What if we let teens design their own retreat? Would this engage them more? This is my experience of helping teens choose their experiences so as to live out a great Lenten retreat. Included are tips and downloads for your own retreats.
Coming Up with the Idea
I remember brainstorming for a middle school retreat for Lent. I had come up with all kinds of ideas so as to help the teens understand what Christ did for them through his suffering, dying and resurrection. The breakthrough, what made the retreat truly awesome, happened when I asked my audience what they would consider an awesome retreat. They gave me several ideas, but one of them was that they wanted to choose what to do, including what time to go to bed! At first, I rejected the idea. But then it hit me. What if I could leave the retreat intentionally blank? That is, what if the very first activity is the teens themselves design the retreat schedule? What a novel idea! So, I set to it.
Preparing the Retreat
I prepared 20 different activities, each with a brief description and an approximate duration of time. Some were videos, others talks or discussions, skits, and different types of prayers like the rosary, stations of the cross, Gospel reflection, etc.. Others were necessary items like meals, games, sleep. Each activity would have to be ready to go on a moment´s notice. I then prepared and printed for each participant a list with all the choices. Only the first activities (an introduction and the “Passover Meal for Youth”) and the last activities (Mass, dinner and awards) were set in stone. Also, they had to get at least 6 hours of sleep!
I immediately realized I had to prepare more options than they could possibly choose from given time constraints. Yes, this was more work for me; but it´s counterbalanced since I could prepare all ideas I had come up with without having to set them on a set schedule with a logical progression. The teens would do that for me!
While I was preparing the activities, however, I realized I could match this “choose your experience” motif with another: accompanying Christ during his passion (that is, his suffering, death and resurrection). Though the retreat was only a one-nighter (26 hours to be exact), I printed a large poster with an hour-by-hour timeline of Jesus´ death from the last supper on Thursday evening to his death on Friday afternoon. We would begin the retreat while Jesus and his disciples were eating the Passover meal in the Upper Room, continue to accompany him throughout the night, witness his suffering in the morning, his crucifixion in the afternoon, and end the retreat with an “early version” of his resurrection. Again, we only had a one night retreat available, so we were forced to celebrate the resurrection that same day in the evening.
Of course, keep in mind that I continued to prepare all the logistics. I got the chaperones, made sure the food would be ready, setup the location ahead of time, et cetera. The teens would simply be in charge of the schedule.
I really had no idea what would happen; only a hunch. I just had my “hypothesis”, with which I wanted to enhance creativity, increase ownership of the retreat, generate more excitement, and hence hopefully better reach these teens with the message of Lent and Christ´s death and resurrection. I figured this new idea would shift the emphasis of the retreat from what I wanted them to get out of it to what these teens wanted to get out of it. I also figured the “accompany Christ” motif would encourage them to opt for the more spiritual activities over the fun games.
The Actual Retreat
Once everyone had arrived, I gathered the teens together, welcomed them, explained the standard retreat rules to them, and formed teams of about five participants each. I then began to explain how the retreat would work, motivating them with the meaning of Lent and Christ´s passion. I helped them understand this is the purpose of liturgy: to experience the life of Christ, as if we were accompanying him. In this retreat we would not only be accompanied by Jesus, but this time we would be accompanying him! I went through the list of activities, explaining what they would do in each one.
At first they were surprised, and they tested the limits: Can we go to bed whenever we want? Can we eat three snacks in one day? All I would do was offer them tips like “it depends how much sleep you want” and remind them with statements like “at that time of the day Jesus is being scourged on a pillar, so you can eat your second snack if you don´t mind…” These kinds of remarks made them think twice. Once the idea settled in, they were ready.
From the beginning to the end we began to fill in the retreat schedule. I used a white board and dry erase markers for quick editing. Also, the actual format was easy. I would ask what they wanted to do next and point out the corresponding moment of Jesus´ passion. Usually, some of them would raise their hand and propose an idea. Depending on the amount of consensus, I either did a quick general vote or I gave them 3 minutes to discuss the options in teams. If this was the case, we would vote by teams: 1 vote per team. The option with most votes won. We continued this until we finished the schedule, which took about 20 minutes.
I was honestly surprised at the schedule they had created. They preferred to do simple visits to the chapel throughout the night and leave the big 30 minute moment of adoration for the time when Jesus is on the cross Friday afternoon. At 1 AM they would do the Stations of the Cross. I don´t remember all the details today, but I remember being surprised by their choices and their reasoning. They had good reasons for their new schedule! They made sure to put in all the spiritual activities next to Jesus´ “tough” moments, and a good blend of fun activities scattered throughout.
At the end of the retreat I asked them what they liked the most. The very first response was that they could choose what they wanted to do. I then asked them why. The next teen I called on said it helped them accompany Jesus better. Whoa! They had remembered the whole point of the retreat! It was very gratifying for me to witness these 10-13 year olds understand the message of the retreat and live out each experience as well as possible.
I also felt that letting the teens design their retreat “live” helped them reason through the best way to do a retreat. They implicitly motivated themselves to do a good retreat! It was neat to hear their reasons, which I thought were valid. In fact, I wish I had written them down!
There are other ways you could implement this “choose your experience” motif to help your teens. Here are some examples:
- Ask your youth group, or a sampling of the participants, or perhaps “representatives”, to create a general schedule before the retreat even starts.
- Several youth group meetings could be designed specifically to prepare the upcoming retreat, and to begin to discuss what everyone expects of it and wants to get out of it.
- Include simultaneous “options” during your retreat where teens can choose to attend the one or the other activity. For example, have two talks on different topics at the same time.
- At the end of the retreat, take 20-30 minutes to talk about what the next retreat should look like, possible themes, and what they´d like to do.
- You could also ask the teens to present activities that were not included on the list you hand out at the beginning of the retreat.
- You could hand out the list of activities and themes beforehand so the teens have a chance to think about what they´d like to do.
Below you can download the documents I used for my retreat. They may help you introduce the “choose your experience” and “accompany Christ” motifs in your own Lenten retreats.
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