, the easier it is to forget things. The easier it also is to take things for granted. This, unfortunately, is true for many people’s spiritual lives. God becomes less exciting. Jesus becomes a topic of study. Christianity becomes a cultural lifestyle and political talking point. The only remedy for this is to remember our initial joy when Christ first revealed Himself to us. We must always return to our first love (Rev. 2:4). Students at youth retreats help us to do this. Seeing the emotion on the faces of those who gave their lives to Christ moved me to tears. It reminded me of when I did this too – that there is great joy in beginnings.
The things that youth retreats teach leaders are not accidental. I truly believe that God designed it this way. I don’t mean to imply that there is anything necessarily “magical” about a retreat. Retreats are just one tool that God uses. I do, however, believe that there is something deeply special in investing in the lives of young people. It is something that we are all called to do in some capacity. God has lessons to teach us in this endeavor that are nearly impossible to do in any other way. Being a youth leader is not merely a service, but is also an investment in our own spiritual well-being and health. God has a great deal to teach those who teach others.
‘“I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”’ – Luke 18:17
Love is the foundation from which knowledge can be built.