Retreats are magical, and the same is true of summer camps and mission trips. If you’ve spent any time in youth ministry, you likely have discovered students’ lives can be impacted more in a weekend or one week away than at any other time. I can’t count how many testimonies I’ve heard through the years that include some form of “I gave my life to the Lord on the _____ retreat.”
Why is this? Is it because mind manipulation is only possible when we get young people away from the clutches of their normal lives? A cynic might say that, but I would say it’s because getting out of their routines enables students to get away from the busyness and clutter of life, provides an opportunity for relationships to grow deeper, and gives space for God to speak in His still, small (or sometimes big, loud) voice. One of the consequences of such time away is the God-high.
You might have heard the term before; it’s one students themselves use. A God-high is what someone experiences in the immediate afterglow of a retreat, camp or mission trip. They’re high on God for the moment. Life seems easier, and the ability to live out a radical faith in Jesus seems within reach. Then the God-high fades. The reality of life returns. Former habits creep back into students’ schedules.
So the question is: What was the point? If the God-high fades, then was there any real purpose in the retreat? Absolutely. Here are some things to consider.
You Can’t Unhave the Experience
When the God-high fades, whatever a student learned and experienced was real. The process of spiritual growth is often two steps forward and one step backward. The movement on a retreat is usually the same. The student leaves having taken significant ground spiritually and although the feelings fade, any progress is important.
I recently heard someone say that for students who may not continue walking with the Lord, he hopes they’re haunted forever by their experiences. Retreats are often seed-planting seasons, and the fruit is seen months or years later.
Don’t Deny in the Dark What You Saw in the Light
The tendency is going to be for the student to return to the real world and discover that what seemed so obvious and attainable during the retreat seems impossible back home. The tendency is to think the real world makes faith unreachable.
Here’s what I would say to a student in this situation: “What you experienced on the retreat is the most real thing there is. It’s not a fantasy at all. Don’t you see the so-called real world actually dulls you to the things of God, and not the other way around?
“You just experienced a weekend in the light, in reality. You’ve now returned to a world of darkness, and you’re tempted to deny what you so plainly saw in the light. That doesn’t make any sense at all!”
Let Your Emotions Drive Your Actions
Many students experience intense emotions during retreats. Tears flow. Some might reject that as merely emotionalism and antithetical to lasting spiritual growth, but emotions often can be the fuel one needs to take action.
An emotional experience led John Wesley to his conversion and subsequent massive influence in Christendom. An emotional experience that U2’s Bono had with a dying mother in Ethiopia led him to become involved in staving off world hunger. As long as our teaching is rooted in biblical truth, if students respond emotionally, that’s a good thing! Emotions can drive people to take action.
Mentors Are a Must
After a retreat, students are more open than at any other time to counseling and mentoring from a leader. If you see that a student has made decisions about doing life differently as a result of something he or she learned during a time away, it is imperative for follow-up to be done, ideally the week upon return.
If you’ve been thinking about starting an accountability group or some other kind of small group, there never would be a better time than after a retreat, camp or mission trip.
We shouldn’t encourage students to rely on a God-high to be the catalyst for their spiritual growth, but we can help them to be good stewards of those experiences He brings.

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About The Author

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has worked as a pastor at Christ Church Lake Forest in Illinois since 1998. He writes a column for Youthworker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and enjoys acting in the occasional play. He believes with all of his heart that the Cubs will one day win the World Series, and he and his wife Heidi have four kids.