Festivals and residentials: Turning muddy fields and activity centres into mountaintops

We all know that taking young people away for a period of time has a profound impact on individuals, groups and leaders. Soul Survivor’s Ali Martin takes a look at some of the important lessons learnt at residentials and festivals

Every year at Soul Survivor (other summer festivals are available!) we spend months planning what will happen at our events, from what topics we want to tackle in our main meetings and seminars, to which are the best cakes to serve in our cafes (we even have to do taste testing; it’s a terrible job!). We aim to put on the best event we can but ultimately all our work would be in vain if it weren’t for you amazing leaders being willing to come and bring your young people. We love partnering with you and consider it a huge privilege that you would trust us to speak into the lives of your group as we all journey together over five days. We know it can take a bit (understatement of the century!) of organising to get a group ready to come and can feel like yet another thing to add into a busy yearly schedule, so we wanted to look at what it is about attending an event as a group, or going away together for a weekend, that has such a big impact and what its benefits might be.

I am not alone

One thing most young people notice when they arrive at an event like Soul Survivor is the scale of it. At home they may be in a relatively small youth group and are often used to being in the minority at school for what they believe. Suddenly they find themselves at a camp with thousands of other young people who believe what they believe, who have thrown their lot in with Jesus and are open and passionate about it. We all hear the headlines about the decline in church attendance and the stats suggesting that Christianity is on its last legs. Turn up at a huge, youth-focused event and you realise those stats aren’t telling the full picture. It’s not just a handful of teenagers who passionately believe in Jesus; there are thousands of us from all around the country and all around the world. Young people can relax in that environment and enjoy being around others who share their beliefs and values. Not to mention that worshipping alongside 8,000 other young people is a very different experience from what any of us experience in our home churches!

Broadening our horizons

As a teenager I was blown away when I first went to a Soul Survivor event. I had never seen worship expressed so passionately and intimately; I had never seen ministry where people were meeting with God in such amazing ways. It opened my eyes to what God was doing in the wider church, gave me a new vision for what following Jesus could look like and changed me in many ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time. Now I love watching young people encountering God in new ways, receiving his gifts and then hearing stories of how they’ve gone back to their churches living in the power of the Holy Spirit. Many youth groups come to us never having encountered the Holy Spirit in a tangible way and we love seeing them going on a journey with God and his word, realising we’re not trying to hype things up or manipulate anyone and being in an environment where they can ask loads of questions. It’s easy for any of us to become creatures of habit so meeting up with the wider church family can open us up to new perspectives and help us learn new things we can take home and feed into our churches.

The things learnt at festivals and weekends away must be able to be outworked in our homes and schools, in our friendships and relationshipsDeveloping and deepening relationships

There’s nothing quite like getting away from normal life for a few days, be it at a summer festival or weekend away, for building relationships both between youth leaders and young people and between young people themselves. Meeting together week in and week out as a youth group is key to maintaining relationships but something significant happens when we take time to invest over a more intensive period. Bible teaching prompts questions that leads to longer conversations; barriers come down after time worshipping and praying together, and deeper discussions tend to happen around the campfire when no one has to rush off.

Getting inspired and getting serious with God

We’ve seen with the  young people from our own church how summer events can impact them and how they come back feeling excited and inspired about putting their faith into action, whether that’s signing up to serve at the kids work, getting together with others to form a worship band or looking into a mission trip with an organisation they’ve come across in the summer. One young person last year decided to listen to the whole of the New Testament over the space of just a couple of months. No one had told him to or even suggested it to him; it came out of his increased hunger to get stuck into God’s word. It’s an amazing privilege seeing God plant seeds in people and watching the turnaround in their life as they follow his lead.

A wide range of teaching / dealing with pain

None of us are experts in all areas of the Bible and what it looks like to live God’s way in every situation. Going along to a conference or a festival gives you access to a huge range of teaching, covering topics you may not otherwise have felt comfortable dealing with or have had the time to cover. It’s also often a place teenagers can access teaching that addresses areas of pain in their lives such as depression, anxiety, loss, parental divorce, self-harm etc and are offered places to talk and be prayed for. It can be a lot easier to discuss these kinds of issues sand their impact in this sort of environment and young people may disclose issues for the first time, either to one of our team and/or to their leader.

Sharing the gospel

We now see many more young people making commitments to follow Jesus for the first time at our events than we ever did in the early days. We can’t take credit for it – it’s been because the young people have brought along their friends who weren’t yet Christians! A big event with thousands of other young people is in some ways an easy invite. There are so many things to enjoy that are easily accessible such as sports, cafes, music and films and the gospel is presented in an easy to understand and engage with way, with clear opportunities to respond and then begin a new life as a follower of Jesus.

Lots of people can pin the moment they decided to follow Jesus on a time away with their youth group

Of course for many, this is a journey. We always see a number of people start the week not even wanting to come into the main meetings but usually they are drawn in over time and are often worshipping, receiving prayer and praying for others by the end of the five days!

A youth leader’s perspective

We know we can be ever so slightly biased about the value of conferences and festivals so we thought we’d ask Bob, a youth leader who has taken groups to events like Soul Survivor many times over the years what he thought the main advantages are:

Everything is laid on for you so you’re free to hang out with your young people

There’s something great about going away as a youth group together but if you are responsible for making everything happen, you’ll often find you have to sacrifice time with your young people for time organising. At festivals, yes you will need to spend some time on the logistics of setting up camp and organising food (if you’ve got a big group, try and recruit some extra volunteers to come and help on that front!) but the majority of your time can be spent hanging out with your young people.

Freedom

A youth event is a great way to give young people freedom in a safe environment. They love being able to walk around the site, hang out in cafes, get involved in sports and get to know new people without being dependent on adults for lifts and without having supervision the whole time.

The fun starts before you even arrive!

Everyone starts getting excited about what’s in store months in advance! And then when you get back you have so many shared experiences and memories to draw on. Some smaller groups feel like they might get lost in the bigger crowds but actually find they get to know loads of new people and fit in really easily with other groups big and small.

You are likely to be blessed too

Just because an event is focused on young people doesn’t mean God doesn’t want to meet with you too! Last year I was chatting to one guy who came with his youth group to help set up the tents and cook. He had no expectation of getting anything out of the week but was blown away by how God had spoken to him and actually called him to ministry. God never wastes an opportunity to meet with anyone so expect to be blessed!

Camps, festivals and residentials can provide a fantastic addition to the annual rhythm of youth work and for many are a life-transforming ‘mountain-top experience’. But we can’t live on the top of a mountain! Events that truly make a difference are the ones that allow us the opportunity to encounter God, to be inspired and then equip us to live for him in the everyday. The things we learn must be able to be worked out in our homes and schools, in our friendships and relationships. At Soul Survivor we can’t disciple young people; that’s a job for all you lovely youth workers who are there week in and week out to help them keep going on their journey of faith. You’ll be the ones who will help answering their questions during life’s different seasons, who encourage them to keep going when things are hard and who cheer them on when they are taking great steps of faith. There are limitations to what we can do but we aim to offer a space for young people to gather together with thousands of others, to be inspired about who God is and discover how he might want to work in their lives.

Five great reasons to take your young people away for a weekend

As great as festivals are, for some young people they might be too expensive, or too long! Weekends away are a great alternative. Here are some of the best things about them

Young people…

…meet God for the first time

Lots of young people can pin the moment they decided to follow Jesus on a specific time away with their youth group. Although God can obviously reveal himself in the day-to-day, it is often through intentional time spent with Christians and extended periods of seeking God that barriers are removed, questions are answered and commitments are made.

…have fun

Yes, there are deeply profound life-changing moments when youth groups go away together but there are also lots of opportunities for young people to just enjoy themselves – from planned activities and impromptu games, to rowdy meal time conversation and midnight feasts! Activity centres all over the country offer weekends away for youth groups and come with all the high ropes you could ask for!

…go deeper

Of course young people can meet God wherever they are but there is something about being away from their normal environment and purposefully, actively seeking the presence of God that often results in unforgettable divine encounters.

…bond as a group

Shared experiences, good and bad, as well as specific activities, conversations and divine encounters result in young people drawing closer to each other over the course of the weekend, which helps create life-long friendships and accountability within the youth group.

…trust you

It’s not just relationships among the young people that are strengthened through time away, often relationships with leaders, paid or voluntary, are reinforced which leads to greater trust, vulnerability and openness over the years.

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