Victory in Retreat
theHeart Youth Group experienced its first-ever retreat over the Memorial Day Weekend. The time spent learning more about how loved people love people allowed 14 middle- and high-schoolers explore their identities in Christ. They learned a lot. Laughed even more. And they immersed themselves in God's great love.
During the past several years, theHeart’s youth ministry has grown beyond what we could have ever expected. We’ve moved locations, added students, started a Bible study, hosted many a game night, grown our volunteer team, and so much more. It has been such a joy to watch the Lord bless this ministry in abundance. And we desire to be good stewards of the opportunities He has given us in reaching the next generation of Kingdom-builders.
In January, Next Generations Director Ethan Hardin and Youth Ministry interns John Caldwell and Hannah Siegel sat down together and began dreaming up what the new year of youth ministry could look like. Hannah recalled her time of being a student in youth group at her church back home and what some of the most transformative experiences were for her during those years.
What stood out in her mind were the weekends spent away from home, fellowshipping with her brothers and sisters in Christ around campfires and in bunk-bed-filled cabins, and playing crazy games during youth group retreats.
“When I presented the idea that we take our students away for a weekend on a retreat, I knew it was a little crazy," Hannah admitted. "I knew it was even crazier as Ethan’s eyes tripled in size when he realized that I was completely serious."
Hannah went on to explain what had prompted such a bold suggestion.
"I just knew the Lord had been smiling over this ministry and He was waiting for the opportunity to transform these kids’ hearts even more," she said. "I truly believe positive experiences like this during middle and high school years are vital to faith formation."
"I felt the Lord leading us to this new opportunity as a way to impact these students while they are in such a vulnerable time of their lives.” — Hannah Siegel
Ethan was excited about the prospects, but he also had some pragmatic reservations.
“I will say that I thought five months was a short duration to pull together all the things that go into a youth retreat," Ethan said. "As a youth minister in Hendersonville, most of our trips came to me already developed, complete with forms, transportation plans, and budgeting guidelines. I knew it would take a team effort to make this retreat a reality—all from scratch."
That’s exactly what he asked for from Hannah, John, and the dedicated youth volunteer team. They all eagerly jumped at the opportunity to pull off such a ambitious endeavor. Even the volunteers who didn’t go on the retreat all pitched in to help plan and coordinate.
"It was truly a team effort," Ethan said with a smile. "Our church family never shies away from rallying together to build up our youth.”
Loved People Love People
We launched into full-on planning mode, not quite knowing what we were getting ourselves into. A date and location were settled upon, donuts were sold to cover some of the costs, and students began signing up.
The retreat theme, “Loved People Love People”, centered on identity. Being made in the image of God is a biblical touchstone of who we are. When you dig around for context in scripture and the ancient world, we find that this title means “living representation”, “royal representative”, and “child of God”.
The months flew by and suddenly a group of five volunteers and 14 middle- and high-school students were standing in the parking lot with luggage in hand. We loaded up into vans and headed to Bonclarken Conference Center in Flat Rock, North Carolina.
Throughout the weekend we held four large-group gatherings that consisted of worship and studying God's Word together. And we spent time discussing what it means for us to embrace the identity followers have in Christ.
"Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it." — Proverbs 22:6
Adolescence is a process of discovering identity, with all kinds of voices aiming to sculpt our youth. But at the core of it all, our goal was to remind our young friends who God made them to be: loved children of God representing his love to the world. We went deep into reflection about identity and living it out.
We also went deep into pudding cups…
In addition to the sessions, there was lots of time for activities including kayaking, swimming, pick up basketball games, pool noodle hockey, impromptu dance parties, and much more. All of these activities worked to bond the students closer together through teamwork, sweat, and a lot of laughter.
A Lasting Impact
On Saturday evening, we gathered around a campfire and invited the students to share whatever the Lord had put on their hearts. One student, who was new to the group and had been invited to the retreat by a friend, began to share some of her testimony. What transpired was profoundly impactful on both students and leaders alike.
As the fire grew dimmer, this young woman went further into the depths of her faith journey, opening up about the deep depression she had fallen into over the past couple of years.
She revealed that while she believed in God during those times, she did not feel His presence. And she was attempting to answer the all-important question: “Why am I even here?”
She first heard about the retreat a few weeks prior to us leaving. She said that she didn't fully understand why, but the Lord was calling her to go. Throughout the weekend she formed relationships with the other students and heard John talk about finding his God-given identity after a season of wandering.
This young student began to understand why she was there: The Lord wanted to redeem her once and for all. He wanted to set her free from the shame and guilt that she had been feeling in the wake of a challenging emotional battle.
"I don’t think a single person sitting around that campfire could deny the tangibility of the weight being lifted off of this student’s shoulders as she shared details of her story for the first time," Hannah said. "I sat in complete awe as each student in the group, most of which this new member had met just a day prior, surrounded her in hugs and words of encouragement concerning her boldness in sharing such a difficult and personal thing."
Tears flowed, and Hannah couldn't help but think about how this was such a beautiful representation of the story of the Prodigal Son. Our Father rejoices when His children return home, when they are free from the bondage of sin, and when they desire to dedicate their lives to Him.
"This is what our sister experienced on this retreat and we rejoice with her as she will be making a public proclamation of her faith through baptism in a few weeks,” Hannah said.
Joyful Noises at 3am
Maybe it was the extreme lack of sleep that comes with sharing a room with teenage girls, but around 3am on Sunday morning as Hannah listened to these young women giggle about the splash fight that happened on the lake that afternoon, marvel at the unlimited soft-serve machine, and share about what they felt the Lord had taught them that weekend, she couldn’t help but get emotional.
"Here was a group of middle- and high-school students from all different family and faith backgrounds, some of whom barely knew each other beforehand, bonding over the realization that they had more in common than they thought," Hannah said.
Middle and high school years are undeniably tough. They are even tougher when we feel alone—as if no one is going through the same things that we are. What these girls gleaned from this experience is that they are absolutely not alone nor will they ever be because they are united with their brothers and sisters through faith.
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." — 1 Peter 2:9
It was in this moment that Hannah knew the Lord was going to multiply the impact of this retreat.
The new connections formed among students and leaders run deep because they are centered in Christ’s design for communion with our brothers and sisters in faith.
It was also in this moment that Hannah realized that youth ministry is something she wants to do for the rest of her life.
"Coming alongside families in discipling their children is a great responsibility and it is such an honor to be a part of it," Hannah said. "It brings me indescribable joy to be a part of these kids’ lives, to pray for them, to hear about their problems at school, to listen to their favorite songs, and even to stay up until the wee hours of the morning laughing about absolutely nothing with them.