There are certain laws of physics that only apply when you are in a canoe. How else can you explain being upright and dry and then moments later, with seemingly no explanation, be upside down in freezing cold water?
I was introduced to canoe physics on the St. Francis River in southeast Missouri while on a float trip with the college group from my church. I was relatively experienced with an oar in my hand, but my canoe comrade had never been afloat before. And no more than 15 seconds after we shoved off from the riverbank with all of our friends watching, my rookie paddler did the unthinkable. He committed the cardinal sin of canoeing. He stood up.
You never stand up in a canoe. That’s like the first thing they tell you when they hand you an oar at Boy Scout Camp. You know why? Because if you stand up, you will tip your canoe over in a hilariously awkward manner. And all of your friends on the float trip will laugh. And you’ll spend the rest of the day dripping wet looking for your lost flip flop.
Why do I mention this embarrassing story? Because it’s one of my fondest memories. I was acquainted with most everyone in our college group when we headed out from our church with tents and sleeping bags. But I made friends on that trip that to this day still laugh at me for falling out of my canoe.
That whole experience is a key point in the storyline of many of my most-treasured friendships. If you’ve ever wondered if going on a retreat or trip has tangible value for the church, I can tell you unequivocally that it does.
When you get away from home on a retreat, you bond with others in a unique way. You eat your meals together. You read the Word together. You worship together. You sleep in the same room. You share the same bathroom. There’s a certain amount of unavoidable togetherness that happens when you share a bathroom with someone you don’t know that well. For those two or three days on that retreat, you’re basically living together. And these shared experiences are the building blocks for long-term, Christ-centered relationships.
As a man, I struggle to find connection points with the other men in my community of faith. It just doesn’t happen organically. I’m not just going to walk up to them after church and ask them to hang out. We need planned, intentional events to set the stage for that type of interpersonal bonding. And retreats are the best way to achieve that.
I think one of the best measures of how strong the relationships are in your church is how many inside jokes your people have with one another. How many funny stories do they tell about that one time when you tried to stand up in the canoe? The stories and jokes themselves aren’t important, but the relationships are.
Churches spend a lot of time and money trying to build that kind of community. In doing so, they also tend to grow the size of the church. There are a lot of ways to create those moments that people will talk about for years to come. But the best way is to get away.
However, there’s another obvious (and possibly more important) way that retreats build the church: by creating space for individuals to grow in their personal relationship with God.
Most people live in a perpetual state of busyness. Our lives are a maelstrom of tasks, to-do lists, responsibilities, and expectations. If you’re like me, by the time you hit the couch at the end of the night, your brain is the consistency of a Slurpee. And while I personally find satisfaction in being very productive, it comes at a cost.
Busyness is the enemy of so many things that deepen our relationship with God. For many of us, the pace at which we live our lives leaves little space for the things that connect us to our source.
Contemplation. Prayer. Meditation. Rest. Fellowship.
So often we fill our schedules with good things at the expense of vital things. Instead of growing and maturing into disciples of Christ, we are dilettantes; our commitment rarely moves beyond our initial step forward. We need to step back, to take a deep breath, to make some room for the things that will take us deeper than our superficial relationship with God. We need a retreat.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
If busyness is our sickness, then slowing down must be the cure. And if even for just one day, a retreat allows you to slow down, to clear your mind and center your vision on what truly matters; it’s hard to quantify the value of that kind of contemplative experience. But when you are gathered with other men or women from your community of faith at a setting designed for spiritual growth for the singular purpose of leaning into a closer walk with God, you’ll understand that a retreat can inspire the type of personal spiritual growth that few other things can.
For me, being with a group of men from my church creates an atmosphere of openness and honesty that I don’t get to experience in my normal life. And from the mutual honesty, I’m able to find encouragement and a sense of acceptance that just can’t be communicated on a Sunday morning.
This is why churches who are serious about developing mature believers place a high value on taking retreats. Because even though our society is more connected than it’s ever been, sometimes you have to get away to get closer.
This article was written by the team at Christian Retreats Network, your partner in effective off-site ministry, www.christianretreatsnetwork.org.