This summer Christ has given me and my family the great privilege of being engaged in something that we really enjoy and still feel a great passion for: spending time and sharing the gospel with kids. Earlier this year, Justin Woodall and I were asked to go to Elevate, our annual high school retreat that is held at Covenant College in Chattanooga, TN. I jumped at the opportunity. Even though I have been out of youth ministry for eight years now, I still very much love students and I have a passion for sharing the gospel with them. When the week arrived, we had almost 40 students who were signed up for the conference. Wow! During the week I was overjoyed to see Christ at work in the lives of so many students and leaders as they responded to the gospel in powerful ways. It was amazing! A week after we returned from Elevate, my wife Martha Jo was privileged to go as a counselor to Kulaqua (pronounced: “Kuh-lah-kwah”), our annual middle school retreat in Florida. From all reports, that was also an incredible retreat where the Spirit of Christ moved powerfully in the lives of middle school students. Martha Jo was so encouraged! Charlie and DJ Phillips, our Youth Director and his wife, along with our youth leaders, did a remarkable job preparing the students, parents, and our church for these two very special weeks.
So, let’s think about it for a moment. What is the big deal about youth retreats anyway?
I have often thought about this question. Why does God choose to use youth camps, retreats, and conferences in such special ways? I can say, I honestly don’t know. Yet, in the Biblical narrative, and throughout my ministry experience, the evidence is overwhelming that He does. When I usually ask someone about their spiritual journey, time and time again, they emphasize a retreat or conference as the time when Christ chose to reveal the gospel to them in a way that brought them to a new life in Christ.
“It was at a Young Life camp in 1983, under the stars at Windy Gap, that I saw for the first time…”
“I was at a Campus Outreach Christmas conference when the Spirit of Christ opened my eyes to my sin and showed me the Cross…”
“I went with my youth group to a conference in Florida. That was when the gospel finally became real to me and…”
Throughout my ministry, I have heard these kinds of stories and have been part of these kinds of experiences over and over again. In fact, my own narrative is shaped in the same way. As a young child, I had heard the gospel from my mom. I had heard it at church. I knew the story. I knew I was a sinner. I knew Jesus died for my sin. But, by and large, these truths had not found their way into my spiritual affections. If you had asked me, “Do you believe in Jesus?” I would have answered immediately, “Absolutely.” If you had then asked me, “What does that mean to you?” I would have shrugged. Then, at nineteen years old, the church that I attended with my mom, asked me to go on a youth retreat.
A high school senior named Randy Key asked me, “Hey, will you go on this youth group retreat with us?”
I answered with a question, “Are your two sisters going?” (Randy’s two sisters were very pretty).
“Yeah”, he said.
“OK. I’ll go”, I said. And the rest is history
That winter January of 1983, at nineteen years old, I went on a church youth retreat because Randy Key’s two pretty sisters were going, and Jesus Christ powerfully and wonderfully preached the gospel to my heart and I was brought to new life in Christ. Since that time, I have seen Christ do the same thing over and over and over again. Many students who go on these retreats, like Randy, are already believers. Yet, their faith is stirred, renewed, and strengthened during these special times. New friendships are formed. Leaders bond with students. Parents are encouraged. Churches are renewed. Hearts are brought to life. You simply cannot discount the power of God in these moments when, just like in the scriptures, Jesus takes His covenant little ones away to a mountain to pray for them. When He gathers them around a sea and preaches the gospel to them in a profound way. When He places His hands on those who are His by covenant union and He sings the gospel to them and He brings to life in them all the things that they have been hearing in their church, and from their parents, and from their youth leaders. For some reason, that’s how Jesus went about ministry in the scriptures. And He is still doing it that way today.
So, I thank Christ for the church that preaches the gospel year in and year out. And I thank the Spirit of Christ for youth leaders who teach the gospel week in and week out. And I thank the heavenly Father for parents who live out the gospel day in and day out. I praise the Lord for His covenant people! I praise Christ that He turns the hearts of fathers to children and the hearts of children to their fathers through the glorious gospel of Christ.
But I also thank God for special moments, for weekend retreats in the mountains, for week long trips to the sea, for tender moments of repentance in a garden of trees or beneath a blanket of stars. I thank God for youth trips to Chattanooga and Florida, where Christ so often draws away with His little ones and preaches the gospel to their hearts as only He can.
“(Then) Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.” – Luke 9:28
“One day as Jesus was preaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, great crowds pressed in on him to listen to the word of God. – Luke 5:1
“Then the little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.” – Matthew 19:13
“He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” – Malachi 4:6