How to Connect Mission, Camping, and Retreat Experiences to the Local Church
You’ve just returned with your youth from a mission trip, or your youth have just returned from their summer camp experience. It’s been a life changing and new experience in community, faith formation and experiencing God in His creation amongst His people. How does one return to “normal” life and routines after such an experience?
Matthew 17:1 says Jesus took them "up into a high mountain apart." The Bible tells us that "experiences apart" are important and essential in our spiritual formation as a disciple. We can put ourselves “apart” from what is familiar and have the opportunity to focus and truly experience an encounter with God.
I feel disheartened when a youth or young adult comes to me to share something like, “summer camp is my church, I just haven’t found a local church experience that is the same.”
So what is a youth or young adult leader to do? I have found a few approaches that help bridge the connection. Some might be reminders of practices that get lost in the busyness of the event, but ones I still find useful.
- Spiritual preparation BEFORE the event. If your young people are attending camp independently from your church, or you are engaging your young people in a service experience organized by an outside provider, find out the overall theme, any verses and themes to be used in small group during the experience, and start applying them to your setting, your community, your group.
- Have your congregation pray for your group. Find an opportunity (beyond fundraising!) to talk about the experience and what your hopes and expectations are for an upcoming sacred time away.
- Include your pastor in knowing the details of your experience. Inform them of themes, the focus, the lessons, the events that your young people will be engaged in. I have some leaders invite their pastor to camp or the mission experience to visit and to really understand the experience. I know some who have invited their pastors to speak, preach or lead a small group during camp or a mission trip. This allows a connection between their church and the experience. Often pastors will use the experience as part of a sermon in the future. It can also feel like a time away for the pastor!
- While in your event, make sure you jot down “God Moments” with your young people. In a mission trip led by you, this is easy. For summer camp, it will take some communication with the director and/or staff to ask for direct feedback on your kids. This allows you to know and build upon those moments once the young people return.
- Have your young people write a letter to themselves during the experience. Have them express their feelings around their faith, relationship with God, and the one thing they’ve learned during their time “apart”. Again, if you are leading the trip, this is easy. For camp, you can have them do it as an exercise immediately upon their return. Save the letters, then bring them out six months after the experience. Use them to reflect upon if youth have continued to feel and grow in this way and if not, why?
- Arrange for the young people to have time in worship, or other church meetings, to talk about their experience, and thank the congregation for their support. It allows them to articulate how God used this experience to grow their faith. I have also created posters to let the congregation know the impact of the experience by a poster that gave the prompt “What I wish my church knew about camp.”
- Write to your pastor and let them know about individuals’ “God moments”. This allows them to better know your young people and their needs and growth in becoming Disciples of Jesus Christ. Invite your pastor to come to youth or small group to lead a discussion on how we take these moments further. It allows a connection between the pastor and the young people in their faith formation outside of Sunday morning or formal settings like Confirmation Class. It also helps give value to these “apart” experiences.
- Take the themes, scriptures, small group discussion topics that you used to prepare participants, and continue to help them apply them to their local church and community settings through discussions, outreach, and activities. (i.e. a service project similar to your work on a mission trip, team building or other “camp activities” that were directed and inspired by the curriculum).
- Use the experience to pray for your young people. You’ve seen the outcomes of this life-changing experience; use that knowledge to hold your young people in prayer.
- Create a visual reminder. I have done everything from posters that have a prompt and they fill in the words (i.e. Where did I see God, feel God’s presence during my week at camp? Or, ask them to create a collage on their feelings about the experience and post them around your gathering room).
As with most things in ministry with young people, it takes intentional effort and, yes, time to connect the dots and apply those moments “apart” to their walk of faith and relationship with God!