Processing a retreat experience is essential for teens. Here are 4 ways adults can help.
by Ryan Langr
Retreats and mission trips like Steubenville, Catholic Heart Work Camp, and TEC are some of the best faith experiences that a teen can have. These events were the foundation of my faith when I was a teenager, and I doubt I would be where I am without them. But there’s a potential downfall to a faith that is too reliant on retreat experiences. “Retreat high” is the common name for the positive feelings that people experience during and immediately after a retreat. Often, especially among those just beginning to be intentional about their spiritual life, it is followed closely by a crash: without the intense, emotional experience provided by the retreat, the person stops feeling strong in the faith and close to God. They may even become sad or depressed.
This is dangerous because like in any relationship, emotions won’t always be high, and faith needs to have a firm foundation of committed love. In my experience as a youth minister, I’ve seen many teens live a week, lukewarm faith or lose their faith altogether because they’re so dependent on the emotional high. However, if this experience can be processed and built upon, retreats and mission trips can form a foundation of an extremely strong faith.
Ways to Process Your Teen’s Retreat
Here are four ways you can help your teen process his or her post-retreat “high.”
1. Find Community. Experience is the most important thing in the faith life of most teenagers. If they find community, they will keep coming back and will be eager to learn more about what this community believes. They will want to do everything they can to be part of the group, and as such they will try hard to live according to Church teaching. It’s likely that a major reason your teen is so on fire from that retreat is all the friends they made and all the people their own age they saw on fire for God.
Use this opportunity to get your youth involved in a consistent community at your parish: youth group, leadership, choir, volunteering at Mass. Whatever your parish offers, use it. If your parish doesn’t offer a community for teens that meet regularly, get one started. It will be worth it.
2. Attend Mass. It’s likely your teen experienced Mass in a way they never quite had before: a community on fire with the Holy Spirit combined with music and a homily geared towards them. Now that she or he knows that Mass can be enjoyable, fulfilling, and transcendent, get them involved: choir, greeter, usher, etc. Not only will it make them commit to going, but it will give them ownership in the Mass.
Of course, not every mass will be like what they experienced on retreat. It’s important that they learn to love the Mass for what it is at its core, regardless of the trappings.
3. Apply the Experience. Help your teen take what they learned during the experience and apply it to their everyday spiritual life. Perhaps they learned they were a community in the Body of Christ. Help them see ways that they can celebrate that community every single day. Maybe they really developed a passion for service. Finding ways they can serve more regularly can help them to carry over that passion into a more consistent framework. The important thing is that they realize that passion for the faith isn’t reserved just for weekend events; it can be something lived every single day.
4. Serve Others. Serving others is a great way for a youth to carry an intense religious experience through to their greater faith life. It helps them feel like they’re living their faith life in a tangible way and helping others makes them feel as though they’re making a difference in the world. Laying a foundation of service and generosity will form them for service of various types well into adulthood, which is a cornerstone of our faith. Finally, an act of service is a way to demonstrate commitment to the faith even if the feelings of love and passion may be lacking in the moment.
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It is important for teens to have experiences like retreats and mission trips if they are to have a strong, authentic, and passionate faith. While there is a danger of teens becoming dependent on these experiences, with proper processing these experiences will lead to a solid, active faith. It is the job of parents, teachers, pastors, and other mentors in the faith to help teens carry these experiences into their every day faith lives. These four steps should make that easier.